It is two and a half decades since the Scottish Conservatives held a national leadership role north of the border. Even then, during Michael Forsyth’s eventful spell as Scottish secretary in John Major’s disintegrating government, there was a sense of temporariness, of the sand running out, and no little democratic outrage. The Tory comeback at Holyrood, following the 1997 wipe out, has been as remarkable as it was perhaps unexpected, but there is an inbuilt realism about the party’s prospects: the ceiling is all-too visible, the cultural obstacles still too great, feisty but distant opposition the best that might be hoped for.
Scottish Labour sees itself differently. Even in the profoundest depths of its electoral darkness, the party has husbanded a flickering candle of hope. It is not really so long ago that it was sending red armies to the parliaments in Westminster and Edinburgh and winning at a canter at municipal level. Labour hegemony had seemed as Scottish as inventive swearing and sheeting rain. Those memories, and the accompanying sense of entitlement, are dying hard.
There’s a tendency among commentators – myself included – to pore over the entrails of Scottish politics for signs of the SNP’s approaching demise. Election results, opinion polls, the First Minister’s podium posture, yellow-on-yellow sniping, and even the tweets of unhinged cybernats are scoured for evidence that the tide is finally turning after 14 unbroken years in office. For those of us who came to our maturity pre-Holyrood, in the winner-takes-all climate of First Past the Post, there is an assumption that the voters will eventually tire of any government and sling it out. The electoral landmarks of 1945, 1979, 1997 loom large in our minds. You get in, you get your shot, and after a while an ungrateful electorate inflicts scarring humiliation.
This might also be seen as healthy. Governments run out of ideas and puff, become heavy with scandal and barnacled by events, and run through their talent pool until only the third stringers are left standing. There is then a full-system flush, with the formerly mighty sent off to regroup and restock on the back benches, where they can relearn limo-less humility and take the kinds of policy and personnel decisions that are too risky in the glare of power. The new winners get straight to work. The cycle repeats.
What happens, then, if this mechanism for renewal breaks down? If one party doesn’t just hold office for a prolonged period but for, say, generations?
Terms such as “one-party state” and “dictatorship” are regularly thrown around in Scotland but are loaded, inaccurate and won’t do. Better is what academics call the “dominant-party system”, which is something different from what’s seen in genuine dictatorships, as in China or North Korea, or in fake democracies such as Russia. There are plenty of examples of such longevity in genuine liberal democracies, at both a national and sub-national level. A handful of southern states in the US historically had an unbroken run of Democrat governors lasting more than a century; the Democrats have held power in the District of Columbia since 1973; Utah has had a Republican governor since 1985. In the Canadian province of Alberta, the Progressive Conservative Party ruled from 1971 to 2015.
Neither is Europe immune. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union has governed since 1946 with one short break, while the Portuguese region of Madeira has been run by the centre-right Social Democratic Party since 1976. Perhaps most famously of all, Sweden’s Social Democrats held power from 1932 to 2006 with only a few brief gaps. The party has been the country’s largest in every general election since 1917, and Tage Erlander was prime minister for 23 years between 1946 and 1969, a democratic record.
Where do the Scottish Nationalists fit into all this? They certainly tick many of the boxes ascribed to a dominant-party system. The eminent political scientist Patrick Dunleavy has proposed that the following three criteria must be met simultaneously: “The party is seen as especially effective by voters, so that it is set apart from all other parties; that it consequently has an extensive ‘core’ or protected area of the ideological space, within which no other party can compete effectively for voters’ support; at the basic minimum level of effectiveness (that voters use to judge whether to participate or not), the lead party has a wider potential appeal to more voters than its rivals.”
Its critics may scorn the idea that the SNP is effective, but the electorate still seems to view it as substantially more so than any of the alternatives and believe it “stands up for Scotland”; its “extensive core or protected area of the ideological space” needs no explanation; and it has parked itself firmly in the social democratic space that appeals to the broadest part of the Scottish electorate.
The Nats are further helped by the polarising nature of the Conservatives both in Scotland and at Westminster, and by Labour’s ongoing struggle to find a clear and convincing position on the question of independence. We will soon learn whether Nicola Sturgeon’s long negotiation with the Scottish Greens ends in some form of coalition or merely an agreement for parliamentary support, but the former might make sense at this stage in a dominant-party system, after a few years in which the SNP has struggled through a number of scandals, and when support for independence appears to be dropping rather than rising, with limited appetite for a second referendum, and with the party’s governing effectiveness – particularly in the areas of drug and education policy – being called into question. It may need to try a few more wheezes too.
As Dunleavy writes: “The dominant party may seek to re-broaden its appeal by defusing some of the de-legitimating effects of its own dominance. For instance, the leadership could: choose new younger or cleaner leaders; it could seek to maintain or revive its democratically organised branch structures…; accept anti-corruption or anti-malversation measures (such as more judicial supervision of office holders, or special anti-corruption institutions); countenance power-sharing or coalitions with opposition groupings.”
The SNP has maintained an astonishing level of electoral success and public support since 2007, and has in that period established the idea of independence as a mainstream and plausible option. Holyrood’s voting system seems geared to protect its supremacy, and its ministers – regardless of their individual abilities – have lost none of the early hunger. Among enough ordinary voters, there appears a willingness to support the SNP regardless of one’s view on the constitution.
Neither has the party grown lazy or complacent: when I speak to SNP politicians and advisers I often find there is less arrogance about its success and more a withering contempt for the weaknesses of the opposition. It may well have the capacity to adapt further.
All of which means that, independence or no, Scotland could be in for the long haul with the SNP. The Tories can continue to throw rocks and Labour’s candle may continue to gutter, but there is as-yet no clear and obvious strategy to supplant the Nats. Dunleavy quotes the French thinker Maurice Duverger from 1954: “a dominant party is that which public opinion believes to be dominant… Even the enemies of the dominant party, even citizens who refuse to give it their vote, acknowledge its superior status and its influence; they deplore it but admit it.” Buckle up.