SNP falls short of a majority in Scottish election but aiming for independence referendum

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, campaigning prior to Thursday’s election.
Monday, May 10, 2021

On Thursday, Scottish voters went to the polls to elect their Parliament. Under the provisions of the Additional Member electoral system, 73 of the 129 seats in the Parliament go to the first-past-the-post winners in the 73 single-member constituencies and 56 seats are allocated among the parties based on their vote on the party list in the eight regions, in each one of which seven seats are allocated after taking into account the constituency seats that have been won in the region so the overall distribution of seats among the parties is roughly proportional to their vote on the regional list.

After all the votes had been counted, the Scottish National Party (SNP) headed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon won 64 seats, one more than it won in the 2016 election but one short of a majority in the 129-seat Parliament. Campaigning on a pledge to hold a second independence referendum—in 2014, 55 percent had said “No” when asked if Scotland should be an independent country—the SNP won 47.7 percent of the constituency vote, an increase of 1.2 percent over its vote in 2016, and 40.3 percent of the regional party list vote, 1.4 percent less than its vote in 2016. It picked up three constituency seats, giving it a total of 62. But it lost two of the four seats it had won in 2016 in the regional party list vote, resulting in a net gain of one seat and leaving it with 64, one seat short of a majority. However, the pro-independence Scottish Green Party won 8.1 percent of the regional party list vote, an increase of 1.5 percent, and eight seats, a gain of two, giving the two pro-independence parties a total of 72 seats and a seven-seat majority in the new Parliament.

Thursday’s election took place exactly 22 years after the first election of the Scottish Parliament on May 6, 1999. The British Labour Party had long been committed to some degree of devolution of power to Scotland and Wales and one of the first measures enacted by the new Labour government headed by Prime Minister Tony Blair after the 1997 UK election was the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act, which called for non-binding devolution referendums in both. In September 1997, Scottish voters were asked, “Do you agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament as proposed by the Government.” 60.2 percent of the electorate turned out to vote and 74.3 percent of those voting said “Yes,” and in 1998 the Scotland Act created a Parliament and Administration with tax-varying powers.

In the first election of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP, headed by Alex Salmond, the party’s leader since 1990 and an MP representing Banff and Buchan in the British House of Commons since 1987, won 28.7 percent of the constituency vote and 27.3 percent of the regional party list vote. It won seven constituency seats and 28 regional party list seats, giving it 35 seats in the 129-seat Parliament. Four years later, in the May 2003 election, the SNP, headed by John Swinney after Salmond stepped down as leader in 2000, experienced a setback, winning 23.8 percent of the constituency vote, a drop of 4.9 percent, and 20.9 percent of the regional party list vote, a drop of 6.4 percent. While it picked up two constituency seats, giving it nine, it won only 18 regional party list seats, a loss of 10, giving it a total of 27 seats in the Parliament, eight fewer than it had won in 1999.

After the setback in the 2003 election, Swinney resigned and Salmond returned as leader with Sturgeon as deputy leader. In the May 2007 election for the Parliament, the SNP won the largest share of the vote both for individual candidates in the 73 single-member constituencies and for parties in the regional party list vote. It won 32.9 percent of the constituency vote, an increase of 9.1 percent over its vote in 2003, and 31 percent of the regional party list vote, an increase of 10.1 percent over its vote in 2003. It picked up 21 constituency seats, a gain of 12, and 26 regional party list seats, a gain of 8, giving it a total of 47 seats, a gain of 20 seats. After the election, the SNP formed a minority government headed by Salmond.

In the campaign, the party had pledged it would hold an independence referendum in 2010 and, despite lacking a majority, the SNP government began discussions regarding a possible referendum. In 2009, it issued a white paper on a proposed bill that set out possible options ranging from maintaining the status quo to varying degrees of further devolution beyond that provided in the Scotland Act to full independence, and it published a draft bill for public discussion in early 2010. But lacking a majority in the Parliament, it withdrew the bill several months later.

In the May 2011 election for the Scottish Parliament, running again on a pledge to hold an independence referendum, the SNP improved upon its electoral success four years earlier, winning 45.4 percent of the constituency vote, an increase of 12.5 percent, and 44.0 percent of the regional party list vote, an increase of 13 percent. It won 53 constituency seats, a gain of 32, and 16 regional party lists, 10 fewer than it had won in 2007, giving it a total of 69 seats and, for the first time, a majority in the 129-seat Parliament. Interestingly, after the election, British Prime Minister David Cameron did not object to the SNP calling for a referendum on independence. As he says in For the Record (pp. 316-317), “the issue of a referendum was unavoidable. People had voted for it; we would deliver it. We would fight to keep the UK together, and we would have to do it soon….There was a feeling that the SNP wanted to put it off as long as possible in order to gain maximum advantage. I wanted to deny them that advantage. We would also have to make sure that the whole process was fair, legal and decisive….And above all, it would have to be a single question: Scotland in the UK or out of it.”

Continuing, he says, “We had a suspicion that the SNP didn’t really want a proper independence referendum at all. They thought it might be lost and were actually happy to carry on governing and to keep the grievance….I always believed we would win. We had the right argument…and however alluring the Braveheart imagery from the SNP, the reality of Union—a shared currency, an open border, ease of business, shared welfare system and armed forces—was surely more appealing than going it alone. Hold the referendum, do it in a way we wanted, and win, and we could turn the tables on the nationalists and show that independence wasn’t inevitable.” In January 2012, in an interview on the BBC, he announced there would be a referendum.

Negotiations between the British and Scottish governments in regard to the terms of reference for the referendum took place throughout much of 2012 and culminated in the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012 which, importantly, included a commitment by both governments to respect the outcome of the referendum. In March 2013, the Scottish government announced the referendum would take place on September 18, 2014, and in June 2013 the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013 was passed by the Scottish Parliament and received the royal assent.

