Reading the Scottish Election Results

The 2016 UK elections provided some insight into the evolution of Scottish politics, which is important in itself and also because of how it may determine two other critical matters (1) Whether the UK breaks apart and (2) Which party governs Britain if it does in fact stay in one piece.

The chart displays the major party results for each election since the Scottish Parliament was devolved under PM Tony Blair. The pattern is as plain as a pikestaff: the Scottish Nationalists have grown mighty and the Labour Party has withered.


The British Labour Party was originally a Scottish creation, and Scotland used to be a Labour preserve both in the Scottish elections and nationally. But yesterday’s results were another in a series of disasters for Scottish Labour.

Part of Labour’s problem may have been not allowing the SNP to be a part of the government in the years the latter was the second biggest party (1999-2007). Labour skipped over them and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, convincing nationalist voters that only outright SNP victory would bring them any power. When Labour campaigned against the Scottish independence referendum, its slow bleed became a spurting artery.

The Scottish results are dreadful for the UK Labour Party. With Scottish voters abandoning it and the UK Independence Party (which had a good 2016 election) nibbling away some of its Northern English and Welsh support, the odds of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party winning a national UK election victory look slim.

The most surprising result in Scotland last night was the Tory resurgence, which is even more of a dagger in Labour’s heart than losing seats to the SNP. Like many people, I thought the Conservatives were dead north of the border, but they somehow came back to become the largest opposition party, led by Ruth Davidson. She and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon seem the most talented politicians in Scotland.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Reading the Scottish Election Results”

  1. Watching Scottish politics, it is a bit like Irish politics used to be – the "National Question" (i.e. Independence) dominates everything and the SNP have a lock on that. For some people, not voting SNP is being disloyal. "Fianna Fail" (=Soldiers of Ireland), the primary constitutional party pushing Irish unity as a national aim, had the same role in the politics of the Republic of Ireland for many years.

    As long as that continues, the SNP will be the "natural" party of Government.

    The other parties tussle over the scraps and some (like the Greens this time) will join the SNP in Government. I heard one commentator say that Labour were seen as going "soft" on the Union, so were deserted by many pro-Unions voters for the harder line Tories.

    It adds to he centrifugal forces pushing the United Kingdom apart, something which I am sad to see. The Labour Party was part of the glue that held it together, and now it seems to be visibly failing. On the other hand, UKIP is on the rise in England (and Wales), a combination of English nationalism and right-wing anti-immigrant unease.

    However, I am optimistic that the UK will survive, though maybe with a different Union settlement. An important step will be an end to Brexit. If forced out of the EU by a predominantly English vote, the SNP intend to push for a new referendum on Independence. I have to admit I think they would have a point.

    1. Thanks for this analysis Toby. One of the odd things about UK politics is that unlike on the continent, anti-EU sentiment is stronger among the old than the young. Because old people tend to vote (and also because Corbyn has largely taken a pass on rallying his troops), I could easily see Brexit happening next month. I was in the UK last month and was struck by the fact that the only people who brought up Brexit in any way were elected officials. The average Briton may not care that much, when means it could be a low turnout election with mostly old voters, which both sides agree means Brexit.

      The SNP could follow this with another referendum, although I felt more confident of that before they lost their majority this time around and the Tory party did surprisingly well on an explicitly pro-Union platform.

      1. I think this Brexit effort will fail, even though only narrowly. The polls have a consistent narrow lead for the Stay camp, though some polls are contradictory (telephone polls put the Stay majority higher). Polls were totally wrong in the British general election, but the betting markets got it right, and they are consistently making Stay the likely outcome. Fingers crossed for a bumpy ride, though.

        It does seem to be a subdued campaign – it was Barack Obama who injected a bit of life into it, and now that has subsided. The Leave leaders are not exactly political "stars" – Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, George Galloway? A pretty motley lot. Boris Johnson does not seem to have achieved adulthood yet, and against them you have the formidable campaigning talents of David Cameron, with a winning Scottish Referendum and a surprise Tory majority under his belt.

