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What are the key election issues in Scotland?

The campaign north of the border is largely focused on issues that are the Scottish government’s responsibility. But a change of government in Westminster – with a new focus on growth, fiscal strategy, energy policy and the role of the Scottish Office – could see a big shift in policies in Scotland.

So that’s Euro 2024 over for Scotland. At least our elimination wasn’t the usual glorious exit or hard-luck story: sadly, just tedious failure. As the dust settles on another disappointing campaign, the news cycle in Scotland turns to the upcoming general election.

For those of us living in Scotland, the dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been something to which we have grown accustomed. They have won every Scottish parliamentary election since 2007 and currently hold 43 of 59 Scottish seats in Westminster.

But if opinion polls are to be believed, this may be all about to change. 

Figure 1: How would you be likely to vote in a UK general election?

Source: What Scotland Thinks

For most of the 20th century, Labour was the largest party in Scotland. But as recently as 2021, it was polling in third place with a projected vote share less than half that of the SNP. 

The latest polls now put the two parties neck-and-neck. 

The election comes after a tumultuous 18 months in Scottish politics. At the start of 2023, the SNP were riding high. But in February of that year, Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland’s longest serving first minister – abruptly resigned. Scotland’s next first minister, Humza Yousaf, was in office for just over a year. He left office after a fallout with his minority government colleagues, the Scottish Greens. 

What are the key topics of debate?

Scottish politics looks and feels quite different to the debates taking place elsewhere in the UK. This reflects, in part, the existence of a highly successful third party (the SNP), which contrasts with the traditional two-party dominance of the Conservatives and Labour in England. 

The SNP occupy a similar centre-left ground (if not further left) of Labour. That means that Labour in Scotland, particularly with an eye to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2026, must walk a fine line between setting a policy agenda that attracts potential Conservative voters in the rest of the UK, but which can also secure support from wavering-SNP supporters in Scotland.

Indeed, many of the hustings and TV debates in this election seem to be much more about preparing the ground for the next Scottish election rather than next month’s UK vote. Tune in to a TV debate in Scotland and you’ll most likely be confronted by politicians – including John Swinney for the SNP and Anas Sarwar for Labour – who are not actually standing for election this time around.

Devolution has undoubtedly shaped the focus of the campaign. While many of the concerns of voters are similar – including on the economy and the cost of living – there are important nuances and areas of difference. 

We have seen, for example, the performance of Scotland’s NHS frequently come up as a point of debate. This is despite healthcare in Scotland being the responsibility of the Scottish government not the UK government.

Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives have all attacked the SNP-led Scottish government’s track record on the NHS. The SNP has countered by calling for a future UK government to increasing funding for healthcare significantly (with a call to ‘boost NHS England funding by at least £16 billion each year’) from which around £1.6 billion of funding would flow to Scotland via the Barnett formula

Unsurprisingly, given the importance of energy to Scotland’s economy, debates over the transition to a green economy have also been a focus of attention. The SNP appears to have moved to a more neutral position on the future of North Sea oil and gas activity – in contrast to the tougher stance of their past colleagues in government, the Scottish Greens. The SNP says that it will still support new licences for drilling in the North Sea on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.

In contrast, Scottish Labour have confirmed that they will not approve any new licences. This has become a key source of debate. Opponents have accused Labour of risking thousands of jobs, not just offshore but across supply chains and services. Scottish Labour have countered that the new green investment firm, Great British Energy, will be based in Scotland helping to unlock thousands of jobs in renewables and supporting a transition away from oil and gas.

On taxes and benefits, with income tax largely devolved to the Scottish parliament and an increasing array of social security powers also in the process of being devolved, the debate has largely been relatively silent, beyond high-level ambitions to ‘end austerity’ or promises not to increase certain taxes.

One exception has been the two-child limit, which affects universal credit and child tax credit. The SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens in Scotland all argue that it should be removed. The Conservatives would be likely to keep it. Labour has said that it would like to remove it, but only when fiscal conditions allow. 

What about the constitution?

While Scottish Labour have closed the gap with the SNP in polling prior to the general election, the country remains split over independence

Figure 2: How would you vote in a Scottish independence referendum if held now?

Source: What Scotland Thinks.

The SNP have, as they always do, put independence front and centre in their manifesto. But the constitutional question has not gained as much traction as it has in more recent elections. What this means for the debate on a possible future referendum remains uncertain. 

The focus instead, has been on issues of policy as they relate to the constitution. For example, the SNP, one of the most prominent pro-European voices in the UK, advocates rejoining the European Union and wants to ‘reverse the damage of Brexit’. They also argue that powers over migration should be transferred to the Scottish parliament to help to tackle the decline in Scotland’s working age population and projected higher old-age dependency ratio. 

On the other hand, Scottish Labour has signalled that it would be likely to expand the spending powers of the Scottish Office (or to give it its Sunday-name, the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland). 

Prior to devolution in 1999, the Scottish Office was a powerful government department that ran day-to-day public services in Scotland for most of the 20th century. But with the creation of the Scottish parliament, powers were transferred to the Scottish executive (the precursor to today’s Scottish government). As the UK government territorial department for Scotland, it is likely that it will have an expanded remit, particularly in the areas of spending for economic development, taking on responsibilities that had previously been those of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.


It’s fair to say that, so far, this year’s election campaign in Scotland has been relatively tame – certainly in comparison to recent electoral events. This might be because the election is due to take place in the first week of the Scottish school holidays. Or that many of us have been more exercised about events in Germany than back home. 

But if there is to be a change of government with implications for the UK’s long-term fiscal strategy, national energy policy, economic growth and the remit and influence of the Scottish Office, then we’re potentially in the greatest period of political and policy change in Scotland since the SNP’s rise to power in 2007. 

Battle lines will then be set for the next Scottish election in 2026. By then, we’ll have a World Cup to look forward to.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Nicola McEwen
  • David Bell
  • Ewan Gibbs
  • Stuart McIntyre
  • Graeme Roy
  • John Curtice
  • Tanya Wilson
Author: Graeme Roy
Image: Edinburgh Scotland Skyline,viewed from Calton Hill. Credit: byJeng on iStock
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