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What the heck just happened in Scotland?

By Carolyn Lochhead

Where does one start with a Scottish analysis of GE2017?

Should we focus on the wounded but still dominant SNP? The jubilant Scottish Conservatives? The convalescent Scottish Labour Party?

All are interesting angles, but they’ve been covered already by better-informed correspondents than I. So, I want to talk about something else.

What does it all actually mean?

The assumption is this is an anti-Indyref 2 result. And it may be. But decoding a Scottish election result is akin to untangling a ball of wool that’s been tossed into a room full of kittens and toddlers, high on catnip and Haribo respectively.

Broadly speaking, defence, foreign policy and constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. All else is devolved to Holyrood. Which is information you’d never intuit by observing an election campaign.

Increasingly, Scottish politicians swim in a big pot of soup – a Scotch broth, one would inevitably have to call it – offering opinions on anything from health and Brexit to education and independence, regardless of their actual sphere of influence. Thus, council candidate’s leaflets were full of pledges to oppose Indyref2, and silent about schools, bins and dog poop.

Conversely, the debate about Indyref2 – an issue for which authority at least nominally sits at Westminster, in terms of granting the Scottish Parliament the right to hold a referendum – was led by Holyrood politicians. The party’s manifestos roamed like adventurous buffalo across devolved and reserved issues, often not bothering to differentiate between them. In the BBC Scotland debate, just one of the participating politicians was actually competing for a Westminster seat.

Voters in Scotland appear unfazed. We cope with four different systems (for the geeks: it’s FPTP at Westminster, Additional Member System at Holyrood, STV for councils and Party List for Europe). And since 2007 we’ve handled different governing parties at Scottish and UK level. Voting in a Scottish election is like taking part in a game of 3D chess. Thus, if you have stopped voting Labour but still want to give the SNP government a bloody nose, you vote for the Conservatives – who are also the government. This no longer seems odd.

But it does make life difficult for public affairs operatives attempting to understand what has actually happened. Has peak Nat come and gone? Should we be cultivating Conservatives at every opportunity? Or is Kezia Dugdale the coming woman, given her party’s gains after years of electoral freefall?

Of course, the answer is clear – we build relationships on all sides. Scotland is a small country, and it’s not difficult to be well-connected across the party spectrums. Nevertheless, Scottish voters have spoken, and the question remains: what exactly were they trying to say?

Carolyn Lochhead is Public Affairs Manager at mental health charity SAMH. You can follow her at @theshooglypeg.

Image courtesy of geograph

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