        Older voters are more concerned about immigration, and that is a massive issue with the British electorate. It s an international crisis not of the EU's making, but maybe being poorly handled. My own suspicion is that this is just the the death throes of Little Englanders, but also of the vision of an "Anglosphere", the union of English-speaking nations that Churchill used to dream about. Older people might relate to that more, and find playing an inferior role to Germany and France in a European context distasteful.

        It is surprising how often the Leave spokesmen have used the example of Canada, in a special relationship with the US but negotiating its own trade deals etc. I find it a bit bizarre, and Obama pointed out the Big Kahuna for trade around here is the EU, and the UK would get the scraps.

        1. With respect, I would not be too dismissive about this.

          Boris is I believe the most popular politician in the country. He was called a buffoon by leftists in both of his races against Livingstone, and he romped home both times. Also, it matters that Corbyn has phoned it in, probably because he is at heart Eurosceptic. If he were out campaigning hard for it along with Cameron, I would think Remain would have it in the bag, but he's not and they don't.

          Based on my conversations with politicians, it really isn't just Little Englanders that want to leave — that analysis assumes that this is all driven by within country factors and people trapped in the past. The EU has changed a lot since Britain joined becoming much more intrusive in its members' governance, and anti-EU sentiment is a continent-wide affair including in places that don't give a toss about Little England.

          Many British former EU enthusiasts are worried about the EU running more things when it is currently completely failing at the two big issues of the day, namely the economy and the migration crisis. EU policies are causing tens of millions of people to suffer needlessly, yet Brussels seems to think that the future should bring it even more control…you don't have to be a Little Englander to find such arrogance dangerous and anti-democratic.

          I do agree with you that it will be a close run thing, though I am unsure as to who will win.

          1. Time will tell on Boris Johnson. He came off worst with President Obama, his first encounter with a real heavyweight. He reminds me of a child star tackling his first adult role. Livingstone is, after all, just another local hero who never made it on the bigger stage.

            I agree that the EU has currently failed in two major policy areas, but Cameron's argument is that you run the risk of cutting of your nose to spite your face.

        2. Telephone polls are always skewed to the more prosperous end of any given electorate. In Britain, that is solidly "Stay", because they understand that leaving would be intolerably risky to their own interests. There is actually no intellectually respectable argument for Britain to leave the EU at this point, any more than there is an intellectually respectable argument that Americans should support Donald Trump. Eppur si muove, and it behoves us to understand why. I think Toby's third para offers a good point of departure. If I were any conceivable US administration right know, I'd be about as Anglophile as Herbert Hoover.

          1. That's my favorite part of left/liberalism: The intellectual humility and openness to competing viewpoints.

          2. The floor is yours, Brett. I'm always willing to learn. Why, apart from knee-jerk racism based on falsified numbers, should Britain leave the EU at this point?

          3. Chris,

            When your last comment contains this "There is actually no intellectually respectable argument…" you should expect some scepticism about your subsequent statement that "I'm always willing to learn", even if you hadn't coupled it with an implication that anyone who thinks that debate is valuable is either a fraud or racist.

            Clearly, many people in Brussels agree with you that no discussion is warranted, everything is simple and anyone who has the slightest doubts about the EU is a racist or fool….in my view that attitude has done much to inflame anti-EU sentiment across the continent because in a (ostensibly) democratic institution, voters are typically allowed more credit than this.

          4. It mostly boils down to local autonomy and democracy.

            First, the EU is, by design, radically undemocratic in it's governance. Sure, there's the facade of democracy, but all the real decisions are made by bureaucrats. (Yeah, this looks a lot like what the US is turning into. But why emulate the failure of democracy in the US, rather than learn from it?)

            Second, to be a State is to have control over immigration. But the EU has taken this away from member states; Once ANY EU state admits somebody to the EU, no EU state is supposed to be permitted to refuse them entry. I'm sure you'll dismiss this as racism.

            Third, EU members lose control over their own monetary policy, often with very negative local effects.

            That's a start. Essentially it boils down to people wanting to be citizens of their own countries, and the EU by design rendering those countries less than sovereign and self-governing.

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