The 2021 Holyrood Election – Scotland Divided

You might think that due to the SNP remaining the largest party but failing short of an overall majority, and with nationalist parties retaining their pro-independence majority as happened in 2016, that not a lot has changed in Scottish politics following last Thursday’s election. To a certain extent that’s true – but while there are elements of continuity, there are also some major changes.

Here are ten key points to take from the election.

1.The SNP Reign Supreme (Again)

A fourth term in office for the SNP was never really in doubt. Nicola Sturgeon didn’t manage to get that coveted majority like her predecessor, but the party still reign supreme. To achieve such a feat after 14 years in government, following a number of scandals, difficulties in key policy portfolios, not to mention the fallout from Salmond affair, is a considerable achievement. Nonetheless, it could be argued that given the UK has left the EU when most Scots wished to remain, coupled with the fact that Boris Johnson remains deeply unpopular in Scotland, one additional seat is not exactly an indication of a country clamouring for separation.  

2. Two Scotlands, nationalist and unionist

Scotland remains bitterly divided between unionist and nationalist camps. Despite recent polling showing falling support for independence, the SNP and Scottish Greens have another pro-independence majority in terms of seats. The unionist parties will retort that the SNP were denied an overall majority, as well as the fact that the combined votes of the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Scottish Lib Dems beat the nationalist parties on the constituency ballot. There was also evidence of increased pro-UK tactical voting in the likes of Aberdeenshire West and Dumbarton. On the other hand, the Scottish Greens only stood 12 candidates in constituencies, giving the SNP an almost free ride against a fragmented unionist opposition. Playing the system works both ways.

3. The Scottish Parliament Becomes More Diverse

Scotland remains divided on the constitution, yet there is one area where there will be a welcome consensus: that Holyrood is now more reflective of the country at large in terms of female and BAME representation. The new session of the Scottish Parliament will see a record number of women MSPs and Scotland has its first female MSP of colour and first female Muslim MSP following Kaukab Stewart’s victory for the SNP in Glasgow Kelvin. Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives have their first BAME MSPs: Pam Gosal, the first female of Indian descent and practising Sikh to be elected to Holyrood, and Dr Sandesh Gulhane, the first male of Indian descent to become an MSP. For Scottish Labour, Pam Duncan-Glancy became first permanent wheelchair user to be elected. The Scottish Greens and Scottish Lib Dems remain the only main parties without BAME representation.

4. Douglas Ross Wins the Battle for Second

Much of the narrative during the campaign was that Douglas Ross was an inexperienced leader who lacked the personal appeal of Ruth Davidson (a very hard act to follow) and that Scottish Labour could overtake his party. Despite praise from the commentariat for his slick campaigning and debating skills, and his relatively high approval ratings, Anas Sarwar failed to translate this personal appeal into votes. Conversely, Douglas Ross who was criticised for his performances in the televised debates by his opponents, as well as by the press and on social media, had a relatively good election night. There may be some lessons in that. The fact that Douglas Ross equalled the party’s 2016 share of seats is an accomplishment. Consistent messaging on the constitution and an effective ‘peach vote’ strategy enabled the Tories to cement their place as the second party of Scottish politics. However, in the longer-term, the party must not be content with resting on their laurels and a greater focus on non-constitutional issues, like health, education, housing and the environment, if they ever wish to build a platform for government.

5. Can Things Get Any Better for Scottish Labour?

Scottish Labour have continued to lose votes at every subsequent election since 1999 and Sarwar could not be expected to arrest this decline overnight. Perhaps if Scottish Labour had matched the ruthlessness of the Tories in ditching their leader much earlier, then he could have made a bigger impact. One possible area of fracture in the party going forwards could opposition from some quarters to adhering to opposing a second referendum while not offering up an alternative like ‘Devo Max’ whose supporters believe could help to bridge the constitutional divide and bring back soft-SNP supporters into the Scottish Labour fold. On a more positive note, Scottish Labour can welcome some new blood in their MSP ranks, including their Education Spokesperson Cllr Michael Marra, former MPs Martin Whitfield and Paul Sweeney, and Cllr Paul O’Kane, who can all help rebuild the party’s standing at Holyrood.

