A Cautious Start for the SNP in Westminster After Their Cataclysmic Blow to the Established Order in Scotland

It has been said that Scottish politics is a generational thing. After the 1950s Tory domination in Scotland gave way to the Labour party. Now, it seems, it is the nationalist's time. The consequences of this on the wider UK and it constitutional settlement will play out over time.

Whilst Election night showed that polling in England had massively overestimated the Labour Party's performance there, the polls in Scotland which warned of a Labour wipe out were proved to have got it almost absolutely right. In the weeks leading up to May 7th a number of surveys suggested that the separatist Scottish National Party might win all of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats. But even taking into account the rise in the SNP's popularity after losing last September's independence referendum as well as the corresponding and spectacular downfall in the Labour party's fortunes, such estimates appeared ridiculous. Even the most optimistic of SNP members, including party leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon, suggested that polls were massively overplaying nationalist chances. Supposedly well informed and sensible political commentators predicted that the SNP would win a still very respectable but more realistic number of seats somewhere in the region of 35 - 45. They were shown to be very wrong as the SNP took 50% of the popular vote and won 56 seats. And it is easy on reflection to see where these votes came from. The 45% of Scots who voted for independence last September certainly backed the nationalists. And swathes of former Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters (the former fed up of being taken for granted by their party, the latter punishing the Liberals for 5 years of coalition government with the Conservatives) also sought an alternative in the SNP. Many of the more unionist minded among them will have felt safe voting nationalist knowing that independence was off the agenda at this election. Also, high turnout seems to have benefited the SNP, and much talked about tactical voting by unionists aimed at blocking SNP candidates either didn't happen or made little difference on the day.

The SNP's triumph is a shock for British politics and the established political order. The party is now the third largest at Westminster and its success has turned Scotland into a de facto one party state. Labour, which has dominated Scottish politics for decades, is in a sorry state. It has lost 40 of its Scottish MPs and now has just one representative, in Edinburgh. Scots Labour leader Jim Murphy, whose energy and enthusiasm for his cause was never in doubt (even if his electoral strategy might have been) has succumbed to pressure to stand down and the local party faces a second potentially divisive leadership contest in a less than a year. Perhaps more damagingly, a least for the Labour's campaign coffers, are warnings from Unions that they are to discuss whether to sever their long-established ties to the party.

An additional 40 Labour MPs wouldn't have given Ed Miliband the Commons majority he was looking for, but it certainly would have given his party more clout on the opposition benches. It would also have preserved Labour's Great Britain-wide mandate to hold the government to account. The sense that Labour represents working people across the kingdom is now is far weaker than it was just a few weeks ago.

The Liberal Democrats are also coming to terms with being a damaged brand in Scotland (as they now are elsewhere in the UK). Reduced to just a paltry eight seats across the UK, they lost of their MPs in Scotland and now hang onto just one there - the Orkney & Shetland Isles. Their failure in Scotland, where they were the second party at Westminster level for some time, will be keenly felt.

The Conservatives, starting from a rather low base, can claim to have been the most "successful" of the Westminster parties. They held onto their sole seat in the border areas and only lost a relatively small share of their 2010 vote. Their one MP, the affable David Mundell ("Fluffy" to his parliamentary colleagues) promises to be an attentive Secretary of State for Scotland. (The appointment of Andrew Dunlop, a Thatcher-era Conservative adviser, as a junior Scotland Office minister may prove to be a less popular appointment north of the border).

The SNP is sending down to London a youthful and relatively inexperienced group of politicians. Many only joined the party during the mass surge in membership it experienced after the referendum. One is 20 year old student Mhairi Black, now the youngest MP for several hundred years, who overturned a 17,000 majority (with a 33% swing in her favour) to unseat Labour's shadow foreign secretary and former Cabinet minister Douglas Alexander. Similar landslides were seen in constituencies across Scotland as a number of long serving big names and statesmen fell - Jim Murphy, former Liberal leader Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander, Treasury Chief Secretary, and Jo Swinson, a Lib Dem business minister tipped to one day lead her party, were among them. Whilst this is of course the nature of parliamentary democracy - representatives come and go at the electorate's will - the effect of so many experienced MPs being booted out at once is that despite the SNP's pledge that they will stand up for Scotland at Westminster Scotsmen and women will have far less say and influence in this new UK parliament. Ms Sturgeon's rookie team is no doubt full of talent and guile, but their supposed impact in Parliament was based on her prevision that the SNP would in some way prop up a weak Labour administration. This has been dashed by the return to Westminster of majority government.

The new SNP contingent has made a cautious start to life in Westminster. Far from storming down south yelling their demands for constitutional change along the way, as more shrill voices in the London media imagined, television pictures have shown the nationalist MPs instead getting to grips with the basics - struggling to navigate London's transport system and getting lost in the mazelike Westminster parliament (although they were quick to set themselves up in the Liberal Democrats' former offices and have apparently taken over a Commons bar once the preserve of Labour party researchers). And the new MPs will also soon realise, if they haven't already, that the task of "shaking up" Westminster politics will have to be balanced with the day to day grunt work of being an MP. Barrel loads of bread and butter (and quite mundane) constituency casework await. Ms Black insists that she will be able to combine her duties as a new MP with studying for her final exams (in political science, of course). She should be wished much luck.

When smaller, fringe parties do well enough to win power they often find that the realities of politics eat away at their integrity, trust, and support (for a good case study see Liberal Democrats 2010-2015). But SNP candidates have won such large majorities that even if the Westminster parties manage to turn around their own fortunes swiftly the SNP will likely hold onto their seats for a good while. It has been said that Scottish politics is a generational thing. After the 1950s Tory domination in Scotland gave way to the Labour party. Now, it seems, it is the nationalist's time. The consequences of this on the wider UK and it constitutional settlement will play out over time.


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