Had you been in Scotland during the past few weeks, you probably wouldn’t have realised that an election was about to take place. However, this dull, near-invisible election campaign produced a considerably more interesting outcome. The SNP, widely expected to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament came two short with 63 out of 129. And the Scottish Conservatives, who had been neck-and-neck with Scottish Labour in the battle for second place, unexpectedly took 31 seats to Labour’s 24, humiliating the once predominant force in Scottish politics.
For the SNP and its supporters, the loss of the party’s majority felt like a defeat. Its campaign had focused less on policy and more on its immensely popular leader, Nicola Sturgeon, with ‘I’m with Nicola’ t-shirts and tabloid double-page spreads standing in for political substance. The loss of the 69-seat majority won under Alex Salmond was experienced as much as a personal failure for the SNP’s leadership as a political one. Sturgeon may still have been given a resounding endorsement – especially in an electoral system designed specifically to preclude majority government – but the SNP is no longer perceived as unchallenged and unstoppable.
That’s not to diminish the SNP’s dominance, nor question its willingness to pursue independence. The Scottish Conservatives’ leader, Ruth Davidson, was too hasty when saying that the SNP’s plans for another independence referendum ‘have now been utterly shredded’. There are two conditions necessary for a second referendum: popular support, and political power. Although popular support is lacking at the moment, who’s to say it won’t pick up over the next five years, even without a Brexit against Scotland’s will. And the SNP most definitely still has political power, with the pro-independence Scottish Green Party tripling its share of seats to six, giving pro-independence MSPs a parliamentary majority. So, if popular opinion does swing behind a referendum, then the SNP should have the political clout necessary to call it.
The big winners of this election were, of course, Scotland’s new opposition, the Scottish Conservatives. Its campaign, like the SNP’s, focused almost exclusively on its leader, Davidson, with Conservative branding often absent from campaign posters and hoardings. Young, charismatic and genuinely likable, Davidson is supposedly utterly unlike Scots’ perceptions of the average ‘Southern Tory’. This has allowed the Scottish Conservatives to partly shake off the ‘toxic’ label and invent a popular, distinctly Scottish conservativism based on the protection of the union – a version of conservativism, in fact, that is remarkably similar to that which prevailed in Scotland during the Unionist Party’s dominance in the 1950s.
But it’s premature to hail this as a Conservative Party revival. Davidson’s core selling point throughout her one-woman campaign was unionism, not Conservative policy. Most of the Scottish Conservatives’ new supporters were really supporting Davidson, and her ability to give the SNP a good thrashing on the constitutional question. Besides, there’s nothing inherently conservative about unionism. We should only believe in this ‘Scottish Conservative revival’ when the Scottish Conservatives base their campaign on some substantial Conservative vision – or at least when they have enough confidence to place ‘Conservative Party’ on their election materials. What we’re really witnessing in Scotland, at least for now, is a unionist revival, expressed through a strong, unionist leader who just happens to be leading the Scottish Conservatives.