Was it another unique election? Only if you ignore the ‘big picture’ issues

Looking behind the election facts and figures, James Mitchell reveals the continuing, underlying dynamics of politics in Scotland.

There is always something in any election to justify the claim that it was unique and the 2021 Holyrood election has many claims. It was fought against the backdrop of a pandemic. Turnout was the highest on the record at 63% and was up across all parts of Scotland. The SNP achieved a fourth term in a row and missed repeating its best ever result in 2011 by the narrowest of margins. Labour suffered its worst defeat. More women (45%) were elected than previously. The first – three – women of colour were elected. The first member of the Sikh community was elected. But what it is most likely to be remembered for are the consequences of the clear majority that support an independence referendum.

In one respect, the election was anything but unique. Scotland’s constitutional status has been a perennial issue in Scottish elections and will likely remain so as far into the future as it is possible to see, not least because it concerns a set of relationships. And relationships always evolve because the partners to any relationship never remain static and the context in which they operate is always changing around them. The notion that there is a ‘settled will’ is a slogan that is only ever appropriate in passing. It might settle when it comes to a constitutional or legal relationship but that is a very narrow, albeit not insignificant, definition of what is important.

One feature of Scottish politics these last 14 years, set to continue over the next few years at least, is that every party is an opposition party. The SNP and Tories are each governing and opposition parties while all the others are just opposition parties. This makes for a distinct kind of politics. The SNP has become masterful in riding these two horses simultaneously and did so again. With a record in government that would have put it on the backfoot if that alone had been the ground on which the election was fought, the SNP preferred to make this an election about Boris Johnston. Not only did it seek to do so to attack the Tories but it sought to put Labour on the defensive by conflating support for the union with support for the Westminster Tory Government. The Scottish Tories were as keen to pretend Johnson did not exist as the SNP was to act as if he was a candidate in the election.

Being in office offers status, power and access. And the SNP was understandably keen to take advantage of its incumbency. While the civil service adopts an entirely neutral position during elections, it plays a legitimate part in the development of policies throughout a Parliamentary term. And some of this will inevitably find its way into manifestos. It would be odd for an incumbent party to announce a radical change of policy from that which had gone before or one that did not flow from existing policy development. In addition, interest groups and lobbyists seek to attach themselves to parties in office like limpets. Pressure groups are the ‘weather vanes of power’. This has a number of consequences. Parties gain access to expertise and the possibility of endorsements. But the downside is that this can result in undue and asymmetrical influence. If interest group politics was truly pluralistic, with each sectional group having an equal and opposite alternative like Newton’s third law of motion, and all had equal access to power, then there would be the possibility of balance. But as Eric Elmer Schattschneider, the great American political scientist, famously put it: ‘The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent’. Over decades now, this imbalance has grown.

Political parties aggregate these organised interests to provide manifestos setting out plans for government and some interests are better resourced and organised. Of course, some parties are ideologically disposed to one set of interests more than others. That had been the basis of class politics of old: Labour favoured unions and the Tories favoured business. Each had its anchor preventing drift, though sometimes the tide of public opinion moved in the desired direction. At other times, the tide was so strong that office was all but unobtainable without throwing the anchor overboard. Class voting at its peak offered a binary choice. And parties without a clear class identification posing as centrists struggled to insert themselves into debate and voters’ consciousness. There was always the opportunity for centrists to pick up support but it was limited.

But the SNP is a different kind of party. There are many explanations for its rise but a key part of the backdrop is the decline of class voting so allowing new forms of politics emerged. Parties competed on the territory of competence especially as policy distinctions between them declined. The SNP’s past problem was being damned as tartan Tories in left-leaning Scotland and as a socialist party in Tory areas. The absence of a clear ideological position – and this was more about image than policies – blurred its image. It needed to place itself unambiguously on one side of the dominant left-right debate or shift the debate firmly onto a centre-periphery axis. It has managed more or less to do both. Thirty years ago, it set out to clarify its position as a party of the left though in recent times it has set out to present itself as a party capable of competence in office and sought to appeal to business while retaining its social democratic credentials. It became a catch-all party with light ideological baggage turning the adaptability which had undermined it in the era of class politics into a formidable electoral machine.

But it has not all gone the SNP’s way, not least as it retains an element that welcomed its leftist image and is uncomfortable with the drift rightwards mimicking New Labour. The SNP’s Growth Commission was more a political than an economic project to convince business that it could be trusted and independence. Internal dissidents suggest it has been unsuccessful in attracting or even retaining business support while succeeding in upsetting the SNP’s left.

