Scottish Nationalists Bound to Disappoint Supporters

A politically inexperienced delegation in Westminster unexpectedly finds itself without influence.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon talks with voters, May 5, 2011
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon talks with voters, May 5, 2011 (Ewan McIntosh)

Despite winning 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats in Britain’s general election on Thursday, the Scottish National Party is almost certain to disappoint its supporters.

The nationalists were expecting to play kingmakers in the new Parliament. Polls had shown neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives nor the opposition Labour Party winning an outright majority. With the SNP set to take over almost all of Labour’s seats in Scotland, it was projected to be able to give the socialists a majority.

But the Conservatives eked out a majority of their own while Labour did worse than expected. It went down from 257 to 232 seats when 323 are needed for a working majority.

The ruling party promised to devolve more powers to Scotland after it voted against independence in a referendum last year, including control over air passenger duties, housing credits, income taxes and winter fuel payments. The Scottish Parliament should also get additional welfare competencies.

The Conservatives are reluctant to give Scotland even more control over its own affairs for fear of weakening the union. But as far as the SNP is concerned, the current plans don’t go far enough.

For the average SNP voter, the transfer of additional competencies to the regional government matters less than the Conservative victory. Deeply anti-Tory, Scottish nationalists will resent a second term for David Cameron. They are likely to resist him no matter how many concessions he makes.

There is another reason the SNP may be in for a setback. Many of its newly-elected members of Parliament are inexperienced. The most dramatic example is Mhairi Black, a twenty-year-old student who defeated Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander.

The experience of insurgent parties elsewhere in Europe has been that huge upswings in support tend to produce internal instability. Political novices suddenly find themselves with influence or power and under media scrutiny while they are unaccustomed to both. Expect a rocky start for the SNP delegation in Westminster.

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