After Sturgeon: End of an Era, or a Government?

Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon gave her final speech to the chamber at Holyrood as First Minister. As she prepares to move to the backbenches after eight years in the top job, and 16 years in cabinet, I certainly won’t be alone in feeling reflective. That’s especially true for me as by pure chronological coincidence, I’m just the right age to have had the SNP in government all of my adult life, but to have grown up before they got there.

Unlike many who’ve been in politics and the media for the long haul, I don’t meaningfully remember a time they weren’t in government. I wasn’t a politically engaged teenager, and indeed even as I sat in class revising for my Higher Computing exam the day after the 2007 election, I recall my only thought when Mr Bruce put the TV on to check the result being “haha, Salmond and Sturgeon, they sound fishy!” I remember that Jack McConnell was First Minister but I couldn’t have told you at the time what that meant or anything he’d done.

Yet I was engaged so soon after that I was still very aware this was nonetheless a new, strange and frankly quite precarious period in Scottish politics. I remember very well the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi as the first serious political issue to spark debate amongst my friends, Fiona Hyslop being the first SNP cabinet secretary to leave cabinet, Labour successfully holding Scotland in 2010, and the sense the SNP experiment would be over almost as soon as it had started, followed by the astonishing scenes of their landslide majority in 2011. So unlike the generation now following me, the SNP don’t feel to me like they’ve always been in charge, and they didn’t have any direct impact on my life growing up.

In that sense, I suspect Sturgeon’s departure feels just that little bit different for me (and people of a similar age) than it does for the rest of the population. In a way, it feels like it closes a chapter of my own life as much as it does in the country’s politics. It’s had me thinking about all that has happened, both politically and personally, over the past 16 years, and it’s even felt a little surreal. Still, time marches ever onward, and I’ve also been ruminating on the key question I posed in the title of this piece.

Is this the end?

I live by myself and as a result I have picked up a tendency to talk to myself, particularly about politics. As I was getting ready to go into the office on the 15th of February, my topic of conversation with myself would prove thoroughly ironic: that the SNP’s polling slump shouldn’t be exaggerated. Sturgeon was still the most popular major politician in the country, and at the end of January the SNP were polling better (+1.6% on the list, +5% on the constituency) than at the same point five years previously.

These mid term slumps are the rule for the SNP so far, and so far they’ve always recovered. The caution that I added to myself was that, of course, by simple laws of political gravity you have to assume that eventually they wouldn’t, and a slump would become a slide, and a slide would become a crushing election loss. Whilst given past experience you’d be daft to assume the current slump was a one-way ticket to losing government, you’d be equally daft to assume those past experiences would remain on permanent loop.

The entire premise of that conversation with myself was shattered a couple of hours later by Sturgeon’s shock announcement. I have to say I wasn’t expecting Sturgeon to make it to 2026, but I was expecting her to remain in post until the next UK General Election and, win or lose, depart after that, giving a possibly slightly more prepared successor a year to settle into the role before the next Holyrood vote.

During the resulting leadership contest, I’ve found myself thinking more seriously than at any point since before the 2011 election that this could be the end for the SNP (led) Government. It’s not that the SNP haven’t had stumbles over the past few years – the 2017 UK General Election stands out on that front. Instead, it’s that it feels like this may be harder to bounce back from.

Of a Government?

If the SNP do lose government, what does that look like? The default assumption is likely to be that “Labour win the next election”, where “win” is defined as become the largest party. I wouldn’t discount that possibility but at the moment I’d still actually say I don’t think it’s the most likely. I think we have to acknowledge that the 2010 to 2015 period completely reconfigured the Scottish electorate, and it’s not going back to how it was. 

The likelihood of the SNP meaningfully falling below their 2007 result is practically zero. They’ve picked up a lot of formerly Labour voters, and young voters in formerly Labour-friendly demographics, who simply are never going back, especially if they’re strongly supportive of Independence. Correspondingly I think Labour’s cap is probably around about their 1999 result, and more the list than the constituency side of it. Yes, they’ll get some voters flowing back from the SNP, but a large part of what’ll pad their vote out is the fact the Lib Dems have collapsed into near non-existence in the Central Belt outside Edinburgh.

Looking then at the other parties, the Conservatives may weaken significantly compared to the peak of their revival, but again, they’ve likely picked up a constitutionally engaged portion of the electorate that’ll stick with them. The Greens may be the other major beneficiaries from any substantial SNP decline, particularly as issues of climate continue to grow in importance. Finally, the Lib Dems might be showing some tentative shoots of regrowth, but not truly nationally, likely keeping them far below their pre-collapse levels for a long time yet.

A credible 2026 scenario to me then is a much closer election between the SNP and Labour than any since 2011. Even if not as close as 2007, when the SNP were just one seat ahead, if the SNP and Greens combined fail to win a majority I think that automatically leads to a Labour First Minister now. In the 2007 term, much as they’d rather everyone forget it now, the Conservatives proved quite happy to work with the SNP on budgets and they joined the Lib Dems in abstaining on a vote for First Minister. For obvious reasons, we’re not going to see that repeated in future.

Instead, a Pro-Union party majority is likely to see Labour and the Lib Dems finding it pretty easy to work together formally, as they did in the first two terms. Meanwhile, the Conservatives would certainly have to put their Pro-Union money where their mouth is, and back a Labour First Minister regardless of what they got out of it – indeed, you could argue what they get out of it is a Pro-Union Scottish Goverment for the first time in two decades, and that should be sufficient for them. That’s what makes the current atmosphere so different from the past few years; with the Conservatives in second, it was a lot less certain that a Pro-Union majority would lead to the SNP being evicted from St Andrew’s House.

Or simply of an Era?

