Euan McColm: Ruth Davidson's rise has reshaped Scottish politics

Written by Euan McColm on 6 May 2016 in Opinion

The Scottish Tories have just hammered yet another nail in Labour's coffin.

A word of comfort for Labour - they used to say the Scottish Tories were dead and buried and look at them now.

The party which for decades dominated politics north of the border is now on its knees. If last May - when Labour won just a single Westminster seat - looked to have marked an unsurpassable low for the party, the Scottish Parliament election result has just proved otherwise.

Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories cruised passed Kezia Dugdale’s party and will now form the main opposition at Holyrood. Labour in Scotland is - for now, perhaps forever - an irrelevance.

The campaign for the fifth Scottish Parliamentary election since Holyrood opened for business in 1999 was a pretty drab affair but the result threw up some real surprises.

That the SNP would win a third consecutive victory was never in any doubt but it’s a measure of how dominant the nationalists have become in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum that the party’s inability to win a second overall majority - under a proportional representation system designed to prevent just such an outcome - may be considered something of a failure.

But SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, with 63 of Holyrood’s 129 members, will continue as First Minister with a thwocking great personal mandate (and the election of six Green MSPs means there will continue to be a majority of pro-independence members in the Scottish Parliament).

The big story of the night, though, is that Labour humiliation at the hands of both the nationalists and the Tories. Davidson shrewdly sold herself as the defender of the Union in this campaign. While Dugdale struggled to deal with the reality that a great many traditional Labour voters had voted Yes in 2014 and then switched their electoral allegiances to the nationalists, the Tory leader was unequivocal in her position: if Scots chose her party as the main opposition, she would fight to prevent a second independence referendum.

Pro-Union voters - still the majority in Scotland - took her at her word; in seat after seat, swings towards the Tories came at the expense of Labour. The Tories now have 31 MSPs to Labour’s 24, while the Liberal Democrats sit in fifth place, behind the Greens, with just five.

Scottish politics is no longer primarily a battle between the old ideologies of left and right. It’s now a fight between nationalists and unionists, with First Minister Sturgeon and Davidson going toe-to-toe.

Of course, we will hear much in the hours and days ahead from Scottish Labour about the need to listen and learn and rebuild but with swathes of the party’s traditional support having deserted it for both the SNP and the Tories, it’s difficult to see how it can start that process. Simply, for too many Scots the Labour brand is now as toxic as the Tories’ once was.

The result throws a spanner in the works for Sturgeon, too. Throughout the election campaign, the First Minister has painted a scenario where the result of June’s EU referendum might open the door to a second independence referendum. According to the SNP leader, if Scots vote to Remain while the UK as a whole takes the Brexit option, the clamour for the break-up of the UK would become overwhelming. Without her expected overall majority, that scenario becomes increasingly unlikely.

The election result considerably weakens Sturgeon’s position on the constitution and will force her, instead to focus on the traditional domestic agenda. It’s time now for the SNP to focus on well-documented failings in the NHS and the education system. It’s time for Sturgeon to get on with governing rather than picking fights with Westminster.

Kezia Dugdale had expected to play the leading role in ensuring the First Minister did just that. Instead, Ruth Davidson has been handed an opportunity that, even a few hours ago, few truly believed she would be.


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