Predictable surprise?

Shakespeare’s Macduff asks ‘Stands Scotland where it did?’ After this month’s election, the answer appears to be a categorical “no”. Ruth Davidson’s detoxified Conservatives hoisted themselves to second, doubling their representation. Labour’s decline was at once shocking and expected – the former hegemon in Scottish politics reliant on regional MSPs to save face. Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone will be joined by 4 more Green MSPs, including the Parliament’s youngest ever, and may find themselves courted by the SNP for support. And the Liberal Democrats, buoyed by Willie Rennie’s surprising victory in North-East Fife, held steady with 5 MSPs, surpassing all expectations. Though falling two seats short of a majority, the SNP’s maintained their dominance of Scottish politics, albeit they will be required to reach out across the chamber.

And yet, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The SNP dominated the constituency vote – as they did in last year’s General Election – and returned to government, as they were prior to the election, and the one before that. The constitutional issue dominated the campaign, as it has dominated Scottish politics for the past half-decade or more. Ruth Davidson positioned herself as the ‘real’ opposition to the SNP, continuing a theme the party have adopted since her election as leader. And Labour’s decline is also nothing new, their fall to third another staging point on their dramatic fall from hegemony.

The SNP’s failure to retain majority government will be both a disappointment and an opportunity for the party, though their 63 seats was only a reduction of one from the 64 they ended the previous session with. A disappointment for obvious reasons – an emboldened opposition will make delivering their manifesto in its entirety rather difficult – but, as we saw from 2007-11, the party know how to make minority government work, and Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated a willingness to work across party lines to build consensus on an issue-by-issue basis. The opportunity for the party now lies in reaching out beyond their core to work with those with whom they do not necessarily agree.

The Scottish Conservatives – or, perhaps more accurately, the Artists Formerly Known as the Scottish Conservatives – gauged their audience perfectly and were rewarded with a revival that surpassed even their most optimistic expectations. Utilising a strategy championed by her rival Murdo Fraser in the leadership election 5 years ago, Ruth Davidson avoided using the Conservative brand as much as she could in election literature. Campaign boards in fields across the North-East carried candidate names in the party’s distinctive blue, but more prominent was the slogan ‘Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition’. The Conservative brand may remain toxic to some, but focusing on the leader and their intended role post-election, as well as positioning the party as the primary defenders of the Union was a strong suit, and the party played that hand well.

Scottish Labour’s woes continued, but with no appetite to appoint a seventh new leader in nine years, Kezia Dugdale appears set to stay on as leader with the difficult task of rebuilding on her shoulders. The immediate aftermath of the election prompted much (rather literal) soul-searching within the party, and a renewed ambition to declare the ideas and principles that the party stands for – just as soon as they identify what they are. In 2003, after Labour had returned to coalition government in Scotland, an undergraduate exam question in a course on Scottish politics I completed asked the following question: ‘Left-wing and nationalist, just not as much as Labour: is this the reason for the SNP’s continued electoral weakness?’ Now, with the fortunes of the parties reversed, the question can be recast of Labour. While this may well be an explanation – the SNP are, at least, perceived to be more social democratic and, naturally, more nationalist than Labour – it is likely an explanation which will not help Scottish Labour that much. They don’t want to be a nationalist party – though, post-referendum, this appears to be where most of their voters have gone – nor do they particularly want to be a left-wing party, at least as far as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership goes. Trying to appeal to the Yes voters who abandoned the party for the SNP allowed the Conservatives to target the No voters that were concerned with the Union and Labour’s commitment to it. In the end, neither group voted for the party in the numbers Labour are used to in Scotland.

For the Scottish Greens, trebling their seat numbers must be seen as a good outcome, especially given their position as the only other pro-independence party in Holyrood and the SNP’s status as a minority government. An increase in numbers and an increase in potential influence suggests those Green MSPs will play a significant role in the forthcoming session. However, two points are worth noting. First, the election result for the Greens was, once again, significantly lower than pre-election polling, which heightened expectations of as many as 10 MSPs. Second, despite zipping their regional lists for gender balance, and pairing those lists in line with expected levels of support, the party returned 5 males MSPs to a sole female MSP. This speaks to the fact that the party over-performed expectations in some regions (West, and Lothians) and slightly underperformed in others (North-East, South) where they were squeezed out by the increasing Conservative vote.

The Liberal Democrats, though displaced as Scotland’s fourth party, will be relatively cheered by their results: retaining Orkney (against a significant SNP campaign) and Shetland, despite the legal case surrounding Alastair Carmichael MP, and re-gaining North-East Fife and Edinburgh Western on the back of strong candidates, hard-working local campaigns and a measure of pro-Union tactical voting. The return to Holyrood of Mike Rumbles as a list MSP for the North-East offset the loss of Jim Hume in the South, albeit the party are now, like their Westminster representatives, 100% male at Holyrood.

And what of the parties who did not make it into Holyrood? UKIP’s expected breakthrough did not materialise, though they did double their share of the regional vote (from 1% to 2%). With just over 46,000 list votes across Scotland, there remain more Gaelic speakers (c. 57,000 according to the 2011 census) than UKIP voters in Scotland. Their Scottish leader David Coburn had identified Highlands & Islands as his best chance of election, but the 5,344 votes he secured there was a considerable distance short of what was required for a seat. On the other end of the political spectrum, RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism) did not. With 10,911 votes representing 0.5% of the list vote, RISE were outpolled by the Scottish Christian Party (which stood in only 2 regions) and Solidarity, who competed for the same voters. The fragmentation of the left – a common theme across European history – continues in Scotland, though on this occasion is unlikely to have cost the left any seats, since their combined vote remains far short of the level required to gain representation in any of the regions.

What’s next for Scotland? Well, the now-minority SNP Government faces a dual challenge from Ruth Davidson’s party: a reinvigorated conservative Unionism and a main opposition on the centre-right. There will be a requirement for collaboration across party lines to deliver manifesto commitments, while the new powers of the parliament may be utilised as each of the parties looking to derive advantage from the new parliamentary arithmetic. The constitutional question will remain a running sore, with both sides attempting to maintain support for their preference. Tax will become an issue, with the more significant power to vary income tax levels devolved, and a clear left-right division between government and major opposition.

The initial devolution of a Scottish Parliament took some time to bed in, but now there is a generation of voters who were born after the parliament was established. Further powers have strengthened the parliament, and party fortunes have fluctuated significantly in the devolution period. Post-election, commentators have spoken of an ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics, but that seems a gross misnomer for politics in Scotland. Rather, the reference point may be the southern part of that island, and the politics of the historic Irish Free State, where Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael originated on either side of the Treaty debate. Where that leaves Scottish Labour is the existential question they currently face, but post-referendum Scotland, this looks like the new normal.

Dr Malcolm Harvey is a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and the Centre on Constitutional Change