What I’ve said above may be credible, but it’s not guaranteed. I mentioned “the laws of political gravity” earlier – but actually, there aren’t really any such things. There are examples across the democratic world of parties that are so dominant they prove nigh-on unshiftable – rarely, if ever, being removed from government, and when they are, only briefly. 

Such examples include Fianna Fáil, just across the water in Ireland. Although they’ve since famously crashed and burned, they were the largest party at every election to the Dáil from 1932 until they slipped to 3rd in 2011. Of the 24 elections where they placed first, only 6 saw the party out of office for any part of the term, and at no point did they have two consecutive terms out of office.

The Swedish Social Democrats have yet to place second in any Riksdag election since the First World War, with only 11 of the 32 elections leading to any time out of office, and only 6 a full term – though that could become 7 if the current right-wing government survives the whole four years. And across the globe in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party has had even greater success, winning all bar two of the elections to the Diet since it first stood in 1958, neither of which led to a full term length for an alternative government.

We can also look at “regional” (for want of a better term) level comparators. In the German state of Bavaria the Christian Social Union, a local party affiliated with but not part of the Christian Democratic Union that operates in the other 15 German Länder, have formed the state government at every post-WWII election bar one. The German-majority Italian province of South Tyrol has been permanently led by the South Tyrolean People’s Party over the same period. The Basque Nationalist Party have provided the Lehendakari (President) of the Basque Country at every election since the Spanish transition to democracy in the late 70’s except 2009. Closer to home, a surprising number of Scottish journalists appear to have forgotten Wales exists, and that Labour have been in charge there unbroken since 1999.

Since no party leader, no cabinet minister, can serve forever, these parties have obviously needed to navigate generational handovers very often without (what some argue may be “the benefit of”) a spell in opposition. That could very well be what’s happening to the SNP now. After sixteen years in power, it’s no great surprise that both Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, the only two figures to have been in Cabinet that whole period, have packed it in. It’s happened a couple of years earlier than I expected, but that’s a remarkable shift, regardless of what you think of those politicians. Very few figures, if any, make it sixteen consecutive years at the Cabinet table. 

So a generational changeover was about due – a handing over from the last figures who led the SNP to government, to a generation who’ve never in their political careers known anything but their party being in charge. That alone is likely to create a very different feel for the next government, and it’s something that politicians and the public alike may find difficult to adjust to. Yet, adjust they may very well do, and we could find Scotland following in the footsteps of the examples above, as the SNP settles in for the long haul as the seemingly unshakeably dominant party. The next election could therefore just as easily see the SNP remain in office, or serve only as a brief interruption that allows them to shake themselves off a bit.

We'll have to see...

Scottish politics has had a dramatic sixteen years, and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. However, what we’ve seen over the past six weeks has been a period of heightened drama and chaos that, although being driven by very different events, puts me in mind of the first half of 2019. If you think back on opinion polling, there was a meteoric rise for the newly minted Brexit Party and only a slightly less strong surge for the Lib Dems. At one point, the Conservatives were staring third place in the face. Fast forward to the December snap election, and the Conservatives won a stonking majority, the Brexit Party failed to launch, and though the Lib Dems did gain votes it was far fewer than expected, and they suffered a net loss of a seat with the first defeat for a UK-level party leader in decades.

It’s very easy to get swept up in all the chaos as it happens, and start making bold pronouncements for the future based on it – and personally I’m just as guilty of that as any political anorak. However, we should pause for a moment, take a breath, and remember that the SNP are still leading in the polls and we’re three years out from the next Holyrood election. For all that some may want to see a snap election, I think it’s unlikely – unlike Westminster, early Holyrood elections only serve out the remaining term (so until 2026) rather than granting a new one, can’t be called purely on the First Minister’s whim, and require a lot of financial resource that may not yet have been rebuilt by parties at this stage in the cycle. Also no one really wants to set the precedent, which goes against the norms of Parliamentary Democracy in any case, that new leaders automatically mean new elections.

Three years from now, the events of the past few weeks could be a very distant memory, if not long forgotten by most voters. Issues that commentators have recently put great significance on may have faded into complete irrelevance. The eye of the storm isn’t the most objective place for predictions. Yet of course, on the other hand, we could be looking back on this period as the beginning of the end. The SNP could continue lurching from crisis to crisis, and the outcome of the 2024/2025 UK election could change the nature of the game too.

I think both of the scenarios I’ve outlined above are equally possible. I genuinely could not tell you which way things will go, and even those outcomes I’ve said I find less likely (an outright Labour win in 2026), I’m not discounting entirely. I’d even go so far as to say that anyone telling you right now that they are certain of what’s going to happen – that the SNP will remain in office, or be ejected from it – is, at best, putting an understandably partisan gloss on things, and at worst is just a complete numpty. There are folk in the political commentary sphere who’ve been predicting the SNP’s imminent downfall since 2007 and they’ve yet to be proven right.

Much of what happens next will depend on who emerges victorious on Monday. Yet whether it’s Kate Forbes or Humza Yousaf (Ash Regan is, I think we can all acknowledge, exceedingly unlikely to win), we will be quickly reminded that it’s what they actually do in office that matters, not how the public felt about them as individuals before they got there. In my time as a political obsessive, leaders who have been dismissed as small fry have gone on to dramatic success, whilst others held to be serious players have left their parties charred wrecks. Which way things are going to go for Scotland’s next First Minister, and the next leader of the SNP, we’ll soon find out.

At Ballot Box Scotland, I will admit to being a bit knackered after all this, arising as it did barely 10 days after I said I wanted a bit of a break from following things closely for the sake of my own mental health. After the results come out on Monday, I will be returning to roughly that approach for the next few weeks, though with less of a complete withdrawal from active Twitter use than at that point. I will aim to cover polls as normal, I just won’t be engaged enough to pick them up without friends dropping me messages talking about them.

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