Heightened pre-election expectations have downplayed the true scale of the SNP's win

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 10 May 2016 in Editor's note

The Conservative success will mean nationalism versus unionism writ large in the Scottish Parliament

As the ballot closed and the votes were counted, it was clear quite early on that the story was always going to be written one way: an as expected but not quite stellar win for the SNP, a triumph for the Tories and a catastrophe for Labour.

A febrile pre-election mood with heightened expectations, pumped by successive polls and near hysterical commentary, was such that unless the SNP had smashed its previous record of winning an outright majority in a Scottish parliamentary election – designed not to let that happen –- then it would always be seen as a setback for Nicola Sturgeon.

And so it was.


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The reality is that the SNP has, under her leadership, won a third term, a massive mandate – just two seats short of yet another outright majority – recorded its best ever constituency vote, upped its share of the vote and secured, for the first time in a Scottish Parliament election, a million votes in its favour. But all that necessary detail required to bolster the point that this was a victory for the SNP only proved to reinforce the fact that it also felt like a muted one.

The SNP was always going to win this election so without matching or even bettering its 2011 victory, the story inevitably became less about the actual party that won and more about the success of Ruth Davidson.

And so while nationalist supporters may find the coverage of the election result unpalatable – a unionist conspiracy even – the fact is that Davidson has done an incredible thing.

Of course, you can drill down the numbers and bleat that the 22.9 per cent vote the Tories won on the list is no more of an endorsement – indeed, slightly less – than John Major got in Scotland in 1992, just a few years before the party was literally wiped off the map.

You can argue that at the hands of the SNP, Labour was already teetering and that all the Conservatives did was help nudge it off the cliff. But the fact remains  that Davidson, by sheer force of her energy and will, has shifted the tectonic plates of Scottish politics.

She has managed to reverse decades of Tory decline, handed the baton of toxicity to Scottish Labour, taken support from the SNP in some key areas – something they will need to strongly consider – and she has led her party into being the second party of opposition in the Scottish Parliament, pushing Kezia Dugdale’s party into an ignominious third place.

No longer can any party argue that the Tories don’t speak for Scotland. They clearly do.

It is quite an achievement, of which Davidson should personally feel justly proud. Let’s not forget that it was only last year in the General Election that her party recorded its worst share of the vote since records began.

And so that reversal of fortunes can, at face value, be squarely pinned on a successful personal campaign that at times may have seemed to hang on the flimsy principle of the more ridiculous the photo opportunity, the better, but actually, had so much more to it.

For a start, it had Davidson – and she is clearly a vote-winner; a battering ram of gung-ho unionist energy tempered by a personable ability to laugh at herself and bring more than a little perceived humanity to the Tory table.

What she deployed to great success was a simple, clear and consistent message: the Tories would be the opposition to the SNP and that she would protect the Union. That claim never wavered and who wouldn’t believe a woman who can ride a buffalo and drive a tank?

However, what her campaign lacked was any other salient point. Her manifesto was basically an application not to win. A 10-point programme for opposition that abdicated any real sense of facts, figures and detail other than that she would be there as a stop to the SNP. 

Indeed, the one policy that the manifesto did attach specific numbers to – the so-called graduate tax – was exposed as being numerically illiterate, spending money that hadn’t yet been raised.

This attention to detail and policy design is now important because, having won the second prize and helping to reduce the SNP’s mandate to that of a minority government, Davidson and her parliamentary party, which comprises almost solely raw recruits, will now have to bear some real responsibility in the process of government.

We now have an SNP minority government versus a Conservative opposition at Holyrood. This will be nationalism versus unionism writ large and which could yet prove to be a Nationalist’s wet dream.

Ruth Davidson fought this election as Ruth Davidson, the sole defender of the Union, and for Scots who had voted ‘No’ and who were scunnered by the mixed messages from Labour’s Dugdale on the subject, it was a seductive and easy sell from an energetic, coherent Tory leader. I suspect there were some who simply held their noses and voted Tory as the only bastion against the case for independence.

It remains to be seen whether the clubbable Davidson has permanently taken the toxic out of Tory.

She knows her new support does not come from dyed-in-the-wool Tories and she will now have a lot of work to do to convince them that she has changed her party and that she can separate herself from some of the more pernicious elements of David Cameron’s government and the cuts and austerity coming down the line.

Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, will remind her of that guilt by association at every opportunity, while the constitutional question will remain, even when no one is really asking it.

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