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Moment that mattered: The SNP wins a landslide victory

SNP leader Alex Salmond and SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon with newly elected SNP MSPs outside Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, following the SNP's unprecedented victory in the Scottish Parliament election.

“The night shift of a Scottish election tends to be a predictable affair for journalists. We wait for the early safe seats to be announced and paint our noncommittal predictions from there. Traditionally this has involved putting together a few vague ‘Labour on course for a tight victory, coalition looms’ pieces and waiting for our day-shift colleagues to fill in the details in the morning.

Not this election. The battery of unopened chocolate bars and energy drinks strewn across my desk were testament to the fact that, rather than the long and largely uneventful night I had steeled myself for, I had witnessed history. It was 5am – seven hours after the polls closed – and the race to make sense of Scotland’s shock election result in time for my paper’s 6am deadline was all the stimulation I needed. One thing was for sure: there was no such thing as a safe seat any more, at least not for Labour.

Opinion polls in the final week of the campaign had shown the SNP comfortably ahead but nobody, bar the most optimistic of nationalists, quite believed the pollsters had got the margin of victory right. Many thought Labour would rally and an SNP victory, if there was one, would be tight. By 2am, it was clear that there would be no red dawn and that the SNP were wiping the floor with the often chaotic and rudderless Scottish Labour Party.

The first shock saw East Kilbride – the constituency of Andy Kerr, a former health minister and one of Labour’s big hitters – taken comfortably by the nationalists. Then, rapidly, the SNP yellow began to spread across the electoral map as if the entire country had contracted jaundice. A palpable sense that something special was occurring filtered right across the newsroom, which is normally home to reservoirs of scepticism when it comes to ‘exciting’ political stories.

The old adage about how a shaved monkey with a red rosette could win for Labour had been true for large swathes of Scotland for generations. As I looked around the newsroom – where the ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-sixties – it struck me that everyone there had only ever known Labour retaining power time after time in areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire without having to break a sweat. Yet here we were watching this near century-old hegemony slip away.

“One thing was for sure: there was no such thing as a safe seat any more, at least
not for Labour”

The crucial question at this time was: is this landslide being borne out across the whole of Scotland? A quick call to a Lib Dem election agent in one of the party’s key target seats was met with the hushed tones you would expect from a funeral director. He confirmed his party was paying dearly for being given a political hospital pass from their colleagues south of the border. As sunrise approached it was clear we were facing one of the biggest British political upheavals since Tony Blair swept to office in 1997. Declarations across the country provided endless amusement with a string of winning, and rank outsider, SNP candidates wearing surprised looks on their faces which read, ‘Christ, I’ll need to tell the boss I was standing for Parliament now.’

Surprise at the scale of the victory even extended to the party’s self-assured leader, Alex Salmond, for whom grandstanding and smooth talk usually comes as naturally as breathing. A colleague in the Scottish press pack texted to say the First Minister had exclaimed “Fuck me…” when told that his party had taken the Labour stronghold of Clydebank.

A hugely unpopular move by some Scots councils to delay counting votes until the following day meant that much of the overnight momentum was lost by 6am – although this did allow a small window for some sleep. Around lunchtime Labour’s defeat in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy – Gordon Brown’s backyard – handed the SNP the Scottish Parliament’s first ever majority and, crucially, the mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

Around the Parliament building the atmosphere was one of collective shock. Shock from the journalists that we didn’t see the SNP coming, or at least not on this scale, but also surprise at the scale of the Lib Dems’ hiding and Labour’s battering given that they had commanded such a healthy lead in the polls just months before.

The SNP has always operated more as a sect than a political party and its real raison d’être is independence. The drama of this seismic political shift had barely registered before Salmond and his colleagues began beating the drum for more powers from Westminster. In the weeks following the SNP’s victory, a deluge of demands were issued, from control over excise duty to the creation of a separate Scots TV network – all with the aim of inching Scotland closer to the SNP’s dream of separation.

This was met with feckless opposition as the Unionist parties – still punchdrunk from the election result – struggled to regroup and, in the case of the Tories and Labour, began trying to find new leaders who could take on Salmond. It does not augur well for those looking for leadership in the ‘No’ campaign for an independence referendum due to take place within the next three years.

The polls show that few Scots are interested in the break-up of Britain but as recent history has shown, a lack of an alternative narrative to the SNP’s message opens the door for polls to be turned round in dramatic fashion.”

Andrew Picken is a political correspondent at the Scottish Daily Mail. You can follow him on Twitter at @andrewpicken1

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