A short history of Scottish Parliament elections, 1999-2011

SNP leader Alex Salmond chats to Nancy Clarke (left) in a Dunfermline park while on the campaign trail ahead of the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. Jay Anderson (right), preferred not to engage in the political discussion. Picture: Donald MacLeod/TSPL
SNP leader Alex Salmond chats to Nancy Clarke (left) in a Dunfermline park while on the campaign trail ahead of the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. Jay Anderson (right), preferred not to engage in the political discussion. Picture: Donald MacLeod/TSPL
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IF A week is said to be a long time in politics, then 17 years feels closer to an eternity. The political scene as it was on May 6, 1999 - the date of the first Scottish Parliament elections - is almost unrecognisable today.

1999: A new parliament is born

Donald Dewar with his Labour negotiation team in May 1999, which was in talks with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government in the new Scottish Parliament. From left, MSPs Sarah Boyack, Sam Galbraith, Dewar, Henry McLeish and Tom McCabe. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.

Donald Dewar with his Labour negotiation team in May 1999, which was in talks with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government in the new Scottish Parliament. From left, MSPs Sarah Boyack, Sam Galbraith, Dewar, Henry McLeish and Tom McCabe. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL.

Scottish Labour has arguably never been stronger than during the 1999 campaign and its immediate aftermath. In Donald Dewar, the party had a leader widely viewed as the father of devolution - the man who secured a Yes vote in the 1997 referendum that paved the way for Holyrood.

The SNP, by far the dominant force in Scottish politics today, was not yet the slick electoral machine that would deliver an outright majority in 2011. But the Nationalists had overtaken the Tories at the 1997 General Election to become the third biggest party in terms of MPs.

Alex Salmond was entering his ninth year as SNP leader. His relatively high public profile far eclipsed anyone else in the party. Nicola Sturgeon was a Glasgow solicitor who had failed to win a Westminster seat at two previous elections and remained largely unknown outside of political circles.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats were enjoying life under leader Jim Wallace. The party returned 10 MPs in 1997, and played a key role in campaigning for devolution.

Alex Salmond unveils the SNP's first Scottish Parliament manifesto at the former Royal High School on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, on April 8, 1999. Picture: Denis Straughan/TSPL

Alex Salmond unveils the SNP's first Scottish Parliament manifesto at the former Royal High School on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, on April 8, 1999. Picture: Denis Straughan/TSPL

David McLetchie was the Scottish Conservative charged with leading a party into a parliament many of its members didn’t want and would rather pretend didn’t exist. The Tories had lost all of their MPs north of the border and were facing years in the political wilderness.

The Scottish Greens were virtually unknown. Tommy Sheridan was the leader of a new left-wing alliance called the Scottish Socialist Party. Neither stood a chance of winning a constituency seat. But thanks to an unfamiliar electoral system being used for the first time, both would return MSPs on what was known as the list vote.

Labour won 56 seats, three of those via the list vote, but nine short of an overall majority. It agreed to enter a coalition with the 17-strong Lib Dems.

The SNP, with 35 seats, formed the official opposition. The Tories, strict opponents of proportional representation, returned all of their 18 MSPs via the list vote.

First Minister Jack McConnel unveils Scottish Labour's 2003 election manifesto at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture: Donald MacLeod/TSPL

First Minister Jack McConnel unveils Scottish Labour's 2003 election manifesto at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture: Donald MacLeod/TSPL

Robin Harper created history by becoming the first Green candidate in the UK to win election at a national level.

The 58-year-old teacher said: “Keir Hardie was elected at the end of the last century and the colour of his century was socialist. For the next century, the colour for the future of the world has to be green.”

Alex Salmond, while disappointed his party failed to match Labour, offered a prophetic comment in the wake of the result. “We are seeing a step change in Scottish politics,” he said. “Firstly a step change for the Scottish National Party, secondly and perhaps more importantly a step change for Scotland.”

2003: A second term for McConnell

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace kicks-off his party's Holyrood campaign in April 2003 with a balloon release. Picture: Jon Savage/TSPL

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace kicks-off his party's Holyrood campaign in April 2003 with a balloon release. Picture: Jon Savage/TSPL

The first session of the new parliament was far from plain sailing for Labour, its biggest party. Donald Dewar died of a brain haemorrhage in October 2000 while in office. His successor, Henry McLeish, lasted a little over a year in charge before resigning over the Officegate affair.

