I love it when “Kez” Dugdale’s paper, the Daily Mail, does those mad dystopian future stories at election time. You’ll know the type – because of the failure of a single Tory supporter in a single constituency to cast their vote, Labour, led by a generally mildly Left-wing figure like Angela Eagle or something, sweeps to power with a majority of like 200 (no, me neither).
Obviously, without the steady guiding hand of Conservatism guarding the tiller of the ship of state, Labour drags it onto the rocks. The first sign of this is usually muttered, angry conversations between Tory and Right-wing Labour MPs in the bars of the Commons (“for Christ sake, Gladys, it’s a week since the Queen’s speech and there’s barely a Muslim been bombed or a bedroom been taxed. The bloody prime minister’s practically a Communist”), leading to a dramatic decline in society (sort of like a cross between Threads and that episode of Father Ted where Dougal did a funeral), which is inevitably only saved when the Americans and the IMF coastguard step in to tow the ship safely back to Port Capitalism.
So that genre was the first thing I thought of when I imagined on my walk to work this morning what it might have been like If Salmond Hadn’t Come Back.
The Highland tones of the SNP’s national secretary Alasdair Allan boomed into the conference hall. First, he declared that Christine Grahame had narrowly beaten Fergus Ewing to the deputy leadership. But it was the leadership result that the 300 delegates – not to mention the three nervous candidates – were really waiting for.
“There were 3.268 votes cast. The valid quota for election is therefore 1634 votes. On the first Ballot, the results were as follows:
Roseanna Cunningham MSP 2477 votes
Michael Russell MSP 315 votes
Nicola Sturgeon MSP 476 votes
Having achieved over the required 50% quota, I can therefore declare that Roseanna Cunningham has been elected to serve as the new Leader of the Scottish National Party.”
It had been clear since nominations opened that the 34-year-old Glasgow MSP, viewed as a rising star in the party, would be unable to defeat the MSP for Perth, and former MP, Roseanna Cunningham, the deputy leader. Mike Russell’s candidacy was widely considered as a ploy to ensure he would remain on the new leader’s front bench.
There had been whispers that senior MSPs had pleaded with Banff and Buchan MP Alex Salmond, a former leader, to throw his hat into the ring in order to stave off a Cunningham victory. But Salmond did not believe an MP could lead a party primarily based at Holyrood, and warned that if anyone nominated him, he would decline the nomination, and that if he somehow was elected, he would resign. In any case, Salmond deferred, and Cunningham comfortably beat her Left-wing rival.
The first sign that all wasn’t well was at the 2005 Westminster election. In 2001, under Swinney, the SNP had won five seats, viewed as something of a disappointment. But in 2005, Cunningham’s party lost two seats – Alex Salmond’s to the Tories, and Stewart Hosie in Dundee East fell to Labour as Tony Blair was returned to power. Angus Robertson’s Moray seat had been predicted to be in some danger, but Cunningham’s approach to the Iraq War (“we opposed the start of the war, but what is done is done and we Back Our Boys to get the job done”) resonated with military voters in the constituency and he was saved.
While the election was viewed as a disappointment, nobody blamed Cunningham for the result. The SNP had never done particularly well in Westminster election, she’d only been leader for eight months, and the most important thing was to try and become the largest party in the 2007 Holyrood Election.
There was some disappointment in the party when the focus of Cunningham’s Holyrood campaign became clear. Although there was approval for her position on the monarchy, there was dismay over her inclusion in the manifesto of a promise to legislate against same-sex marriage and the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.
Her changes to the selection rules also caused some consternation: a ban on candidates standing on both the list and in constituencies was seen by some as an attempt to stop leadership rivals coming to the fore: at her behest, Conference passed a rule stating that the leader had to be a constituency MSP or MP.
The election couldn’t have been described as anything other than a success, in all honesty. Whilst Labour, the Liberals and the Tories stayed static on 50, 17 and 18 seats respectively, the Greens and Socialists lost 1 and 5 seats respectively, and smaller parties and independents were entirely wiped out. Cunningham’s nationalists were the main beneficiaries of the latter, and were the only party to actually gain a seat, going from 27 to 39 – four more than their previous best under Salmond in 1999. Cunningham’s offer to the Liberals of a “new, anti-Westminster progressive minority coalition” with the Socialist and Green MSPs was torpedoed by Liberal concern over her attitude to gay rights, and the Liberals chose the devil they knew. Jack McConnell was sworn in for a third term as First Minister, with no changes in the composition of the Cabinet.
One sad moment in the election for party members was the loss of the popular Nicola Sturgeon. She reckoned that “one more heave” would overturn Gordon Jackson’s majority in Glasgow, Govan – and demurred when offered the top place on the List as she wanted to reserve the right to challenge Cunningham for the leadership. In the event, Glasgow voters, as always, backed Labour. Many commentators criticised Sturgeon’s decision to run in the constituency, noting that it was impossible for the SNP to win a constituency in the city.
When Gordon Brown took over as prime minister shortly after the election, he told McConnell that failure to make progress at Holyrood towards majority government was unacceptable, and that he expected McConnell to make way for a new leader. This was widely viewed as unfair, given the impossibility of majority government at Holyrood. There was speculation that Brown didn’t understand the Holyrood system, but the settled opinion was that he simply disliked the slippery Blairite. Mild-mannered schoolmaster Iain Gray, who had only just returned to Holyrood after losing his seat in 2003, won the subsequent leadership election in a surprise result.
