Where does the SNP’s rise leave the other parties?

Where does the SNP’s rise leave the other parties?

Is there a need for a realignment north of the border

Last year’s Holyrood election result was the sort of political earthquake that occurs at most once in a generation. The sweeping gains the SNP made not only cemented their place as one of the two Scottish government-forming parties but brought into question the role of the other three main parties.

Having entered government, and particularly having been re-elected with an overall majority, the SNP now has two horses to ride. It is still the single issue Independence party but it also has to govern effectively and with conviction now it can fully set the agenda. That brings its own challenges. One aspect of rising out of single issue politics is that the party attracts quite a broad spectrum of support on the more traditional social and economic axes.

Governing proactively, however, is easier when a party has a strong sense of purpose on those axes too and as such, government is likely to focus the SNP’s position to a more compact range – a problem the Lib Dems and to a lesser extent the Tories are grappling with at Westminster where coalition makes room for manoeuvre smaller still.

Traditionally, the SNP has been placed centre-left and in some ways, Salmond’s administration has aimed at the ground vacated by New Labour, which was never all that strong in Scotland anyway. However, they got where they are essentially by displacing the Conservatives as one of the two main parties. Yes, votes came from Labour too but Labour is still there as a governing option for Holyrood; the Tories aren’t. They’ve also pushed aside the Lib Dems as the leading ‘not the other two’ party.

With the other three parties simultaneously in a period of weakness, there’s plenty of ideological space for the SNP to settle down in.

At some point, one or more of the other parties will rise strongly again – opposition always finds a way – so where they choose, or where events push them, matters.

In a closed system, that ought to lead to a realignment. Four main parties plus a few minor ones is probably too many even with PR unless natural groups or partners develop, which they haven’t yet. Scotland, however, is not a closed system. The principle difference between the SNP and the other three in that context is that Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems operate across Britain whereas the SNP don’t. That alone is a major drag on any possible realignment – the other three need to have parallel structures in Scotland as across the rest of Britain.

Nothing much more is likely to happen before the referendum. This year’s local elections will probably further cement the changes that have already occurred but nothing more dramatic. Afterwards is a different ball-game.

Whether the referendum is won or lost, the question of independence is likely to be off the table, either because it’s going to happen or because it won’t be asked again for many years. With one of their two reasons for being greatly muted, the other will rise further in importance. That then is the point by which they must have chosen where they’ll fit in – and by implication, which other party they need to demolish. If, for example, they wish to occupy the centre-left, that implies they must contest that ground with Labour and / or the Lib Dems, and hence accept the continuance of the Tories as an ideological alternative.

That of course assumes that the SNP will be in a strong enough position to decide where they want to be. At the moment, that’s the case. Scottish Labour is far too close to a political machine and one of those out of power is a redundant thing; the Tories are a centre-right unionist party in an increasingly centre-left devolutionist country; and the Lib Dems have something of an identity question to answer. It won’t always be so. Something, sometime must give.

David Herdson

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