Dr Liam Fox is a former Defence Secretary and is MP for North Somerset.
Having done endless election result programmes (especially during my time as Party Chairman), I’m well used to the concept of saying how well we have done – irrespective of the outcome. Every so often, however, a particular result stands out as being of enormous significance. The result in the Scottish parliamentary election this week was one of them.
First, the facts. The SNP won 63 seats (- 6), Conservatives 31 seats (+16) and Labour 24 seats (-13). In terms of vote share, the SNP won 46.5 per cent (+1.1), Labour 22.6 per cent (-9.2) and the Conservatives 22 per cent (+8.1). Ruth Davidson and our colleagues in Scotland deserve not only our huge congratulations, but also our thanks. They are now the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament and, having put the union squarely at the centre of their political identity, will increasingly be the natural voice for those who voted against independence.
Despite having a fractionally smaller share of the popular vote than Labour, the final result in terms of seats is testament to their professionalism and well -argeted campaigning. Across Scotland, they showed that Conservatives can win first past the post contests, rather than simply relying on the list system. The results in Ruth Davidson’s own Edinburgh seat, Jackson Carlaw’s win in Eastwood and John Scott’s victory in Ayr were particularly delicious. We should not underestimate the importance of this achievement.
Nor should we fail to understand how psychologically traumatic this will be for Labour. Not only was this their worst vote share in Scotland for a century, but it was a brutal reaffirmation that the nightmare they encountered at the 2015 general election was part of a continuum, not a single event. For decades they took the people of Scotland for granted, feathering their own nests and regarding what they saw as their personal fiefdom as a God-given right. It is difficult to know now what the point of Labour in Scotland actually is!
Yet, the ramifications of the result in Scotland go well beyond the border of Scotland itself or its own internal politics. The first is that, without the block of Scottish seats on which they could always previously rely, it is difficult to see how Labour can possibly win a general election in 2020. The swing that they would have to obtain in England to compensate for what seems to be (at least in the medium term) the deprivation of their previously safe territory is hard to imagine. In that respect, whatever the results in the rest of the country, Labour cannot now realistically regard themselves as a potential government in 2020.
Perhaps the most immediate impact, however, will be on the forthcoming European referendum. Many Conservatives who would prefer to leave the European Union have genuinely worried about the threat by the SNP to hold another Scottish referendum on independence should the UK as a whole vote to leave but Scotland choose to remain. I have regularly made the argument that the people of Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and that any decision on membership of the European Union was a decision for the whole of the UK with every vote, from Shetland to Cornwall, having equal weight.
Notwithstanding this, there was still unease based on the perception of the SNP strength and the threat they might pose to the union. William Hague gave this as one of his main reasons for reluctantly deciding to throw his hand in with the Remainers.
Now we have a different picture. The SNP have lost their overall majority in the Scottish parliament and will govern as a minority. They even ducked the challenge of putting a commitment to another referendum, in the event of a Brexit vote, in their manifesto. They cannot claim, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s protestations, to have a clear mandate for any constitutional change. The Scottish Conservatives, championing the Union itself, have become resurgent. Of course the Conservative party will have divided views in Scotland on the question of EU membership, as we will elsewhere in the UK, but it is now much clearer that we can take the decision on the merits of the EU case itself, rather than being bullied by those who would threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom. For all these reasons, our Scottish colleagues deserve our gratitude.