But, of course, the SNP has an unambiguous position on the centre-periphery axis. A generation ago, Labour could claim to be Scotland’s national party in terms of breadth of support but also in standing up for Scotland. The SNP moved in on space vacated by ‘new’ Labour on the left and even its support for independence meant that Unionists tended to see the SNP as standing up for Scotland. The salience of independence in the election worked to the advantage of the SNP and Tories in much the same way that class politics worked before to the advantage of Labour and the Tories. Labour has joined the LibDems in being squeezed on the centre-periphery axis.

The SNP’s course is set but it has a light anchor when it comes to interest articulation. Its leadership has to keep the troops happy, showing evidence that independence remains its ‘north star’. All SNP leaders have faced criticisms that they are not navigating to the promised land but have put down anchor preferring office to the pursuit of that goal. Sturgeon faced criticisms from enemies within her party for failing to advance the independence cause while being attacked by outside opponents for pursuing independence to the exclusion of all else. There had been considerable evidence of unease inside the SNP prior to the election with deep divisions on strategy, economy, currency and gender. But internal grievances do not easily translate into electoral support for breakaway parties. Alba’s biggest mistake was to think that it could attract voters who were largely uninterested in, if even aware of, these internal SNP battles. It takes more than attracting disaffected party activists and members to win electoral contents even in a party with the SNP’s large membership.

While the SNP does not have the ideological anchors of other parties its manifesto reads as if written by a committee of various interests. There is a sense it allowed itself to be captured by a variety of interests – though it may equally be said that many interests have been captured by the SNP. There is a symbiotic relationship that works for both party and groups. One of the constraints on interest group capture is thriving party democracy and a healthy independent think tank sector either directly or indirectly linked to the party. The SNP has neither.

What was also notable about the election was the extent to which so much was subsumed into debates on Scotland’s constitutional status. The extent to which this took place varied by party. The Tories have almost become a single-issue party which accounts for it retaining its position as Scotland’s second party with 31 seats. While the Greens were described as the SNP’s little helpers, the Tories were undoubtedly the SNP’s big helpers. The Tories needed the constitution to top the agenda to evade focus on the party in power in London.

There has been much commentary since devolution on ‘valence politics’. A distinction is often drawn between position and valence issues. ‘Position’ concerns matters on which the electorate is divided and parties have to take sides. Examples are specific issues like nuclear disarmament or nuclear energy. ‘Valence’ concerns matters on which there is broad agreement and voters choose which party is deemed most likely to deliver or have most credibility. Across a broad range of issues, there is little to choose from between two or more parties in the election. Who doesn’t claim to believe in a more successful economy, protecting the NHS, improving educational standards etcetera? The question for the voter becomes who is most trusted and credible in delivering these. And a crucial valence question has long been who will best stand up for ‘Scotland’? And when that issue is seen as important, there is now only one likely winner. But that was not always the case. Labour previously managed to become Scotland’s national party for years before devolution. Part of reason this has changed is that ‘standing up for Scotland’ is now closely associated with a party’s constitutional status.

Another valence issue that the SNP has successfully claimed has been gender in its various manifestations. The SNP has had significant success in address its previously relatively weak support amongst women. Where it has struggled, however, has been with respect to trans rights. This is a tricky area in which competing principles have clashed. In such circumstances, the best course is to tread carefully, listen and seek to accommodate different views. The SNP blundered into this in the belief that there were votes to be won amongst young elements in the electorate and have had to retreat, promising to work with a wide range of people to improve rights which will ‘not affect the rights or protections that women currently have under the Equality Act’.

The relationship between Scotland’s constitutional status and ‘standing up for Scotland’ is an example of how ‘position’ and ‘valence’ issues interact. Evidence exists that there are voters who oppose independence and see independence as contrary to Scotland’s best interests but nonetheless see the SNP’s support for independence as a sign of a deep commitment to Scotland and a willingness to stand up for Scotland. And another referendum offers reassurance that voting SNP does not directly lead to independence.

Scottish politics is framed around a centre-periphery axis that combines the valence issue of ‘standing up for Scotland’ and competent government with positions on Scotland’s constitutional status. The 2021 election suggests that competence may not be as important as it was in the previous three Holyrood elections. With a 14-year record in office that only loyalists could describe as impressive in public policy terms, the SNP romped home with little opposition.

James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh. His recent Jimmy Reid Foundation pamphlet, ‘The Scottish Question Revisited’, is still available for purchase at: https://reidfoundation.scot/the-scottish-question-revisited-pamphlet/