The 2014 referendum brought a larger proportion of the Scottish electorate to the polls—84.6 percent—than in any other election since full enfranchisement in 1928. The voters were asked to respond “Yes” or “No” to one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Cameron won his bet; 44.7 percent of the voters said “Yes” and 55.3 percent said “No.” Salmond stepped down as leader of the SNP and First Minister two months later and was replaced in both positions by Sturgeon. But the referendum campaign did bring many new supporters into the SNP, and in the 2015 UK election seven months later the SNP recorded a dramatic surge in its vote to 49.97 percent, an increase of more than 30 percent over the 19.9 percent it had won in the 2010 UK election. Entering the election holding six of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, the SNP came out of the election with 56 of the 59 seats.

In the May 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP won 46.5 percent of the constituency vote, a slight increase over the 45.4 percent it had won in 2011, but its share of the regional vote dropped from 44 percent in 2011 to 41.7 percent. As a result, while it was still the largest party by far in the Parliament, it won 63 seats, six fewer than in 2011, and as a result lost its majority in the Parliament. Sturgeon remained First Minister but henceforth would preside over an SNP minority government.

One month later, on June 23, 2016, British voters were asked in a referendum “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” More than 72 percent of all British voters turned out and 51.9 percent voted to leave. In Scotland, more than 67 percent of the voters turned out and 62 percent voted to remain in the EU. A YouGov poll at the time suggested that, whereas 60 percent of those who voted for independence in 2014 voted to remain in the EU, 64 percent of those who voted against independence voted to remain in the EU. Based on that breakdown, one might anticipate that the UK’s actual departure from the EU would cause at least some portion of those who had opposed independence in 2014 to change their mind if offered the chance to do so in another referendum on independence. That, of course, is what the SNP is counting on happening in a future referendum—if there is one.

In the meantime, however, the SNP experienced a drop-off in support in the June 2017 UK election compared with its support in the 2015 election. Its share of the vote dropped from 50 percent to 36.9 percent and it won only 35 seats, a loss of 21. However, in the December 2019 UK election, it recouped a substantial portion of what it lost in 2017, winning 45 percent of the vote, an increase of 8.1 percent, and 48 seats, an increase of 13, suggesting that Brexit would indeed increase support for independence. Following that election, Sturgeon said, “it couldn’t really be any clearer from the results of this election that Scotland doesn’t want a Boris Johnson government, it doesn’t want to leave the European Union, and it wants to be able to determine its own future.” Johnson had previously made it clear his government would not approve a second independence referendum—that such a referendum is a “once in a generation” thing—and in January 2020 it formally rejected Sturgeon’s request for one.

Two weeks later, on January 29, 2020, the Scottish Parliament passed a motion endorsing a new referendum but two months later, as the first wave of the Covid pandemic hit Scotland and, indeed, all of the UK and Europe, the government stopped its planning of a new referendum. Last September, however, Sturgeon announced the government was preparing a new referendum bill and in January the SNP announced an 11-point “roadmap” for a new referendum in the event the pro-independence parties won a majority in the upcoming election. The “roadmap” said that if the UK government refused to agree to a referendum, Scotland would introduce a bill allowing it and would oppose any legal challenge by the UK government and would, if need be, take the case to the UK Supreme Court. Last month, the Scottish government published the draft bill authorizing an independence referendum. It indicated, among other things, that voters would be asked exactly the same question they were asked in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”.

On Saturday, Johnson wrote Sturgeon to congratulate her on her success in the election, in anticipation of her re-appointment as First Minister. Noting that he believes “the interests of people across the UK and in particular the people of Scotland are best served when we work together,” and noting as well the challenges facing the UK as it looks toward an economic recovery from  the pandemic, he invited her to join him and other UK government colleagues at a summit meeting to discuss “our shared challenges and how we can work together in the coming months and years to overcome them.” And on Sunday, he spoke by phone with her and congratulated her again on the SNP’s success in winning the largest number of seats in the Parliament. According to his office, “they both agreed that their immediate focus should be and is on working together to build back from the pandemic” and stressed that “recovery will be more effective if both Governments work together.”

In the phone call, Sturgeon pledged to work with the UK government in steering the country toward a recovery. But, according to an SNP spokeswoman, she also reiterated her intention “to ensure that the people of Scotland can choose our own future when the crisis is over, and made clear that the question of a referendum is now a matter of when—not if.” When later asked in a BBC interview whether the new government would introduce a referendum bill as early as next spring based on predictions that the UK will have recovered from the pandemic by then, she said, “That would certainly work for that timescale of within the first half of the parliamentary term” but noted there were still significant challenges ahead: “I wouldn’t rule that out but I’m not sitting here saying that is the timescale.”

In addition to all the constitutional, legal, and procedural issues facing the new Scottish government as it plans for a second independence referendum, there is one very important issue facing it; it’s not at all clear that, if there were a second independence referendum tomorrow, a majority of Scottish voters would vote in favor of independence. There’ve been 13 surveys of the Scottish electorate in the past month asking the respondents the same question voters would be asked in the referendum: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” In nine of the thirteen, more respondents said “No” than said “Yes” and in three of the 13 there was a tie between those saying “Yes” and those saying “No.” In only one of the 13 did more respondents say “Yes” than said “No.” The proportions saying “Yes” ranged from 39 percent to 48 percent; the proportions saying “No” ranged from 45 percent to 50 percent. As David Cameron, based on his experience, knows perhaps better than anyone else, never call a referendum unless you know you’ll win.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the European Union Studies Program at the MacMillan Center.