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A force awakens in Scotland: the Union strikes back

6 May 2016

9:12 AM

6 May 2016

9:12 AM

Nicola Sturgeon has her mandate but it is a smaller, feebler, mandate than almost everyone thought likely as recently as 18 hours ago. The SNP remains the natural party of government in Scotland – a position it is unlikely to relinquish for the foreseeable future – but it no longer enjoys an overall majority at Holyrood. The nationalist advance, seemingly all-powerful and unstoppable, has not been stopped but it has been checked.

Now you could hardly call winning almost half the seats in a system expressly designed to make a majority all but impossible except in the most freakish circumstances a disappointing result. And, indeed, the SNP share of the vote increased by a couple of points on 2011. And yet this remarkable result is nonetheless tinged with a mild degree of disappointment for the SNP. It was very, very good but it was not the greatness to which the party has been accustomed and which it – or at least its supporters – expected again last night.

Whereas five years ago everything fell into place for the nationalists last night it did not. Last night everything fell into place for someone else: the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

So let’s get this out the way now: in January I wrote an article for this paper explaining that while Everyone Loves Ruth Davidson, No-One will Vote for Her. Well I was half-right.

Actually, at the time that seemed like a sensible piece of expectation-lowering. (Though I would say that wouldn’t I? Yes I would.) The stars were aligned for the Tories but it still seemed a leap of faith too far to think they really might replace Labour as the second largest party at Holyrood.

Hell, yesterday morning one Tory strategist reckoned doing so was only an even money bet and as late as 4pm one senior Tory told me that the party was more likely to win one constituency seat than four. No-one, nowhere, thought the Tories would win seven. Galloway and West Dumfries had been written off. Edinburgh Central was a pipe dream. Aberdeenshire West wasn’t even a pipe dream.


True, this result needs to be placed in some perspective. It takes the Tories back to where they were in 1992. But 1992 was a long time ago, long enough for several SNP generations in fact. And since then the Tories have limped from calamity to disappointment to further calamity. In 2011 they won 12.5% of the list vote and they began this election campaign 22 seats behind Labour. 22. Now they are seven ahead.

It helped that they had a message that was as clear as it was intuitively plausible. The Tories are the last keepers of the old Unionist religion. If that matters to you – and it does matter to a million or more Scots – they were the logical repository for your vote. But you didn’t have to be a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Tory to vote for Ruth Davidson. You just needed to think it was time someone – any-bloody-one – stood up to the SNP and reminded them that having the support of half the country does not entitle them to speak for the whole country.

If this was a limited and narrow strategy it was also a risky one. The campaign was Ruth, the whole Ruth and nothing but the Ruth. If it had failed and if the Tory breakthrough had not materialised during an election in which they were able to fight on favourable constitutional ground and take advantage of a hopelessly confused and shambolic Labour party then the questions would have been asked. If not now, in these circumstances, then when, if ever?

Even so, 25 seats would have been reckoned a bonny achievement. To win more than 30 was beyond anyone’s expectations. There is a Tory blue cordon sanitaire running along the border now but the party increased its vote in 72 of Scotland’s 73 constituencies (Orkney being the only exception).

This was an election in which the Tory force awakened; an election in which the Union struck back. Not, it is true, with sufficient force to knock the SNP off their perch but still with enough conviction to remind the nationalists they do not speak for all Scotland and all Scots.

Unionists learnt from last year’s disasters. The Liberal Democrat vote fell in places such as the Borders and Aberdeenshire but in other seats, including Edinburgh Western and, most stunningly, North-East Fife Unionist voters rallied to the party best-placed to stymie the SNP. If this meant voting Liberal Democrat then so be it.

As for Labour, well there is no way of putting lipstick on this pig of a result. The numbers are excruciating enough but the real damage is psychological. Who is Labour for? What constituency or interest does the erstwhile people’s party now represent? The answers to these questions are not immediately obvious.

Labour wanted to talk about anything except the national question in this election oblivious to the fact that the national question is the first thing any party must answer in modern Scotland. Are you Team Yes or Team No? Labour cannot win without Yes voters but it has, as yet, no way of winning those lost voters back. Moreover, every move it makes to appeal to those voters risks alienating their remaining Unionist support. This election was another reminder that trying to ride two horses usually ends in embarrassment. And pain. Labour cannot out-Nat the Nats and nor can they out-Unionist the Tories.

The writing was on the wall yesterday afternoon. Suddenly Labour people were saying “well, we won the argument on tax but the people didn’t want to listen” and complaining – unprompted – that “The Livingstone stuff hurt us”. This is not how parties confident of victory speak.

And it was obvious from very early that something terrible was about to happen to Labour. In Hamilton and in Rutherglen, ancient bastions of Labour supremacy, the party’s share of the vote fell by ten points. A fall that was matched by an equivalent rise in the Tory vote. There were an awful lot of these ten-ten seats in Scotland yesterday.

Overall, this was a good and fitting election result and not just because of the Tory breakthrough. Scotland has a parliament that more closely maps its political reality. Willie Rennie fought a doughty campaign for the Lib Dems and earned his reward; similarly the Greens have earned their more significant representation in the new parliament. Their success also helps reflect the diversity of political opinion north of the border.

But some canards were laid to rest too. Scotland this morning has a moderate, centrist government and a moderate centre-right opposition. The quiet people of Scotland, those folk whose voices are often hard to hear, have spoken and the message they have sent is that Scotland is not the left-wing country it sometimes likes to think it is.

Nicola Sturgeon, of course, has earned her supremacy. But the challenges of minority government are rather different from those of unchecked majoritarianism. The SNP might govern better as a result of this modest check on its advance. One thing is certainly clear: there may be a majority of votes in the new parliament for independence but there is no mandate for a fresh referendum. Not now that the SNP has actually lost seats.

An often dull and predictable campaign has thrown up a magnificently unforeseen result. From the perspective of a mere hack this is wonderful news. We have stories and if proving our predictions and assumptions wrong is the price of having those stories then it would be a bargain at twice the cost.


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