The Scottish Parliament: The UK’s most fractious political scene

Posted On: 
29th August 2019

Ahead of Ruth Davidson's expected resignation today as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Dods Monitoring's Andy Frain considers the state of play in the Scottish Parliament. 

Scotland is unique within the UK as the political debate is polarised in four different directions, writes Andy Frain.
Credit: 
PA Images

As the UK continues to undergo its apparently never-ending existential crisis, Scotland is something of an old pro when it comes to divisive constitutional wrangling. The 2014 independence referendum may seem like ancient history to some political observers, but it remains by far the primary dividing line in contemporary Scottish politics.

Regular observers of Westminster debates between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives will attest that the issue of independence manages to permeate every facet of Scottish policymaking, not always positively.

The 2017 General Election reinforced the strength of this divide along the Yes/No axis. The Scottish electorate resembled a school disco, with the Yes voters sticking firmly to one side of the hall and the No voters to another, leaving the dancefloor between the two camps sparsely populated by swing voters and tumbleweed. 

Whilst the SNP continued to dominate, they proved unable to replicate their near landslide from two years prior.  Across Scotland, unionists voted tactically to strike back against the 2015 SNP surge, whereas the Scottish Greens stood in only three seats in order to avoid splitting the pro-independence vote.

Brexit, however, has muddied these political waters. Suddenly, parties are no longer defined only by the independence question, with Leave/Remain pushing and pulling voters from all parties to new political homes. It seems unlikely that unionist voters will be able to put their considerable differences aside to vote tactically in the widely anticipated snap General Election and despite the SNP’s wholehearted embrace of “Remain” not all independence-backers share the view of the leadership. 

The effect that these shifting sands will have on the makeup of both Holyrood and Westminster is made all the more fascinating by the likely necessity for coalition in either Parliament.

The UK Labour party showed the first hints of this, when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested that the party could relax its staunch opposition to a second independence referendum - clearing the way for a potential future collaboration with the SNP.

The fall out from McDonnell’s comments offer a vital insight into the potential ramifications of any such alliance.  

The Scottish Conservatives, who have seen a surge in support as a result of their died-in-the-wool unionism, could scarcely contain their glee and were quick to declare Labour a threat to the Union. Also sensing an opportunity, the Lib Dems were all too ready to compare the situation to Labour’s perceived Brexit ambiguity – they were happy to promote themselves as the only progressive party that was truly unionist. 

Worryingly for McDonnell, the comments arguably provoked even greater consternation within the Scottish Labour party, with Ian Murray MP claiming that the comments left his colleagues “shocked and angry”. Even Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, belied his Eeyorish reputation to criticise the remarks.

Ruth Davidson's resignation will be a significant blow to the Scottish Conservatives. Despite describing it as a more personal than political decision, her announcement has highlighted Boris Johnson's deeply unpopular and divisive views on Brexit. Her loss may well cost the Conservatives seats in Scotland at the next election. 

PARTY BY PARTY

Scotland is unique within the UK, being polarised in four different directions. The effect of this is that parties are all desperately jostling for position ahead of the widely-predicted general election, frantically trying to snatch headlines from one another and carve their own niche in a crowded political scene. 

Amidst the headlines, each party is dealing with internal battles of their own, with leadership rivalries, rebellious memberships and conflicting agendas all playing their part in the UK’s most fractious political scene. 

Scottish National Party

With a massive polling lead and with the main Westminster parties in a state of perennial crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking that life has never been better for Nicola Sturgeon and her party. In reality, however, after twelve years in power there are the first signs of cracks appearing within the SNP.

Whilst still maintaining a broadly united public front, there are stark internal divisions within the party on the topics of Brexit, a second independence referendum and leadership. Amidst this, the spectre of the criminal sex charges against former leader Alex Salmond loom large in the background and are widely expected to dominate headlines when the case comes to court at the turn of the year.

The divisions are best exemplified in the topic that most defines the party – independence. Nicola Sturgeon has come under fire from some of the grassroots membership for her perceived reluctance to call a second independence referendum, a movement given legitimacy by a group of MPs still loyal to Salmond.

Longstanding MP Angus MacNeil called in July for the SNP to back independence with or without a second referendum and the party’s refusal to allow that motion to be debated at Conference caused consternation in some areas. Fellow Westminster big-hitter Joanna Cherry, another member of the grouping, said that allegations of bullying were “politically motivated smears” from others within the party.

Sturgeon’s relative weakness on the issue was exposed upon the publication of the leadership-sponsored “Growth Commission” report on the economic basis for independence. The report received criticism from leading independence campaigners, the grassroots membership and elected representatives like Cherry for what many saw as an overly cautious and market-driven approach, including its plans to keep sterling for an indefinite period. When it came to the Spring Conference, the membership called for Scotland to set up a new currency “as soon as practicable” after a vote for independence, overruling the more cautious approach backed by Sturgeon.

