What will it take for the opposition parties to “get it”. Even as Alex Salmond was arriving in his helicopter at Prestonfield House to claim victory, Annabel Goldie was on Radio Scotland’s Newsdrive, trotting out the fallacy that the SNP had worked a flanker, manipulating the voting system to achieve a majority by somehow stealing the Lib Dems votes.
It is a sure sign of how divorced from reality politicians can be. The SNP did not steal votes, the people gave them freely. Thursday 5 May was the day when the Scottish people proved themselves to be the most sophisticated electorate in the world. It was the Scottish people wot won it.
There was a whole range of dynamics at work, interconnecting to deliver a seismic shift in Scottish politics, resulting in a truly astonishing outcome – an SNP government re-elected for a second term with a remarkably comfortable overall majority.
The Lib Dem vote melted away not just because of anger at their role in shoring up the Tories at Westminster but also because of their recent performance at Holyrood. Voters took exception to the Lib Dems’ failure to enter into coalition and the very obvious personal antipathy of Tavish Scott to the SNP. The Lib Dems are not supposed to side themselves with any of the major Scottish parties, they are expected to hold their own centre ground and seek to mould and shape government through coalition. When that is no longer on offer, why bother? The Lib Dems behaviour after 2007 distorted the terms of their mandate and they were duly punished for that.
But the idea that the SNP somehow *cashed in* on Lib Dem betrayal is fanciful. The SNP, more than any other party in this election, judged the mood of the electorate perfectly. Hope did indeed triumph over fear. But people also voted for competence, for the party that offered the safest port for the financial storm ahead, that would best look after their interests. In this regard, the SNP’s campaign, with its final focus on the what’s in it for me aspects, was pitch perfect.
Those in the party thinking it’s full steam head towards the good ship independence need a reality check. Over and over yesterday, people were happy to say they had voted SNP, some for the first time ever, but of their own volition, stated they were not so sure about the big one.
What people did yesterday was sign up for the debate and that in itself marks a watershed. Again, it was in part a response to the antics of the Unionists in the last Parliamentary session. Wha daur meddle wi us appears to be the guiding mantra of the electorate these days. Having opted hesitantly for the SNP in 2007, people saw their democratic will being thwarted by an opposition that ganged up, regularly, to prevent the SNP progressing its agenda and manifesto commitments. Not only a budget, only rescued at the eleventh hour, but minimum pricing and the referendum bill itself. This time, voters chose to loudhailer their will by voting twice for the SNP. The message was we like this lot and we want them to have a decent go at it. And we want the debate about our future to be run by us, not you.
Donald Dewar did indeed attempt to create a voting system for Holyrood that would forever marginalise the SNP. The system was predicated on the arrogant assumption that Scotland would always choose Labour first past the post. Therefore, if enough list votes could be secured, the only party ever to have a shout at majority government would be Labour.
The idea that the SNP somehow manipulated a system designed to emasculate it is nonsense. The Scottish people knew exactly what they wanted and what they had to do to get it. The prospect and insecurity about the hard times ahead drove voters to seek political stability. They don’t want sterile snarl-ups in Parliament or opposition parties thumbing the nose and doing what they want, rather than what people voted for, not when the stakes are so high. They want a clear path steered, and voted – twice – to achieve that. The polls were signposting from the start of the campaign, that this election was about choosing a government not a Parliament.
And actually, the pollsters got it absolutely spot on. It was only eejits like me who refused to believe what was being said, that the Labour dominoes were about to be toppled. It was simply too enormous to be given credence or for my little head or heart to accept it. All those don’t knows? Quite probably wouldn’t says: people who knew their intentions months ago but hesitated to declare. Voters shifted in their droves during this election, responding to the SNP’s message of better together, and the SNP caught the appetite and fed it.
Accordingly, the SNP needs to show caution and respect. Yes, they played a key role but as someone suggested, might this have happened anyway? Who led whom? It was the people wot won it, and that applies to the SNP as much as the other parties. In truth, engagement with the electorate is a gavotte. It’s about setting, capturing and responding to the prevailing mood. People might well have done this, fatigued as they are by being scaremongered into the polling booth, but they needed a campaign in tune with that mood.
Caution too is required by all those starting to dream of what might be achieved and changed in the next five years. They need to be mindful that the SNP received people’s votes because the party offered safety first. No big changes in the next five years, not even to local taxation. Stick with us and all that you hold dear will be as safe as we can make it in the face of shrinking budgets. And the chime of record, team and vision was geared to emphasising this central message. This is essentially what better together, of working together, means. If we stay optimistic, if we do it hand in hand, we will succeed. Which is where the gradualist approach to independence works, even if it frustrates impatient nationalists.
For make no mistake, the Scots are now volatile voters. The break began in 2007 when enough Labour voters defied tradition in 2007 to deliver a tentative shift. These voters’ courage allowed others in their families and communities to follow and create the watershed. The SNP experiment did not cause the sky to fall down and that too provided assurance. Tories have been tactical voters for years and Lib Dems a curious mix of political beliefs and motivations. These latter two were soft touches to a coherent and credible SNP message. But it is the breach of the Labour heartlands that is most notable. There are no heartlands left and no natural political home within a purely Scottish context.
Like fledgings from the nest, Scotland’s electorate has flown. For now, it is roosting with the SNP and the big challenge for Scotland’s first ever majority government is to deliver what it promised, if it is to persuade voters to return election after election. Just as importantly, the SNP still needs to persuade Scotland’s flock that the migration to independence is one worth making.