The rise to dominance of the Scottish National Party is unprecedented. In the 2015 General Election it increased its Westminster presence from six to fifty-six MPs, while in this month’s Holyrood election it won its third successive term of office, albeit losing its majority. Opinion polls suggest that support for Scottish independence is no higher than it was at the referendum – so why has the SNP been so successful?
For most of its history the party has found itself in the ‘others’ category, and its relatively recent rise to prominence has come in line with the devolution which began in 1999 with the formation of the Scottish Parliament. It had to wait eight years before becoming the largest party, and even then it won just 36% of seats. It was not until the year that the rest of the UK was celebrating the Royal Wedding that the party wishing to break up Her Majesty’s union became a major force in British politics. It won its first majority on the promise of an independence referendum which was the precursor to a three year campaign of free publicity. Despite defeat, the SNP has grown to be the third largest party in the House of Commons, and the largest united party.
This is for three main reasons: first, it is a way for people to express their frustration at the establishment without making fundamental, irreversible change. Just as with the EU, many people’s hearts tell them to leave but heads tell them to stay. By voting for the SNP they can show their resentment without actually initiating any constitutional change or threatening the economy. Second, the first-past- the-post electoral system used for general elections exaggerated support in Nicola Sturgeon’s first electoral test. Despite winning 50% of the Scottish vote, it won 95% of the seats. This suggests that its support is near-unanimous, and the bandwagon effect has ensued whereby it benefits from the media attention it gained from previous electoral success, which in turn boosts its support at future elections. Third is the weakness of the opposition. There was never a question that any other party would win the election, in fact the Conservatives admitted defeat before they started with their
campaign slogan ‘For a strong opposition’ and the only genuine contest being the race for second.
The future for the party is mixed. Yes, they continue to thrive as the dominant party north of the border and all devolved powers will be controlled by Ms Sturgeon, but the loss of the Holyrood majority may be a sign that their support has peaked. Furthermore, for as long as she postpones the inevitable second independence referendum, her position will be lacking some credibility. Unfortunately for her, a second vote on the matter will not happen any time soon. She knows that she cannot afford to hold it unless she is assured victory as a second defeat will end the issue for, at the least, several decades, and polls are not favourable to her. Therefore for the party to continue to prosper the First Minister will be praying for something she publicly opposes so vehemently – Brexit.