The new First Minister started out well, repulsing SNP challenges in the Glenrothes and Glasgow North East by-elections. After the latter, in November 2009, he was convinced by his Scottish Executive Justice Minister, Wendy Alexander, to bring on a constitutional referendum to shoot the SNP fox once and for all. Piloting the legislation through Parliament, with the enthusiastic support of Westminster, was Alexander’s final action before resigning from Holyrood after a scandal in which she was found to have taken illegal campaign donations.
Timing was the only stumbling block for what became known on social media as #indyref. Cunningham’s Justice spokesman, Christine Grahame, argued that it should be delayed until 2012 to avoid being overshadowed by the UK and Scottish elections in 2010 and 2011. But wary of allowing the SNP a chance of narrowing the already impossible 70%-30% gap in the opinion polls, the new Justice Secretary, James Kelly, favoured a snap referendum. As this was also the option favoured by Gordon Brown, hoping a No vote would give him a bounce in the opinion polls, a snap referendum was called instead, with cross-party support from the Liberals and Tories in both parliaments.
The referendum, in April 2010 was on the question “Should Scotland remain a partner in our United Kingdom?”. Whilst the question, criticised by the Electoral Commission, and bitterly denounced by the SNP as biased, was controversial, both parliaments approved it overwhelmingly. The result was never really in doubt from the start. Cunningham’s decision to run the No campaign herself, rather than delegate it to television personality and former SNP MP Alex Salmond, attracted a great deal of internal criticism. Her outburst, in a televised referendum debate, that “at least independence will allow us to legislate to protect the unborn child from the evil of abortion” was judged to have lost the No campaign at least two percentage points.
Cunningham’s decision to run the No campaign as an SNP campaign backfired: the independence-supporting Greens and Socialists refused to campaign on the No side, citing its focus on negativity about the Union instead of a positive vision of a progressive, independent Scotland. The SNP leader’s desperate, last-ditch promise that an independent Scotland would bring back Section 2A turned out to be a vote-loser. With every newspaper and all major political parties on the Yes side, and the SNP unable to attract any civic group, trade union, or any other political party to the No side, the Unionists won 82,93% of the vote. The No vote of just 17,07% was judged to have been a vote of confidence to keep the Union intact for another century.
Conceding defeat as the polls closed, Cunningham said “this was a referendum we didn’t want, at a time we didn’t want. We have lost tonight, but for us on the No side, the dream shall never die”.
The general election the next month was played out against a backdrop of an SNP shattered from its more than 4:1 referendum defeat on its defining policy. Of the SNP’s three MPs, Angus Robertson’s Moray seat finally fell to a young Tory candidate, Ruth Davidson. Despite being described as a “carpetbagger” for not being from the constituency, her appeal to military families and, crucially, Unionists, was enough to give her the seat. Mike Weir in Angus also fell to another young Tory woman, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Only Angus MacNeill in na h-Éileanan an Iar survived.
Overall, although Scotland elected a Labour government, voters in England and Wales, angry at Labour’s handling of the economic crash, returned a hung parliament, resulting in a Conservative-Liberal coalition at Westminster. First Minister and East Lothian MSP Iain Gray was promoted to the Westminster seat of East Lothian, replacing the deselected Anne Moffat. Although he insisted he was quite capable of being an MSP and MP, he said he felt he had to stand down as First Minister in the hope of being offered a job on the Opposition frontbenches. He later called his promotion to Shadow Energy Secretary "the best, and most important, job of my career".
The Holyrood elections came round in a rush a year later, and with the new Labour leader having had a year to bed in as First Minister, he had the twin advantages of being seen as both fresh and experienced.
The SNP ran an uninspiring campaign, the manifesto team beset by infighting. It was contradictory, desperate, and unappealing.
Cunningham and Grahame pushed for a ban on people carrying Irish flags to soccer matches, with mandatory jail sentences for offenders. There was never any official confirmation from the SFA press secretary Blair McDougall that Labour pressure had led the SFA to arrange a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland at Hampden during the short campaign, but suspicions always lingered.
On the other hand, Health spokesman John Swinney pushed for an end to the ban on supporters drinking at soccer stadiums. “They want you to drink Guinness at stadiums, but jail you for waving its country’s flag there”, mocked one member of the audience on a TV debate.
Cunningham led a broken party, bitterly divided on whether to seek another independence referendum or merely to administer devolution, to a shattering defeat. Labour were the main beneficiaries of the voters taking revenge on the Liberals for their treacherous coalition with the Tories at Westminster, but they also stole enough votes from the SNP to score a remarkable majority – of just one MSP – in Holyrood; the first-ever.
As Cunningham announced her resignation at 8am on the Friday morning, the TV cameras didn’t broadcast it live. Instead, they concentrated on the simultaneous event of Scotland’s first-ever single-party First Minister arriving for his first day at work as First Minister in his own right.
As James Kelly grinned blankly and waved to the cameras on the steps of Bute House, the Unionists thanked every God they had that Alex Salmond didn’t have the guts to come back seven years previously.