Scottish Politics: 2011 in Review

 

David Radestock, editor of The Grapevine brings us a look at 2011 in Scottih Politics.

In a year of economic woes, historic elections and leadership battles, Scottish politics in 2011 were dominated by one man: Alex Salmond.

Such was the dominance of Salmond over the country’s politics that other parties were left to fight for the scraps of power, seeking to reposition and preparing for the biggest fight of Scotland’s recent history, that for independence.

But in what was undoubtedly a defining year for Holyrood and beyond, how did the main parties and personalities, and what may lie ahead in 2012 and beyond?

SNP

After their first spell of power as a minority government, the SNP approached 2011 with a degree of trepidation. Labour were ahead in the polls and the status quo of the early 20th Century looked certain to re-assert itself following Parliamentary elections.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Having been 20 points down in a YouGov poll in late March, the SNP rallied to claim the first outright majority since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The party won over 45% of the vote on the constituency ballot, almost 14 points ahead of Labour.

Not only did the result give the SNP a firm vote of confidence in their previous administration’s actions, it finally provided them a clear mandate to hold a referendum on independence.

It is almost impossible to over emphasise Salmond’s role in this remarkable rise to outright power. In a parliament lacking big names and personalities, he is a modern day giant, a man who knows how to manipulate the political scene and who soon may get to achieve his ultimate dream – to lead an independent Scotland.

The year may have been a triumph for Salmond and his party, but they face challenges ahead. They have got a significant head start in the fight for independence, financially and strategically, but much will depend on the new Government’s ability to insulate against the very worst of the coming economic storm and maintain some of the policies that sets the party, and the country, apart from the rest of the UK.

2011 was a defining year, a historic one even. But greater trials lie ahead, in 2012 and beyond.

Labour

If 2011 was the SNP’s annus mirabilis then it was by definition a harrowing year for the party who previously demonstrated similar political dominance north of the border.

Riding sky high in the opinion polls for most of the year, Labour’s disastrous showing at the polls led to a leadership election for the Scottish party, and mounting pressure on Ed Miliband in Westminster.

It is difficult to pinpoint a single defining reason for Labour’s electoral failure. Bad leadership, a poor campaign and a lack of vision certainly contributed, but it may have been a presumption of victory, and a confidence in support that was no longer guaranteed, that led to their eventual downfall. The SNP’s majority in a system which had been designed by the party to prevent such events means they face an uphill climb to credibility in Scotland, and the potential of electoral annihilation in Westminster elections.

The subsequent leadership contest did little to challenge the perception that a seemingly unshakeable malaise had set in. The rejection of Tom Harris, a charismatic, outspoken and fiercely patriotic MP, simply for the fact he was not an MSP, seemed to many as a short-sighted decision that the party may come to reject.

The eventual winner, Johann Lamont, openly admitted the scale of the challenge she and the party faced. A former deputy leader, she will bring stability and experience, although it is doubtful she possesses the charisma to compete with Alex Salmond, who has only strengthened his position as the opposition turn inward.

Labour’s year may be one they wish to forget, but they would be wise to learn valuable lessons before doing so. 2012 offers opportunities to take advantage of any slips from a Government battling an economy increasingly resistant to recovery. However, as with all the parties, it is Labour’s position on independence, and more specifically the so-called ‘devo-max’ option, that will define their future.

Conservatives

A somewhat disappointing election for the party (winning just 15 seats and picking up less than 14% of the vote at constituency level) was overshadowed by the tight leadership battle that followed.

The resignation of Annabel Goldie, a willing but uninspiring figure, triggered an election that promised to define the future of the party, both north and south of the border.

Murdo Fraser, who had served as Goldie’s deputy, declared his candidacy with the vow that if he were to win, he would abolish the party, disconnect from the UK Conservatives, and start a new centre-right organisation in an attempt to win over increasingly distrusting voters.

His grand idea was no doubt controversial, causing a mix of intrigue and concern in the corridors of Westminster and Holyrood. However, he was never granted the opportunity to implement it, losing to Ruth Davidson by just over 500 votes.

Whether Fraser’s plan would have proved a success is highly debatable, (and you can read my thoughts on it here) but his loss perhaps represents a lost political opportunity that may not re-appear for a generation.

The eventual winner, Ruth Davidson, faces a challenge equal to any of those in Scottish politics today. At just 32, and the first openly gay woman ever to lead a British political party, she has the potential to re-define the party and appeal to voters whose heads and hearts yearn for credible centre-right representation. Yet, as ever, she will face an initially hostile electorate who have forgotten how to trust a party that used the country as a policy laboratory during the Thatcher years.

Lib Dems

The Scottish elections of 2011 coincided with one of the Liberal Democrat’s worst moments in their short history.

Trounced in local elections and with electoral reform comprehensively rejected, they were reduced to just 5 seats in Holyrood and will now struggle to compete in crowded left-of-centre political marketplace.

Like the Conservatives and Labour parties, a disappointing result led to a leadership election, with Willie Rennie replacing Tavish Scott in an uncontested election.

With their reputation in tatters following a Westminster coalition with the Tories, the Scottish Lib Dems face a bleak future. The fact that the two most dominant electoral machines both occupy the centre left means that the party will rely solely on a Labour minority victory in 2016 to exercise power or influence north of the border again. Whilst others eye the competition, they can only survey the wreckage.

Conclusion

When those who choose to do so look back on 2011 with a great deal more hindsight than I have afforded myself, they may well see it as the beginning of the end of the union. The SNP’s unprecedented and largely unpredicted majority allows them a chance to accomplish their founding goal.

That they are led by a man whose political skill compares favourably with his counterparts in both in Holyrood and Westminster, and that they are currently competing against opposition parties that are desperately searching for an angle at which to approach the new political reality, makes this all the more likely.

2011 was a memorable year for Scottish politics in so many ways. But it is the sense that rather than represent a culmination of events, it signifies merely the beginning of a fascinating journey, which makes it truly historic.

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