With Friday’s constituency results turning the map canary yellow, it was never in doubt that the SNP had secured a comfortable victory and a historic fourth term at Holyrood. And while it remained on a knife-edge into the late afternoon whether Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists could reach the 65 seats required for an outright Holyrood majority, senior party figures were eager to manage expectation, concentrating on the party’s sweep of constituencies and increased vote share. It was an extraordinary result by any standards after 14 years in power. Indeed, due to the proportional nature of the Holyrood voting system, a majority has been achieved only once since the Scottish parliament was established, in 2011 by the SNP under the leadership of former first minister Alex Salmond.
Much analysis during the campaign was given over to how pro-independence voters might respond to Salmond’s argument that hundreds of thousands of ballots cast for the SNP’s list candidates in 2016 were “the ultimate wasted vote” as they led to only a handful of MSPs being elected. A vote for Alba, the party he launched only six weeks ago, would help secure a “pro-independence super-majority” at Holyrood, Salmond said, and make it far harder for Boris Johnson to refuse a second referendum.
Last week, SNP candidates reported that, while voters were asking more questions about the two-part voting system this campaign, their growing awareness was not benefiting Alba, but the Scottish Greens instead. But as Salmond’s tactical pro-independence plan tanked, with Alba not expected to return any MSPs, there was significant evidence of pro-union voters acting strategically.
Anti-independence campaigners spent tens of thousands of pounds in the run-up to Thursday’s vote calling for tactical voting to prevent an SNP majority, while the Scottish Conservatives rammed home their core message of stopping a second referendum, especially by voting Conservative on the regional list.
Pro-unionist tactical voting had a significant effect in some key marginal constituencies, with Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie increasing what had been the smallest majority in Scotland, thanks to Liberal Democrat supporters, but failed to secure significant Tory gains on the list, fuelling some internal criticism that Ross focused on stopping a referendum at the expense of a more positive case for the union emphasising the UK’s pandemic achievements like furlough and vaccine rollout.
Turnout also soared as a consequence, exceeding 70% in some constituencies, well above the national average of 55% in 2016, upturning fears that Covid might keep voters at home. SNP insiders had raised their own concerns that complacency about their party’s success – or conversely a “scunner factor”, as unionist attacks on their 14-year record in government cut through – might discourage their base on the day. However, this appears to have been balanced by the impact of Sturgeon’s increased popularity as a result of her pandemic leadership which boosted SNP support.
Travelling around the country, the esteem and trust “Nicola” is held in has been evident, with many saying they would support the SNP to continue her steady leadership despite ambivalence about another referendum.
Sturgeon’s own language around the timing of a second referendum – “when the crisis has passed” – is usefully vague, but her interpretation of what constitutes a mandate for one has always been clear. As it states in the SNP manifesto: “If the SNP is returned to government and there is a simple majority in the Scottish Parliament for [the referendum] bill.” By the latest projections, these conditions have clearly been met with a pro-independence majority of MSPs from the SNP and Scottish Greens. But as this became clear, Scottish Tories immediately set out their counter: that the number of individual votes cast for pro-union parties was greater than those for pro-independence parties.
Boris Johnson’s own formulation on Saturday – “a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless” – likewise allows room for manoeuvre for the man said to be adamant in private that he will not be the prime minister who permits a referendum but is also conscious of not sounding entirely anti-democratic.
With the votes still being counted, Sturgeon herself told Johnson that he would have to go to court to stop her new government introducing legislation for another referendum. Such a fight – with the second-least-popular politician in Scotland – is one she will no doubt relish and use to consolidate support for independence.
Meanwhile, the least popular politician in Scotland, according to recent polling, Alex Salmond, who had styled himself as the man to keep the SNP honest about independence at Holyrood, may have done his former party a favour in drawing away those hardliners who would have agitated for immediate referendum negotiations.
During a fairly intemperate YouTube broadcast on Saturday afternoon, in which he hit out at “weirdos and cranks” in the media and accused Sturgeon of “losing her nerve” over a referendum, Salmond warned that Alba would be “much more vigorous post-election [and] free to criticise the lack of urgency and immediacy on independence”.
How many will be listening is another matter.