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The Scottish Party System at 20

Published: 24 September 2019

In his contribution to devolution at twenty, Malcolm Harvey reflects on the changing Scottish party system.

The twentieth anniversary of devolution provides an obvious opportunity for reflection.  Twenty years of the Scottish Parliament has seen five first ministers, three acts pertaining to devolution, three commissions, a ‘national conversation’ and a referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union.  Before his death in 1994, Labour leader John Smith argued that devolution was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’.  The veracity of that statement can be disputed but one thing is clear: the devolution period has been anything but settled.

The party system in Scotland has also been through an unsettled period, both as a result of and a driver for these developments in devolution.  In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, while there were changes in the way which politics operated, the parties broadly remained ‘frozen’ in a similar alignment to the pre-devolution period.  Labour broadly dominated – as they had since the 1960s – winning constituency seats across Scotland – while the Liberal Democrats continued to fare well in the Highlands and Islands.  The SNP had heartlands in Perthshire and the North-East of Scotland and, while the Conservatives lost all of their Scottish MPs in 1997, their vote share held up in the south of Scotland and the Lothians.

The differences, from 1999 onwards, were primarily caused by the shift to a more proportional electoral system at Holyrood.  Indeed, while the first elections to the Scottish Parliament saw the SNP overtake the Liberal Democrats as Scotland’s second party in terms of votes and seats, the first-past-the-post Westminster electoral system preserved the pre-devolution order until 2015 (more on this below).  Labour maintained their constituency dominance through the first two elections to Holyrood, albeit with a slight decline in the 2003 election.  Nevertheless, given the lack of a majority, a coalition agreement had to be reached with their erstwhile Scottish Constitutional Convention colleagues, the Liberal Democrats.  The SNP finished both of the first two elections as the largest party outside of government, albeit without making inroads into the constituencies they had to make do with significant numbers of regional MSPs.  As in 1997, the Conservatives failed to win any constituencies in the Scottish Parliament.  However, their share of the regional vote won them 18 seats in 1999, somewhat ironically, given the party had been staunchly opposed to proportional representation.  Robin Harper became the first elected Green Parliamentarian in the UK in 1999, and there were also seats for Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party and Dennis Canavan, deselected as a Labour candidate, he handsomely won his constituency as an independent.  The 2003 election expanded the party system at Holyrood, with the Greens and the SSP increasing their representation to seven and six seats respectively, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party winning a seat, and no fewer than three independents.  The outcome was the same: a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the SNP as the largest of a more fragmented opposition block.

The 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election brought significant change, in two ways.  First, the SNP won a plurality of seats – 47 seats to Labour’s 46 – to deliver them into government office for the first time.  Second, the Scottish Parliament had a minority government for the first time.  By 2011, off the back of relative success as a minority government, albeit unable to pursue significant policy objectives, such as Local Income Tax and the commitment to hold an independence referendum during the parliamentary term, the SNP were still polling well.  Nevertheless, the 69 seats they won – an increase of 22 from 2007, and an outright majority in the 129-seat chamber – was unexpected.  Labour lost nine of the 46 seats they had won in 2007, while the Liberal Democrats, suffering from their decision to enter coalition government at Westminster, were reduced to five seats. 

Majority government allowed the SNP to deliver on a mandate for an independence referendum.  And while that referendum reaffirmed Scotland’s place in the Union, the boost in the SNP membership post-referendum was significant, increasing from 25,000 on the day before the referendum to 125,000 in the months afterwards.  That membership proved useful in the next electoral contest after the referendum, the 2015 UK General Election.  In it, the SNP produced a remarkable performance, winning all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats.  Fifty-six SNP MPs were elected, compared to one each for Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  The party system had not simply thawed: the glacier had melted.

The 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election saw the SNP fall back from the historic performances in 2011 and 2015, losing their position as a majority but returning 63 seats to maintain a significant plurality of seats.  Crucially, for their independence agenda, the return of 6 Green MSPs allowed for a pro-independence majority (in addition to providing the SNP a broadly-reliable partner to negotiate on budget proposals).  The SNP’s success has been maintained largely at the expense of the Labour party, who once again lost seats, and slipped to the third party in the parliament, behind the Ruth Davidson-led Scottish Conservatives.  The revival of the Scottish Conservatives – campaigning on a largely pro-Union, anti-independence message – was the significant story of the election and, for the first time, meant that the government and largest opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament broadly represented centre left and centre right political positions.

So what has changed?  As a result of the constitutional upheavals, there are two theoretical conclusions to draw about the Scottish party system in 2019.  First, while the new institutional setting of the Scottish Parliament prompted a recalibration of the Scottish party system, this was not a fundamental change in party politics.  The setting – in particular, the proportional electoral system – allowed for new actors to be involved and altered the dynamics of partisan interactions, but broadly the system very quickly adapted and froze itself back into a familiar pattern.  While Labour could no longer be the dominant party, they were still the largest and able to bring significant influence to bear in the parliamentary domain.  Second, a thaw in this frozen system began in 2007 and by the 2015 UK General Election – in which the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats – it appeared that the previous system had entirely disappeared.  The 2016 Scottish Parliament election – in which the SNP returned as a government, albeit losing their majority – and the 2017 UK General Election, which saw the Conservatives stage a revival in Scotland at the expense of Labour, indicated that this thaw is still underway.  As a result, we appear to still be in the midst of a significant party system change, where constitutional questions continue to play a significant role in re-shaping the party system landscape in Scotland.

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