By-elections Part 3: a win, but not a triumph for the SNP: Airdrie and Shotts – 13th May, SNP hold, share of the vote: 46.4%

The Airdrie and Shotts By-election; squeezed between the Hartlepool triumph, and the Lib Dem Landslide in Chesham and Amersham, became the forgotten By-election of the 2021 spring-summer campaign. This by-election was further overshadowed by the Scottish Parliament elections just a week before. In those elections the SNP took 47.7% of the constituency vote in Scotland, and in the regional lists the combined total for the pro-independence parties was 50.12%.  This result was then to a large degree replicated in Airdrie and Shotts. So, once again we have a by-election confirming what we already know. 

So, why am I devoting a blog entry to what a by-election cynic might call a political sideshow? Well, for two reasons: firstly, the Airdrie and Shotts result is a reminder of seismic shift that occurred in Scottish politics in the 2010s. Secondly it captures a hidden crisis facing the SNP.

The SNP dominates Scottish politics in both the London and the Edinburgh Parliaments. In every parliamentary election since 2012 it has been the single largest party by a considerable margin at both Westminster and Holyrood. This has been largely at the expense of the Labour Party[1]who today hold just one Scottish seat in Westminster. 

However, in the New Labour governments (1997 – 2010) Scottish Labour numerically and intellectually was at the heart of the centre left revival in Britain. Some of, the ‘biggest beasts’ of the party were Scottish Labour men. John Reid, Robin Cook, George Robertson, Alistair Darling, Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown[2]were central to Labour’s governance of the UK.

Airdrie and Shotts, in the Central Belt region between Glasgow and Edinburgh, was once at the core of Labour’s hegemony. Indeed, it was the seat of Tony Blair’s last Home Secretary and Cabinet trouble-shooter John Reid[3]. Thus, the fact that an SNP win in Airdrie and Shotts merits so little attention signals both the SNP’s dominance and Labour’s decline; a dog that didn’t bark in the night[4].

The Airdrie and Shotts result also signals what I’ve termed the SNP’s hidden crisis. At this point you might be wondering how a 46%+ share of the vote in a former Labour seat is a crisis? Especially, given the wider SNP hegemony and the popularity of the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Holding office and implementing their policies, and their vision, for the country is the ultimate goal for both the Labour and Conservative parties. However, for the SNP this is not their final destination. What animates and drives the SNP is the ambition to create an independent, sovereign, Scotland. Thus, being in government is only a stepping-stone towards an even higher goal. With this in mind, are victories of 46.4%, 47.7% or even 50.12% good enough? 

I would suggest that these numbers are insufficient for the SNP to be confident of winning a second referendum. It could be argued that a near miss at a second referendum would still aid the cause of independence.  A close loss would further build momentum and help create the conditions for secession at a third referendum. At this point though we need to widen our historical perspective to consider what I will call the ‘Canadian Precedent’.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Canadian state faced the real prospect of dissolution as the independence movement in Francophone Québec took the province down the path of secession. The first referendum of 1980 was a clear win for the status quo with a vote of 59.44% to 40.66% in favour of Québec remaining part of Canada. This first referendum did not though resolve the secession crisis. Rather, it paved the way for a second referendum in 1995. This time Québec remained in Canada by the by the slimmest of margins: 50.58% to 49.42%. A difference of 54,288 votes, less than the capacity of Wembley Stadium. 

There was though no third referendum. Despite the closeness of the 1995 result there proved to be nothing inevitable about secession. Perhaps inexplicably Québec is still part of Canada. Today the province is governed by a party rooted in Québec nationalism: the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). However, the CAQ disavows any notion of another referendum or independence.

This ‘Canadian precedent’ and a the possibility of similar outcome in Scotland following a near miss in a second referendum must surely weigh heavily for Nicola Sturgeon and her team. Dare they risk a second referendum yet? I would suggest that once we take into account the ‘Canadian Precedent’ a 46%+ win in Airdrie and Shotts rather a 55%+ win is problematic.

Indeed, I would go further and argue it represents a crisis for the SNP. How likely is it that they can push support for independence beyond its current levels? The SNP has been in power in Holyrood for fourteen years, it has a formidable and popular leader in the person of Nicola Sturgeon, and in London there is Prime Minister who is Kryptonite for most of the Scottish electorate. Yet, the cause of independence remains in a stalemate. Thus, the Airdrie and Shotts result illustrates both the scale of the SNP advance since 2010, but also that it may have reached its high-water mark.

Next part 4: Chesham and Amersham a Liberal landslide! – a return to the politics of the past, the Liberal Democrat’s comfort zone, and why this is a good thing for the party 

[1]Ironically the rise of the SNP created an opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives. Under the able and charismatic leadership of Ruth Davidson they positioned themselves unequivocally as theparty of the Union and United Kingdom.

[2]Between them they held the following positions: Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Transport Secretary x2, Health Secretary, Defence Secretary x2, Scottish Secretary x2, Leader of the House of Commons x2, Chancellor of the Exchequer x2, NATO Secretary General, the first First Minister of Scotland, and Prime Minister.

[3]Reid became Blair’s cabinet minister of choice when a crisis appointment had to made. He held seven cabinet roles in seven years of government; the ultimate safe pair of hands.

[4]In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze” the detective solves a case by noting the importance of a dog failing to bark the night a race horse was taken from the stables.