Some interesting things struck me about the statistics of the general election in its immediate aftermath. I started to craft some words that would show, despite the SNP’s obvious triumph, how the facts of what had happened were not so conclusively positive for them as they and much of the media seem to think.
Now I’m not so sure. I think the lessons that can be drawn from what happened, in Scotland and across the UK, are more complex and in fact not all yet capable of being known.
Anyhow, to start with those statistics.
Here are the seats won by each party in Scotland:
And here is the percentage of the votes cast for each party:
(Figures rounded to nearest percentage point and excluding smaller parties)
The change, in the cliché everyone has rushed for, is seismic and cannot be denied.
But there are other ways of looking at the figures.
Note, for example, how 50% of the votes got the SNP 95% of the seats (56 out of 59). Then look at the number of votes each major party needed to gain a seat in 2015, first in Britain as a whole (Northern Ireland, where different parties stand, is excluded). The parties are arranged top to bottom from the least number of votes needed to gain a seat to the most:
(Votes are rounded to the nearest hundred)
And in Scotland:
(Votes again are rounded to the nearest hundred. Neither UKIP, 47,000 votes, nor Greens, 39,200, won a seat)
This imbalance is, of course, a consequence of the first past the post electoral system in which the winner takes all in each constituency. Interestingly, such imbalances could not occur in any other election in Scotland – European, Scottish parliament or local council – because they all contain (different) elements of proportionality. The SNP, ironically, have benefited massively from the electoral system used by the UK, the country they want to leave.
Another interesting question is the extent to which a vote for the SNP represents a true desire for independence. If it does, the proportion of those voting who want independence has increased from the 45% in the referendum only six months ago to 50%. But unless we have direct evidence (for example, the Scottish Referendum Study I’ve discussed in another post) we should be cautious about assuming why people vote the way they do.
In the case of the referendum, I’ve argued before that it’s relevant to also draw conclusions from the whole electorate, those who voted and those who didn’t. Taking the non-voters into account, 37.7% of the total electorate actually voted Yes in the referendum. I accept there are reservations in applying the same logic to the UK general election but at least when that arithmetic is done, we can see that on a general election turnout of 71% in Scotland 35.6% of the total Scottish electorate voted for the SNP. Similar figures from the 1979 devolution referendum showed that 32.9% of the electorate voted for the devolution on offer then. The coincidence of all the figures is striking. It raises the question of whether over a long period there has been a more or less a settled proportion of, say, 33% – 40% of the Scottish electorate that wants independence or something approaching it.
If any nationalists read this I am sure they will say this is sophistry, a diehard unionist clutching at straws, and all the rest. I hope the way I’ve looked at the statistics shows this is not the case.
Those of us who want to stay together in a united country cannot afford to be complacent about any of these statistics. They have to be set in the context of wider political changes and issues – the invigorated (and more radical?) SNP; a Labour party humiliated in Scotland, diminished across much of the UK and badly needing a period of introspection; a Conservative government in Westminster flushed with electoral success but with its old pro/anti-EU fault line unresolved; … you can add your own issues, there are plenty to choose from.
If the union is to be retained, and indeed if Scotland is not to cast itself adrift as a much poorer place than it is now, wisdom and decisive action are needed on many issues from across the political spectrum. I hope our politicians are up to it.