Jack McConnell was sworn in as First Minister in November 2001 and set about preparing the ground for the 2003 election campaign.

Despite leadership turmoil, the Lab-Lib Dem coalition could point to some key policy success stories, such as the introduction of free personal care for the elderly.

The SNP was now under the leadership of John Swinney following Alex Salmond’s decision to step down in 2000.

Labour’s vote share dropped and it lost six MSPs, but the party was still able to form a second coalition with the Lib Dems, who were unchanged on 17 seats.

The SNP had an election to forget. It dropped eight seats, leaving it with just 27 MSPs. Swinney soon faced calls to resign.

Nicola Sturgeon celebrates winning the Glasgow Govan constituency at the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. Picture: Gareth Easton/TSPL

Nicola Sturgeon celebrates winning the Glasgow Govan constituency at the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. Picture: Gareth Easton/TSPL

The real story of the campaign was the success of smaller parties and independent candidates. The Greens returned a record seven MSPs via the list vote, and the Scottish Socialists six.

Three independent MSPs were elected: Dennis Canavan, Margo MacDonald and Jean Turner. John Swinburne, leader of the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, also became an MSP.

“For this second term, there will be no ‘business as usual’ or simply ‘more of the same’, said McConnell. “People are impatient for change and I am too.”

READ MORE: Henry McLeish escapes censure over Officegate

2007: A close run thing

It was a case of third time lucky for the SNP in 2007. Alex Salmond was back as leader following the resignation of John Swinney, with Nicola Sturgeon as his deputy, and the party had a new found confidence.

The shine of the New Labour years had worn off. The fall-out from the Iraq war and the timing of Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street dominated the headlines in the run-up to the vote. Jack McConnell’s Holyrood administration was generally viewed as competent but uninspiring.

Despite problems at a UK level, Labour was confident it could cling on in Scotland. It was not to be.

The SNP edged home with 47 seats to Labour’s 46. Crucially, Salmond’s party also won the popular vote, giving it a clear mandate to form a government for the first time.

Initial discussions to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats came to nothing, and the SNP announced it would form a minority administration.

The two-way battle between the Nationalists and Labour squeezed out the smaller parties. The Greens were reduced to two MSPs while the SSP was wiped out. Only Margo MacDonald kept her seat as an independent.

READ MORE: ‘Frustrated’ Jack McConnell blames Westminster and Iraq for election defeat

2011: An SNP tsunami

Many political pundits were far from convinced a minority government could survive a full four-year term - but the SNP proved adept at winning votes on a confidence-and-supply basis with other parties.

Opinion polls were initially encouraging for Labour and its new leader Iain Gray in the months leading up to the 2011 election. But by April, polls were firmly swinging back towards Alex Salmond’s party.

The scale of the SNP’s success took almost everyone by surprise. It won 53 of 73 constituencies, as well as returning 16 list MSPs, giving it an overall majority.

Labour suffered its worst election result since 1932, losing 22 constituencies to the Nationalists. It had to rely on the list vote for many of its 37 seats.

It was also a night to forget for the Lib Dems. They lost 12 seats and saw their share of the popular vote fall 50 per cent on 2007.

The Tories’ share of the vote also fell slightly and party lost two MSPs.

The leaders of Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives all announced their resignations within hours of the result.

The scale of the SNP’s victory meant it could now proceed with its core manifesto pledge - to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

“Just as the Scottish people have restored trust in us, we must trust the people as well,” Salmond declared in his victory speech. “Which is why, in this term of the parliament, we will bring forward a referendum and trust the people on Scotland’s own constitutional future.”

Although the referendum ended in defeat for the SNP and the wider Yes campaign in September 2014, the constitution remains at the forefront of many voters’ minds as they head to the polls in 2016.

READ MORE: Holyrood 2016: Meet the parties aiming for their first seats

Iain Gray is confronted by anti-austerity protestor Sean Clerkin outside Glasgow Central station during the 2011 Scottish Parliament campaign. Picture: SWNS

Iain Gray is confronted by anti-austerity protestor Sean Clerkin outside Glasgow Central station during the 2011 Scottish Parliament campaign. Picture: SWNS