What can we expect to see in the next Scottish Parliament?
With less than ten weeks until the Scottish Parliament election, the outcome is far from certain. While the SNP retain a commanding lead in the opinion polls, it is unknown as to whether that will translate into an overall majority, as in 2011, or leave them instead as the largest party and minority government, as in 2016.
The difference caused by those two results is instructive: in 2011 the electoral mandate of a majority government was sufficient for the SNP to hold its long-desired independence referendum.
However, the 2016 result has led to a Parliament which subjects the SNP to difficult annual negotiations with other parties on its budget, with the Scottish Green Party extracting concessions in return for their support. Parliament has also inflicted embarrassing political defeats on the government, such as the recent vote on reform of the SQA.
Regardless of the policy implications, announcements of candidates have shown that May’s elections are likely to produce a very different kind of Scottish Parliament.
For starters, the high watermark for gender equality at Holyrood came in 2003, when 52 female MSPs were elected, making up 40% of the Parliament. Since then, progress has stalled, with only 45 female MSPs being returned in both 2011 and 2016.
Changes to candidate selection procedures by parties across the political spectrum mean that in the upcoming election, 49 female candidates have been announced to defend seats that their party won in 2016, a figure that will increase once the Conservatives finalise their regional lists. This is unprecedented in any Scottish election so far.
History may also be made in another way – Kaukab Stewart, the candidate selected to defend Glasgow Kelvin for the SNP, would become the first female MSP from a BAME background to be elected in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
These are all signs of a more diverse Scottish Parliament than we have seen in years gone by.
Former Members of the House of Commons are also attempting political comebacks by standing in this year’s election.
While a variety of Scottish politicians shifted from Westminster to Holyrood in the early years of the Scottish Parliament, movement in the opposite direction has recently become more common.
This was most recently seen when John Lamont resigned his seat as an MSP to successfully contest the Westminster seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk in 2017, and when former Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill became MP for East Lothian in 2019.
However, as the centre of gravity in Scottish politics shifts away from Westminster, this May’s election has seen a reversal of the trend and an opportunity to bring experienced politicians into the Parliament.
Two sitting MPs will be aiming for a move to Holyrood, most prominently Scottish Conservative leader and Moray MP Douglas Ross. Mr Ross intends to combine both roles if elected, but Airdrie and Shotts MP Neil Gray plans to stand down from Westminster, making his local electors the first in the United Kingdom to select a new MP since December 2019.
If successful, he will potentially join some familiar SNP faces, with Angus Robertson standing in Edinburgh Central and former Edinburgh West MP Michelle Thomson standing in Falkirk East. Similar movement is occurring on the Labour benches as well, with former MPs Paul Sweeney, Martin Whitfield and Katy Clark all aiming for a political return.
Thirty-one MSPs will be retiring at the election, including such stalwarts of Scottish politics as Johann Lamont, Lewis Macdonald, Roseanna Cunningham and Alex Neil. Their experience will be missed, but a new generation of post-devolution politicians will soon arrive – Molly Nolan, the 23-year-old Liberal Democrat candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, would be the first MSP born after the referendum creating the Scottish Parliament to take a seat in it.
That milestone may not come to pass, but one thing is for certain: the next Scottish Parliament will continue to reflect modern Scotland.
By Richard Hunter, Account Executive in Grayling UK’s Public Affairs team.