The Scottish Revolution that isn’t quite what people expected

Gerry Hassan

May 6th 2016

The Scottish election was a foregone conclusion. Everything was settled we were told. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way.

A third SNP term, but without the expected overall majority that the Nationalists and polls expected. A Tory revival beyond expectations. And a Labour nightmare implosion which makes it difficult to see a way back. Decent results for the Greens and Lib Dems.

All of this will throw up big questions about politics, power and legitimacy. Nicola Sturgeon has talked about ‘a clear and unequivocal mandate’, but is it really – when the Nats campaigned with the expectation of a majority? Part of this is failed expectation management, but it raises questions about whether Sturgeon and the Nats can adapt to a different language and politics in more difficult times, and a more contested politics? This is without getting into what this means for the longer term prospects of independence – which cannot now be seen as synonymous with the SNP.

Here are some of the bigger changes:


The second highest Scottish Parliament election turnout since 1999. 55.6% is up 5.2% on 2011 – but way down on the indyref 84.6% and last year’s 71.1%. Some of ‘the missing Scotland’ which turned out in the indyref – has clearly become disenfranchised again – look at the Dundee and Glasgow turnouts for example.

1999: 59.1%

2003: 49.4%

2007: 51.8%

2011: 50.4%

2016: 55.6%


The SNP will now, like Labour before them at their peak in Scotland, recognise that they are not a popular majority. That means non-SNP Scotland is bigger – and the Nationalists (unlike Labour before them) need to understand the politics and priorities of that majority nation (particularly if they are ever in the longer term to win any future referendum: plus it is also just good for your politics).

2011: 45.4% (FPTP)

2015: 49.97%

2016: 46.5% (FPTP)


Maybe 2011 was the freak result considering the design and dynamics of the electoral system. The SNP won 41.7% of the regional vote – and a mere FOUR additional member seats – after winning 59 out of 73 FPTP seats. In 1999 Scottish Labour won 53 out of 73 FPTP seats – and because of this won only THREE additional member seats. This is how the system was designed – to pull back leading parties and the distortions of FPTP.


This is a red herring on both sides. For the SNP to win seats on the regional list – to retain a significant overall majority – they would have had to win a much more impressive regional list vote. The SNP won 81% of FPTP seats on 46.5% of the vote – and 41.7% of the regional vote and 7% of seats. The party’s FPTP dividend – with six net constituency gains – was always likely to be balanced by the additional member system results.


The spin was already in place for this before the vote from non-Tories: any revival would be down to Labour decline with the Tories consistently flatlining since the wipeout of 1997 in which they won 17.5% of the vote.

It didn’t work out like that. The Tory 22.9% on the regional vote – and second place in votes and seats – is the highest Tory vote in any national election (Scottish Parliament, Westminster, Europe) since 1992 when John Major pulled of a surprise election victory and presented 25.6% in Scotland as a triumph.

This hasn’t stopped many dismissing this. SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said it wasn’t much of a Tory revival as it only took them back to the levels of popularity they enjoyed with ‘Thatcher in the mid-1980s’. That’s what is called generational change.


It has been a long way down in Labour’s FPTP vote.

1999: 38.8%

2003: 34.6%

2007: 32.9%

2011: 31.7%

2016: 22.6%

Have Scottish Labour bottomed out? The 22.6% FPTP vote is only 1.7% below last year. But the 19.1% regional vote and third place behind the Tories in votes and seats is Labour’s worst showing since December 1910. Also the Tories have never finished ahead of Labour at a Scottish Parliament or Westminster election since 1955 – when the Tories won over half the popular vote (which was the high point of Unionist and unionist Scotland).


It is all about expectations. They did only win 7.8% of the FPTP vote and 5.2% of the regional vote – finishing fifth in this vote and seats. Yet, the Lib Dems haven’t just survived, they have indicated that there might eventually be a way back. Comfortable Orkney and Shetland victories draw some kind of line under the Carmichael debacle and disaster. Two impressive constituency gains – North East Fife and Edinburgh West – show the party may be able to resurrect and trade on its ‘local heroes’ record of constituency MPs/MSPs digging in. Willie Rennie was vindicated campaign-wise (pigs apart), and an element of middle-class Scotland still wants a liberal party to vote for.


The Scottish Greens with 6.6% on the regional vote and six MSPs made their best showing since 2003 when they won 6.9% and gained seven MSPs: then from six regional seats, this time from five. It is also the first time they have ever finished fourth in votes and seats ahead of the Lib Dems. The Greens highest regional vote was 10.6% in Lothian; as in 2003 when it was 12.0%. Yet this time the party’s Glasgow vote was closer at 9.4% – but only produced one MSP as opposed to two in Lothian.

The Greens also polled very well in a couple of the FPTP seats: Patrick Harvie winning 24.3% in Glasgow Kelvin; and Alison Johnstone winning 13.6% in Edinburgh Central (and for some contributing to Ruth Davidson winning the seat for the Tories).


This election was a perfect storm for UKIP in Scotland: a contest held as the UK debates and covers the European referendum. The party won 10.5% in the 2014 Euro elections – which saw the election of David Coburn. The party’s support was derisory nearly everywhere – totaling 46,426 regional votes (2.0%). All very different from Wales where UKIP won 13.0% of the vote and seven seats.


A footnote to the evening. The final end of Tommy Sheridan’s political career. But that has been written before. And for all the energy of RISE and much more so, the Radical Independence Campaign, they have gone nowhere. The Glasgow regional result is a salutary warning: Sheridan won 3,593 and RISE 2,454 – their combined vote less than George Galloway in the city in 2011 when he did no campaigning and won 6,972 votes. Overall, they won 14,333 votes (Solidarity) representing 0.6%; 10,911 votes (RISE): 0.5 votes.


After Dennis Canavan in the first Parliament and Margo in the last three – this is the first Scottish Parliament with no independent MSPs.


In many respects the 2016 Scottish election was just another run of the mill contemporary contest. But there is the problem. It was, in its politics and media coverage, a sort of phony or bubble election – conducted by a series of photo-opps by party leaders and TV debates. That isn’t a real campaign: that’s a pretense and going through the motions – and politics as a closed circuit and set of manipulated conversations. Little wonder that after the 84.6% indyref turnout we are slowly heading back to business as usual politics with a 55.6% turnout.

The SNP have a mandate. But they will have to adapt and change how they do politics. Voters seldom get the overall result completely wrong: and this is a qualified endorsement of the SNP and their record. It also means that Nationalists and indy supporters are going to have rethink some things – and the obsession with process – and leaving the door open on indyref2 in the near-future. Even more, there will be little progress towards independence without a complete rethinking of the flawed Salmondnomics 2014 vision. There is it looks no gradual march to formal independence by stealth.

Final thoughts. Majority government didn’t serve Scotland or the SNP well – apart from the referendum. Many thought the SNP had a better attitude and style as a minority government. Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to learn a different way of leading. All of this provides opportunities – not just for Tories and Greens, but in the space provided by Labour’s implosion – and for more open, genuine debates about democratisation, the limits of centralisation, and the kind of Scotland we collectively want to live in.