It was always going to be Nicola Sturgeon’s night and so it proved to be – but today’s result is beyond even her expectations. The SNP has been keen to keep expectation low – even doubling our number of MPs will be a success said one SNP spokesman to me only a few months ago – and yet the Party has pulled off a truly astonishing result.
The Unionist parties in Scotland have been left a mere rump, returning just one MP each for Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. Labour’s sole representative, Ian Murray in Edinburgh South, scraped in thanks to a mixture of hard work, tactical voting and a mistake by the SNP candidate. The Lib Dems were nearly wiped off the Scottish map, losing big hitters like Charles Kennedy, and only maintaining Orkney and Shetland. The Conservatives could do no more than maintain their one MP in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.
The swings that have been seen across Scotland have been truly spectacular. Even those Labour MPs were vast majorities, such as in Gordon Brown’s former seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, found themselves swept aside in a tidal wave of support for the SNP. Some of Labour’s most established political figures, such as Douglas Alexander, have found themselves swept away.
The road to this level of success started from the moment the referendum result was declared. There was no jubilation on the Better Together side and the SNP soon took on the mantle as the moral victors. Scottish Labour imploded, leaving the Party hamstrung at the very time when the SNP were potentially at its weakest. But more than anything else, the electorate changed. There can be no doubt that the referendum campaign infused a campaigning zeal within the 45% of supporters that has been maintained. Despite years in office, the SNP has never forgotten how to campaign and has maintained its support from the referendum. Forty-five percent might not be enough to win a referendum, but it is enough to sweep aside the opposition in every constituency in Scotland.
What this means for the future of UK politics is too early to tell. However, the SNP, now by far and away the third largest party in the UK, will be bullish about their relationships with other parties. While the party represents the establishment, it is also disestablishment in its ethos, which will be largely new in the small world of Westminster politics.
We can expect the SNP then to lead the charge on a number of changes to the way that Britain is governed, whether they are in Opposition or in Government. They will be chairing important Select Committees. They will seek radical reform of outdated institutions, such as the House of Lords. They will want changes to the electoral system. In many ways they’ll be picking up the mantle of the Liberal Democrats, but with even less to lose, probably with more zeal.
What then for Scotland? Scotland has spoken with one voice, but it is completely out of kilter with the rest of the UK. Is this the start of a constitutional crisis? Will it be possible for the Unionist parties to rebuild ahead of the 2016 elections? That will prove difficult given the short timescales – Jim Murphy probably thought he was making a decent fist of Labour reforms, only to be thrown out by the electorate. It is hard to believe given the current circumstances that we are not heading towards another independence referendum. Whether that is possible under a Conservative-led administration, which remains committed to implementing the Smith Commission, remains to be seen.