6. Scottish Green Shoots

The Scottish Greens secured a record number of MSPs, beating their previous best from 2003, but failed to live up to the high expectations of the polls once again and did not manage to break through to double figures of MSPs. Their increased presence at Holyrood will strengthen their hand in key budgetary votes with the Scottish Government (if the SNP progress with a minority administration) and they once again form part of the pro-independence majority of MSPs in a session that will be dominated by independence. There is agreement over the constitution but there may still be too many policy differences between the SNP and Scottish Greens for a formal coalition (e.g., over the future of north sea oil and gas), and they could be nervous when looking at the experience of sister parties elsewhere in Europe who have entered government as a smaller partner.

7. The Scottish Lib Dems – The Dead Parrot of Scottish Politics

From the jubilation of Alex Cole-Hamilton winning in Edinburgh Western, to Willie Rennie in North East Fife swatting off the challenge from the SNP, came a shock realisation for the Lib Dems. With the loss of their remaining regional list seat, the party now falls below the minimum threshold required by the Parliamentary Bureau – this will mean that they will lose the right to get an automatic question at FMQs. The poor showing in the election may encourage their longstanding leader Willie Rennie to step aside, with Alex Cole-Hamilton the most prominent candidate to succeed him. The loss of main party status, as well as their vote being squeezed by larger unionist parties, will make the task of any new leader that much more difficult. Can ACH help the dead parrot of Scottish politics rise from the ashes?

8. Yesterday’s Men Remain Yesterday’s Men

Two big beasts of Scottish politics turned RT presenters failed in their bid to challenge the main established parties. For Alex Salmond, it was a particular embarrassment, having banded about notions of a supermajority, only for Alba to fail to pick up a single seat. George Galloway’s pop-up party, All for Unity, for a time spooked the Scottish Conservatives that it could further split the unionist vote, but it suffered similar ignominy, failing to pick up a single seat. Salmond has been slain but he is unlikely to retire completely from public life and will still try to exert pressure on the SNP, almost akin to UKIP/Brexit Party applying pressure on the Conservative Party on Europe despite having no parliamentary representation. Indeed, he has already promised to fill the vacuum left by Donald Trump’s exclusion from Twitter to hit back at his opponents within the SNP.

9. Some ‘New’ Familiar Faces Return

The Scottish Parliament witnessed a large turnover of MSPs, with only 13 members of the Class of 1999 remaining, but there will be some familiar faces being sworn into the Scottish Parliament on Thursday who have spent time at Westminster. Former SNP MPs Angus Robertson, Neil Gray and Michelle Thomson will all take up seats at Holyrood, with Robertson likely to be moved straight into the Scottish Government, perhaps as Mike Russell’s replacement as Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs. Douglas Ross marks his return to the Scottish Parliament on the Highlands and Islands regional list and will continue to serve as an MP for Moray, meanwhile his Scottish Conservative colleague Stephen Kerr, the well-regarded former MP for Stirling, becomes MSP for Central Scotland. Former Labour MPs Paul Sweeney and Martin Whitfield can bring their recent experience of Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, while Corbynite Baroness Katy Clark of Kilwinning marks her return to Scottish politics.

10. IndyRef 2 – Free by 2023?

A second independence referendum isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Throughout the campaign, Nicola Sturgeon stressed pandemic recovery would be her overriding priority. The First Minister suggested that she would like to hold an independence referendum by the end of 2023, within the first half of the new five-year parliamentary term. However, many questions endure: what is meant by a Covid ‘recovery’; do the Scottish Government have a sufficient mandate to proceed; what if the UK Government refuses consent to grant a Section 30 Order; and will the issue end up in the Supreme Court. On top of that, the SNP need to put flesh on the bones for their answers to issues like currency, trade and borders if they want to persuade more Scots of the merit of their position.

While there are so many unknowns to Scotland’s ongoing constitutional debate, the one certainty is that the issue will continue to dominate our politics for years to come.