Talk of a ‘lack of a mandate for change’ for the SNP are vastly missing the point.

The SNPs historic victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections has met one of the conditions of transformative politics (transformative economics is a different matter altogether), that is, it has “raised the temperature” of politics as Roberto Unger once put it. From many supporters of independence, there is talk of a ‘Scottish Spring’, change is in the air and, in anticipation of the independence referendum – that constitutional catharsis that looked as if it was never going to be retrieved from the long grass – there is a growing awareness of at least the first part of Marx’s old aphorism, that people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. For unionists/British nationalists in Scotland, on the other hand, all this heady talk needs to be nipped in the bud. The SNP needs to be reminded of the low turnout in 2011 (50.8%) and the low share of support it received from the total electorate (22.8%).

This isn’t quite the decisive response to what unionists see as the inflated claims of the SNP on the basis of their 2011 victory. For one thing, the turnout at the 2011 election was not historically low, with the obvious exception of the turnout at the first Scottish parliament election in 1999 (59.1%), the turnout in 2011 was slightly higher than in 2001 (49.4%) and slightly lower than in 2007 (51.7%). Moreover, the high share of the vote that the SNP received (45.4%), in an electoral system that was devised to prevent any party obtaining an overall majority, was both politically and electorally significant, as was the 54 per cent of seats won by the SNP.

But there is another reason why the turnout and the SNPs share of the total electorate in 2011, if anything, strengthen the SNPs claims rather than weaken them. We can see this if we compare the SNPs performance in these indicators in 2011 with that of British governments in British general elections in Scotland since 1970. This was the year that the SNP made its significant breakthrough in British general elections, when its share of the vote reached double figures for the first time (11.4%) and elections in Scotland ceased to be the largely two-party contests that they had been prior to this. The table below presents the comparable data for British governments in this period, for ease of comparison those for the SNP are highlighted at the bottom.

Summary data of British general election results in Scotland (1970-2010)

Year Govt Share ofelectorate(%) Share of vote(%) Turnout(%)
1970 Con 28.1 38.0 74.1
1974 (Feb)(1) Lab 28.9 36.6 79.0
1974 (Oct) Lab 27.1 36.3 74.8
1979 Con 24.1 31.4 76.8
1983 Con 20.6 28.4 72.7
1987 Con 18.0 24.0 75.1
1992 Con 19.4 25.6 75.5
1997 Lab 32.5 45.6 71.3
2001 Lab 25.6 43.9 58.2
2005 Lab 24.0 39.5 60.6
2010 Con 22.7 (10.7)(2) 35.6 (16.7)(2) 63.8
2011 SNP 22.8 45.4 50.8

1   No party won an overall majority at Westminster in February 1974 but in Scotland Labour won almost twice as many seats as the Tories (40 to the Tories’ 21).

2  The first figure is the combined shares of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the figure in brackets is for the Conservatives only.

With the obvious exception of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, the SNPs share of the total electorate doesn’t compare unfavourably with that achieved by most British governments in this period. What makes the SNPs performance so striking here, however, is that the SNP achieved this share of the total electorate on a turnout that was markedly lower than the turnouts in most of the British general elections in this period. Here, it is the SNPs share of the vote rather than the share of those eligible to vote that is significant. From the table, it can be seen that, of the eleven British general elections in the period 1970-2010, on only one occasion, again, Labour’s landslide in 1997, has a British government achieved a higher share of the vote than the SNP in 2011 (45.6% to the SNPs 45.4%).

What the table doesn’t show, of course, is Labour’s dominance in Scotland at British general elections. This explains why the Tories, in spite of the high turnouts at British general elections, have been able to govern Scotland so often with such low shares of the vote and low shares of the total electorate. It’s also worth noting the significant decline in turnouts at British general elections since devolution, although a similar decline has occurred in all the British nations. In fact, this secular decline has also been evident in most advanced liberal democracies in the post-war period. Interestingly though, the decline is more marked in the Anglophone, market-oriented and individualistic societies, like Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the US, than in the more social democratic and collectivist ‘Nordic’ societies, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This is an issue worth returning to in the future as it may have a significant bearing on the SNPs optimal strategy in an independence referendum, given the left of centre consensus among the majority of Scottish voters.

The most salient feature of the table though, is the performance of the Tories in Scotland at the last British general election in 2010. Officially, of course, the present British government is a ‘coalition’ government. In practice, few people outside the Lib Dems take this seriously. Indeed, the first opportunity that voters in Scotland had to give their verdict on the ‘coalition’, in the 2011 Scottish election, resulted in the Tories and Lib Dems receiving a combined share of the electorate of 10.9 per cent and a combined share of the vote of 21.8 per cent, not too dissimilar to the Tories’ own performance in Scotland in the 2010 British general election. Moreover, in the 2010 British general election, the Lib Dems received some 460,000 votes in Scotland but in the 2011 Scottish election their vote had fallen to some 158,000, making this, proportionately, the largest collapse in support for any political party in Scotland in two consecutive elections in post-war history.

At the beginning of March 2011, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, expressed his surprise to the British Treasury Select Committee (in the ‘Thatcher Room’ of all places), that there had not been more public anger in response to the financial crisis. In this respect, the muted response in Scotland to the crisis is little different to that in the other nations of Britain. But what is at least as surprising is that there has not been more public anger in Scotland at the absence of a Tory mandate to govern Scotland. We are, after all, talking about a government that was rejected by almost 85 per cent of Scottish voters and that won barely 2 per cent of seats in Scotland at the last British general election. Curiously, many of those unionists who are raising questions about the SNPs 2011 mandate are silent on the absence of a Tory mandate to govern Scotland. It is extraordinary that the party that won less than 2 per cent of seats in Scotland at the last British general election is assumed to have the right to govern Scotland while the party that won 54 per cent of seats at the last Scottish election has its mandate questioned.

To underline the effective disenfranchisement of the vast majority of Scottish voters at British general elections, while the SNP is constitutionally authorised to exercise its decisive mandate using only the limited range of powers available to it in the devolution settlement, the Tories, on the other hand, with the absence of a mandate, are assuming the most wide-ranging powers to inflict policies on Scotland that have not only been overwhelmingly rejected but which will have devastating effects on the lives of millions of Scots for many years to come and that will largely shape the future trajectory of Scotland’s economy. Indeed, should Scotland remain in the union and should the Tories win the 2015 British general election then, in the period 1970-2020, the Tories will have governed Scotland for almost twice as long as Labour, in spite of the fact that the Tories haven’t won a general election in Scotland since 1955.

SNP, Labour and indeed Lib Dem voters in Scotland have many reasons to be angry, not least about the fate that awaits them and their communities under the Tories over the next four years (and beyond) should Scotland remain in the union. But it isn’t only Tory policies that they should be angry about. The Tories have no mandate to govern Scotland and this could, and should be one of the most potent weapons for the independence movement to use in the forthcoming referendum. As for the defence of the Tories’ right to govern Scotland so consistently with no mandate, that’s best left to Scottish Labour.