Guest Contributor: Stuart Nicolson

In this guest post, former SNP special adviser Stuart Nicolson gives his perspective on how the election may play out in Scotland and what – if anything – that means for the Holyrood 2026 campaign.

The UK general campaign has kicked off with both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer making early trips to Scotland, underlining the perceived importance of the contest north of the border to the overall outcome. 

The election in Scotland this time round is likely to feel more like a “traditional” UK-wide contest than some of the more recent Westminster elections when the cross-cutting Scottish-specific narratives have been as much to the fore as the UK ones.  

There will of course still be a very distinct Scottish campaign, separate from the London-based narratives, including Scottish leaders’ TV debates.

However, the overarching feel will still be very much in a UK rather than a Scottish space given the widespread expectation that it is a change election comparable to Labour and Conservative wins in 1997 and 2010 respectively.  

Given that heavy UK focus on who the next incumbent of 10 Downing St will be, it’s perhaps inevitable that Scottish issues will get squeezed.  Scottish concerns will still be aired, but the overall UK-wide debate will be dominated by the economy, immigration and (to a much lesser degree) issues of international peace and security. 

In terms of how the campaign will play out, it is very difficult to see anything other than a majority Labour Government. Even if the polls were to narrow significantly in the course of the campaign – and there should be no assumption that they will – their poll lead is such that they could still expect to win a majority, quite possibly on the strength of the result in England and Wales alone. 

Here in Scotland, Labour are more confident than they have been for a long time about their prospects given their recent polling. 

If they were to win the election in Scotland it would be their first win in a national parliamentary vote (Holyrood or Westminster) since 2010. 

However, it’s important to remember that some of the margins are wafer-thin – the difference between Labour doing just fairly well or having a very good result comes down to a very few percentage points – and even fractions of points – across much of the central belt. 

By extension that same calculation applies to the SNP and can make the difference potentially from simply having a difficult night or one that sees a more substantial reverse. 

There are some indications that the SNP may, privately, be a bit more confident about their prospects than some of the most recent headline polling suggests. John Swinney’s relative personal popularity in polls – compared both to Humza Yousaf and to other Scottish leaders – is giving them reason for optimism that they can at least stem the tide. 

The advantages for Swinney are that he has so recently assumed the party leadership, and that expectations for the SNP’s performance had already been significantly lowered before he took the job, that it would be difficult to pin any setback on him personally, while he would be able to claim credit for any result perceived as relative success. 

For the Conservatives, they may well, somewhat counterintuitively, see their vote in the seats they hold in Scotland hold up better than in England and Wales. 

That of course comes down to the constitutional argument and the fact they will play the anti-independence card for all it is worth to shore up their vote in the seats they hold. 

Douglas Ross has spoken of a straight fight between his party and the SNP. In reality, this “straight fight” only exists in the half dozen seats the Tories won in 2019. 

Those six seats will be interesting to watch as the Tories could plausibly hope to hold them. Equally, despite the anti-independence message being one the Conservatives have used very successfully in certain areas, it may not be enough to save them if their vote nationwide truly collapses. 

That could let the SNP snatch some of those constituencies, even if it is a tough night for the party elsewhere, and if so it would go some way to offsetting expected SNP losses to Labour.        

It is also worth considering what the post-election landscape and political mood is likely to feel like in Scotland. 

SNP losses of any significant degree will be widely portrayed as a seismic reverse for the party and for independence. Allied to that will be a widespread assumption that Labour are something close to a shoo-in to be the next government at Holyrood. 

To which, the sensible answer should be – hold on a minute, not so fast. 

The simple fact is that this election, more than any UK one in almost a generation, is seen by many people as having one purpose, namely getting rid of the incumbent government at Westminster. 

As such, there are likely to be substantial numbers of natural SNP and independence supporters prepared to lend their vote to Labour on a one-off basis to ensure that the Conservatives are removed from office. 

Assuming that happens, it is sensible to wait and see how things play out in Scotland. 

However, a realignment back into what has become the recent status quo of Scottish politics – that is to say, along pro and anti-independence lines – is plausible. Not least when current polls show the country is effectively split 50-50 on the issue. 

That, combined with the fact that the next Scottish election will not have what could crudely be described as a “get rid of the Tories” message for Labour to feed off, means it would be unwise for anyone to make assumptions about the outcome of the 2026 Holyrood election. 

That will be the case even if the polls in Scotland take some time to shift in the aftermath of the UK election, as there is precedent for polling in Scotland to remain in what might be called a Westminster mindset given the proximity of respective elections. 

For context, it’s worth remembering the aforementioned 2010 Labour win in Scotland (they won 41 Westminster seats, the SNP only six) came less than 12 months before the SNP effectively broke the Holyrood electoral system by winning an outright majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, paving the way for the 2014 independence referendum.  This is an election which is all but certain to usher in change at the top at a UK level, but which, paradoxically, may only succeed in resetting Scottish politics into the default it has had for the last decade and a half. 

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