For now, Sturgeon has been successful in keeping these divisions largely internal but expect them to continue to bubble under the surface over the coming year.

Scottish Conservatives

Any analysis of the Scottish Conservative Party has to take into account the paltry state of the party only five years ago, before the leadership of Ruth Davidson and the renewed vigour for British unionism catapulted the party to the dizzying heights of being Scotland’s second party.

With that in mind, both Davidson and her party have seen the shine slightly worn off since they were polling at record levels last year. 

The primary reason for this can be credited to the same factors that have seen the party’s UK-wide support plummet in recent months – a perceived mishandling of Brexit and a lack of clarity over its future direction. As a predominantly Remain area, the Brexit Party is less popular in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, but its presence is likely to cut into the Conservative vote share further in the event of an election.

The party’s primary asset was Ruth Davidson, who is widely seen as being more popular than the party she represents. Davidson, however, spent much of the last year out of the spotlight on maternity leave, with the party left struggling to get by without its principle spokesperson. Since re-entering the fold she has attracted some criticism from within the party for her backing of Sajid Javid during the leadership campaign and for her strained relationship with her party leadership. 

She reportedly “banned” Boris Johnson from attending the Scottish Conservative conference earlier in the year and his unpopularity in Scotland is widely seen as toxic to the unionist cause. Following his election as leader Davidson has softened her tone somewhat towards Johnson, admitting that she would campaign for him in the event of a general election. However, she now won't get the oppotunity to follow through on that promise  - Davidson has stated her intention to step down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives shortly. Her resignation is a significant blow to the Scottish Conservatives and it remains to be seen who will replace her. 

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour has had as many leaders as it has had MPs since the 2015 General Election, with current incumbent Richard Leonard battling against a non-existent public profile and a hostile Parliamentary party.

A vast chunk of their traditional working-class base has left them to back the SNP and Labour’s initial attempts to appeal to both unionists and independence voters proved fruitless. The party’s confused messaging on Brexit came to a head in May, when two frontbenchers quit their posts in protest at Labour’s refusal to back a second referendum. Daniel Johnson and Neil Findlay’s very public resignations eventually forced Leonard to pivot to all out support for Remain, but the party lost momentum with Remain voters in the subsequent European elections.  

The party’s showing in those elections was dismal, barely scraping ahead of the Greens to finish in 5th place in Scotland on less than 10 per cent of the vote in a new nadir for a party that once dominated the country.

Leonard has so far retained full backing from the party’s Westminster leadership, but August saw this harmony internally challenged for the first time. John McDonnell’s comments at the Edinburgh festival about being potentially open to a second independence referendum were made without the consent of the Scottish branch of the party and were condemned from across Scottish Labour.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

As with the rest of the UK, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have unexpectedly found themselves climbing up the polls– albeit at a less eye-catching pace than their Westminster equivalent. The party’s leader, Willie Rennie, has long been a popular figure and arguably enjoys a higher profile than his status within the Parliament would normally merit.

In the event of a UK General Election, the party is unique amongst the unionist parties in being confident about retaining most of its 4 MPs and even has an eye on a potential gain in North East Fife, where it lost by just 2 votes in 2017.

These potential sunlit uplands, however, bare little resemblance to the party in its current state. With the departure of former leader Tavish Scott to work in the private sector, the Lib Dems have a lowly total of just 5 MSPs, fewer than the Greens. Despite seeing an increase in their polling numbers, the party remains stubbornly behind Labour and the Conservatives, whilst the SNP have deprived them of the opportunity of claiming to be the primary party in favour of remaining in the EU.

Scottish Green Party

Despite a comparatively small number of MSPS, the Scottish Greens play a vital role in the Scottish Parliament as backers of the SNP, although they fall short of being a formal coalition partner.

The Scottish Greens have received criticism from some sides for their strong level of support for the Government, but cracks did begin to show during the most recent budget. The Greens threatened to withdraw their backing and were only won over with a last-minute deal with the SNP that secured concessions on for councils and extra powers for them to levy local parking and tourist taxes.

The Greens in Scotland are a totally separate party to their sister party in England and Wales and have not enjoyed the same polling boost seen south of the border. Despite this, they are optimistic about taking votes from both the SNP and Scottish Labour in any forthcoming electoral campaign, with the Climate Emergency set to be the cornerstone of any future campaign.

To view a FREE policy breakdown and MSP analysis of the Scottish Parliament from Dods Monitoring, click here.