GE24 Party Profile: Scottish National Party


This year looks set to be another massive change election for Scotland. After the SNP established themselves as Scotland’s overwhelmingly dominant party in 2011, they have seemed nigh-on unbeatable, with even their “bad” results in this period leaving them miles ahead of the competition and unchallenged in the role as party of government.

That position now looks incredibly fragile. The shock resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister and party leader last February has been followed by a succession of crises that have completely destabilised the party, whilst bringing internal divisions to the fore. A badly handled leadership election brought Humza Yousaf to Scotland’s top job, but he became the first SNP leader never to lead his party into a general election after his botched ending of a government deal with the Greens. SNP support has plummeted in the polls, with Labour leading in both parliaments for the first time in over a decade.

The election arising so soon after John Swinney’s unexpected rise to First Minister could be seen as both badly and ideally timed. On the one hand, it has given the SNP no time whatsoever to stabilise their position and move on from the chaos of recent months. On the other, that at least likely assures Swinney a degree of personal security that may not have been afforded to Yousaf, with the expected defeat likely to be attributed to that chaos rather than blamed on Swinney personally. It also gets an exaggerated First Past the Post defeat out of the way early doors with nearly two years to go until the next (proportional) Holyrood election, giving them more time to learn from their defeat.


Note: For simplicity, this section only looks at elections starting from 2005, which was when the previous boundaries came into effect. Notably, this included a significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats from 72 to 59, correcting a historic over-representation that was no longer felt necessary following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Vote Shares

The point at which this chart begins was the middle of a period of stagnation for the SNP in Scotland. Though they’d won a bit over 20% at the previous three elections, they dipped back into the teens in 2005, and just missed making it back out in 2010. They’d fared a lot better at the first three Scottish Parliament elections, suggesting voters had a clear sense that the SNP were more worth supporting at Scottish level, and much less so at UK level.

All of that changed dramatically in 2015, in the aftermath of the Independence Referendum. Although on the losing side, far from demoralising their supporters and marking a high point for the party, Yes voters were completely electrified. Turnout in Scotland significantly outstripped the UK as a whole, and the SNP won an absolutely astonishing 50% of the vote. The last time a single party had won a comparable vote share was when the Unionist Party won 49.5% in the 1931 election, though the combined forces of the Unionists plus National Liberals and Conservatives amounted to 50.1% in 1955.

As basic physics tells us however, every action has an equal yet opposite reaction. The SNP’s sudden success set alarm bells ringing amongst No voters, leading to a revival for the Conservatives and a strong incentive to tactically vote against the SNP. When Theresa May called what turned out to be an ill-advised snap election for 2017, it was those voters who were motivated. Although still the SNP’s second best ever result, they lost a significant number of voters in their historic heartlands, whilst many of their new supporters in the Central Belt stayed at home.

The following snap election in 2019 again saw the balance of motivation swing in the SNP’s favour, as the election became a contest between Pro and Anti-Brexit forces. As the strongest Pro-EU force in Scotland, which had of course voted comfortably Remain in 2016, the SNP were able to make up most of the ground they had lost in 2017.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for the SNP (last updated on the 10th of June) was 32.3%, representing a loss of almost one-third of their vote compared to 2019.

Seat Shares (Total)
Seat Shares (Categorised)

First Past the Post being what it is, the SNP’s seat tally has never really reflected their support. At those first two elections in this period, they won exactly the same 6 seats at each election. Despite a relatively decent level of support across much of the country, these were entirely outside the Central Belt. Dundee East does at least get captured under the “Urban” part of that categorisation, but otherwise these were largely rural seats that the SNP had a long history in.

Their massive 2015 victory went in the opposite direction and led to them winning all bar 3 seats north of the border, allowing them to displace the shattered Lib Dems as the third party at Westminster; positively Bloc Québécois-esque. That level of representation was short-lived as they suffered unexpectedly large losses in 2017, with 21 of their seats ending up in the hands of significantly reinvigorated Pro-Union parties. Success for the Conservatives and Lib Dems especially meant the SNP lost all the seats in the South, plus most of their seats in the Mid/North East and Urban Affluent categorisations.

In all the chaos of 2019 though they were able to regain more than half of those seats, most notably unseating UK-level Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. They also returned to controlling a majority of the seats in all categories bar South, where they nonetheless managed to at least pick up one seat. 

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

There is no good result for the SNP in this election. They are heading for an extremely bruising defeat and there’s no doubt about that. In that context, what would pass for a “good” result seems to me to be something like keeping their seat tally above 20, which would necessitate winning a decent number of urban Central Belt seats. There’s no way they could spin that as anything other than a poor result, but they could at least pass it off as being better than polls suggested and having avoided a Central Belt wipeout that currently seems likely.

Bad Result

Again, the SNP can’t expect anything other than a bad result in this election, so it’s instead about gradations of “bad”. A really bad result is anything less than 15 seats. A really, really bad result would be dropping into single figures. A catastrophically, indescribably dire result would be if they were driven down to 6 seats or fewer, which would take them back down to their pre-surge doldrums. They are likely to avoid that last one purely due the reality that Labour’s presence outside the urban Central Belt is relatively limited, and the SNP are facing off against weak Conservatives and Lib Dems in most seats those parties don’t already hold.

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