It’s been three whole years since voters rejected independence at the ballot box. How have the SNP’s fortunes changed?
Scottish Independence Referendum (2014)
On the 18th September 2014, 85% of Scotland’s electorate went to the ballot box to make an historic decision. Over two million Scots backed the No campaign’s bid to keep the country in the UK. When the campaign was called, independence was only supported by about a third of the population, but as the debate raged on, the polls narrowed. In the end, independence was rejected 55% - 45%, much closer than many expected at the outset of the campaign.
The referendum has transformed British politics. It has redrawn the political dividing lines and shaken the country’s party system as shown in the four electoral contests since the vote.
United Kingdom General Election (2015)
After the independence vote, SNP support surged in the polls. With a general election on its way, it looked possible that the SNP could take every seat in Scotland. The Conservatives won a stunning majority across the whole United Kingdom, but while large swathes of England turned blue, Scotland’s political map turned yellow. The SNP won 50% of the vote and 56 seats while the UK’s three main parties won one seat each.
Labour suffered a serious blow, going from being Scotland’s largest party to joint last place in terms of number of seats in Scotland. The party undeniably suffered for their association with the Tories during the referendum campaign, as well as the SNP’s progressive message.
The morning after the vote, the SNP looked unstoppable, ushering in a new era of politics, but the party’s fortunes have only gone downhill from there.
Scottish General Election (2016)
In the run up to the Holyrood election, the SNP employed a #BothVotesSNP strategy. The party’s constituency vote share increased, but their regional vote fell slightly. The SNP resultantly lost their majority, but the chamber’s pro-independence majority was retained due to the Scottish Green Party’s exceptional performance.
In another sign that Scotland’s political landscape had shifted as a result of the referendum, Ruth Davidson’s pro-union, pro-strong opposition message led the Tories to leapfrog Labour and become the country’s second largest party.
For the first time in decades, the Tories became a real political force in Scotland.
European Union Referendum (2016)
Following the referendum vote in which the UK voted to leave the EU (while Scotland voted to leave), Nicola Sturgeon sought to get a good deal for Scotland with the EU, but eventually called for a new independence referendum to take place in the coming years.
Scottish Council Elections (2017)
One year later, the narrative of a strengthening Conservative party and a slightly weakened SNP continued. The Tories gained 164 seats across Scotland while the SNP made a handful of losses.
United Kingdom General Election (2017)
Then in April, a month before the council elections Theresa May called a snap general election in a move that surprised the whole country.
In an embarrassing move, the prime minister lost her majority, but the results in Scotland were perhaps one of the most interesting of the night. The Tories were on track to gain seats north of the border, but the extent of their wins (twelve new seats) exceeded expectations. On top of that, Labour did surprisingly well, going from one seat to seven, suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn’s radical alternative message was having an impact north of the border.
The SNP remained Scotland’s dominant party, winning more than half the seats and the most votes, but the change in support from the 2015 election was staggering. The party ended up with less than 40% of the vote.
On top of this, the party stepped back on its proposals for a new independence referendum, a sign that the party had been weakened by the vote.
Have we passed peak SNP?
At this stage, it looks like the party have performed the best they ever will, but there are still three years until the next Holyrood electionproviding plenty of time for the party to make progress. The honest answer is that politics is unpredictable and that we should not make any major assumptions about the future as party fortunes ebb and flow over time, but if current trends continue then the story of the 2021 election could be resurrection of Labour. The question then is: how far can Scottish Labour go? And would they work with the SNP to keep out the Conservatives?