It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:
First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.
Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.
So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.
Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).
Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.
Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.