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The Scottish National Party has secured an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, triggering a fresh round of uncertainty regarding Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Because Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected by a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, there has never been a majority government in Scotland since devolution in 1999. But the SNP went on to win 69 out of 129 seats, a net gain of 23 seats from the last Parliament in which the SNP formed a minority government.
Many of the SNP’s gains were at the expense of Labour and several prominent Labour MSPs, including finance spokesman Andy Kerr and former minister Tom McCabe, lost their seats. The BBC quoted Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University as saying that Labour’s performance in Scotland was the worst for 80 years. Not surprisingly, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray has announced that he will be stepping down in the autumn.
Why then did Labour, the party that brought devolution to Scotland in 1999, fare so badly? Many commentators lay the blame on a lackluster campaign by Iain Gray that saw Labour adopt several SNP policies as their own. The narrowing policy divide between the two parties focused attention on the leaders’ personalities, and Gray was widely seen as less charismatic than SNP leader Alex Salmond. Labour’s cause was also hindered by embarrassing footage of Gray taking cover in a Subway sandwich shop in order to avoid the ire of protestors.
Labour was not the only party to feel the pain on election night. The Liberal Democrats suffered a net loss of 12 seats and are now down to just five MSPs. Their coalition partners in the UK Government, the Conservatives, fared slightly better and won 15 seats, a net loss of five.
Salmond has promised to hold a referendum on Scottish independence during the second half of the five year Parliament. But it may be too early to sound the death knell of the United Kingdom since recent polls indicate that only a minority of Scots support full-fledged independence. Salmond will likely face an uphill battle as he tries to convince the Scottish people that Scotland would be better off outside the United Kingdom. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour are united in their opposition to independence and can be counted on to campaign forcefully against the SNP in the run up to a referendum. Since a ‘no’ vote would be a huge embarrassment, Salmond will have to choose the timing of the referendum carefully.