The casual observer, looking at the 2021 Scottish election results, could be forgiven for thinking "nothing to see here". The parties' vote shares barely changed and, as a result, neither did their seat shares. The elation of a gain in the constituency races, such as the SNP's victory over the Conservatives in Ayr, is swiftly followed by the realisation that this probably means the loss of a seat via the regional list - the part of the electoral system designed to keep the overall result proportional.
But the fact that so little has changed since the last Holyrood election in May 2016 is, in itself, noteworthy because the interim has hardly been uneventful. First there was the EU referendum, its shock result and seemingly endless fall-out - including talk of a Westminster power grab on the responsibilities returning from Brussels. Then there was a global pandemic. More recently, the governing SNP has been rocked by what might euphemistically be called the "whole Alex Salmond business".
There were certainly signs of a Brexit effect beneath the surface. On the regional list, the national figures suggest a swing of around one percentage point from SNP to the Conservatives - although it should, however, be noted that not many votes actually travel directly between the two parties. However, that swing was closer to four points in the North East, the Scottish region most sympathetic to Brexit and in which the Conservatives made gains in recent UK general elections. By contrast, in more Europhile Lothian, there was a swing of nearly two points in the other direction. A similar pattern can be seen at the level of individual constituencies. The Conservatives are the Brexit party in Scotland, a status that both wins and loses them votes.
Even these regional differences are relatively small, though. Where there were big swings in the vote, such as the 12-point shift from Labour to the Conservatives in Dumfriesshire or the 11-point swing from the Tories to Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie in Fife North East, they were not about Brexit but about independence.
A recurring pattern in the results was that of anti-independence tactical voting, with many supporters of the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems willing to unite behind whichever of those parties was best placed to defeat the SNP. This prevented the SNP from picking up key target seats like Dumbarton and Aberdeenshire West that would have otherwise have been within reach - and were always its best bet for winning a majority of seats despite falling short of 50% of the vote.
The next referendum debate
The real driver of this election, then, as of every Scottish election since the 2014 referendum, was the constitutional question. According to Scottish Election Study constituency vote intentions data, fully 92% of voters were opting for a party that shared their view on independence.
The strength of this alignment is extraordinary - it far outstrips, for example, the link between Brexit views and voting in the 2019 general election - and it leaves little or no room for issues like the pandemic, education, the Salmond affair and so on. This is not to say that such things are ignored by the public. It's just that, when voters are asked about those issues, their opinions generally turn out to be squarely in line with their constitutional preferences. In that Scottish Election Study survey, 89% of independence supporters thought that the SNP would do a good job of governing Scotland if elected. Just 13% of pro-union voters said the same.
Boiled down, then, the 2021 election confirms that the Scottish electorate is divided pretty much straight down the middle on independence. Would it have made much difference had the SNP won one more seat and gained its majority? Not in the Scottish parliament, where a pro-independence majority was all but guaranteed anyway. And not according to the voters, more than 60% of whom don't believe this election has any bearing on whether there is a mandate for a referendum anyway. Many think there is already a mandate, whatever the result, and many others on the unionist side believe that no result in any direction could be considered a mandate for a referendum.
While the independence polls continue to shiver around 50:50, the political arguments will retain a somewhat hypothetical flavour - arguments about the mandate to hold a referendum that neither side will be keen to risk having.
Author: Rob Johns - Professor of Politics, University of Essex