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Blair’s Bombshell

How Scottish Devolution Blew up the British General Election

A Scottish National Party election poster featuring leader Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, May 4, 2015. Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

In 1998, the British Parliament fulfilled an election promise that then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had made in 1997 and passed the Scotland Act, paving the way for Scotland to elect its own legislature. In 1999, almost 300 years after the old “Estates of Scotland” were absorbed into the Palace of Westminster, an independent unicameral Parliament returned to Edinburgh. For the next 15 years, the Scottish executive and Parliament focused on the nuts and bolts of institution building and governance. Then, in September 2014, Scotland exploded. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) presided over a referendum on national independence that sent shock waves across the United Kingdom.

Days before the referendum, with the race too close to call in polling, the Scottish Labour Party scrambled to ramp up a “Better Together,” or “No,” campaign, which received a behind-the-scenes assist from the virtually moribund Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Labour’s performance was feeble. Had it not been for voters’ fears about negative economic repercussions of independence and a rousing 12th-hour speech in defense of the union from former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown—a Scot with a flair for fiery oratory—the “Yes” votes might have won the day. In the event, the SNP lost the referendum. But the Labour Party seems to have lost Scotland.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon poses with a poster during a campaign visit to Portobello, Scotland, April 22, 2015.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon poses with a poster during a campaign visit to Portobello, Scotland, April 22, 2015.

Russell Cheyne / Reuters

Since September, new members have flocked to the SNP and the party has moved from the periphery to become a major political force in British politics. Some pollsters predict the SNP might win as many as 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament in elections this week. This could include a seat for Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader and Scottish first minister, who was the architect of the 2014 referendum. If the SNP eclipses the Scottish Labour Party in its traditional Scottish strongholds, the SNP could deprive Labour of the majority it needs to form a government.

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