The Scottish election saw the SNP fall one seat short of an overall majority, but secure a fourth election victory in a row. 

Despite their success in the polls, many, such as Michael Gove, highlighted the lack of a majority as a failure to secure a second independence referendum with Nicola Sturgeon responding saying that independence should be a “matter of when – not if”.

The SNP saw an increase in the number of seats from the previous parliament and a record share of the vote (up 1.2%) amid an increased turnout, with the pro-Scottish independence Greens also increased their number of seats from 5 to 8, thus giving the Scottish Parliament a ‘pro-independence' majority. 

But does the Scottish Parliament provide a majority, and does the SNP missing out on a majority limit any potential calls for a referendum? 

READ MORE: Scottish election 2021: Results in full from Holyrood vote

Is the Scottish voting system designed for majority governments?

One of the main differences between the Scottish Parliament and the voting system is that it is not necessarily designed to return a majority government.

Unlike Westminster, the Scottish voting system was introduced to make it more difficult for parties to have an overall majority and to encourage parties working together in coalition or ‘king-maker governments'. 

This can be shown from looking at the elections even prior to the SNP dominance. In the 1999 and 2003 elections, the Labour Party won the most seats and obtained the most votes, but they did not get an overall majority as a result of the voting system. Indeed, in the history of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish elections have only returned a majority once, when the SNP effectively broke the mould in 2011. 

Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies and each constituency elects one MSP. The way that this MSP is elected is the exact same method as elections in Westminster - using First Past The Post (FPTP).

The Additional Member System (AMS), based on the German mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, is used in Scotland and is significantly more proportional than FPTP. Such an election system is known as a hybrid electoral system. AMS means that the overall number of MSPs elected for each party is roughly proportional to their electoral support. 

The 'second vote' is used to elect 56 additional members that will complete the political landscape of Holyrood. Scotland is divided into 8 parliamentary regions and each region elects 7 regional MSPs.

D'Hondt method in Scotland’s Additional Member System

Regions are elected by proportional list via the D’Hondt formula. 

Scotland’s system is designed to limit the winning party using the D'Hondt method in the additional member system. It is sometimes described as the highest average method. The principle of this idea is that a party's vote total is divided by a certain figure which increases as it wins more seats. Thus, as the party becomes bigger in the parliament, the party's total in succeeding rounds gets smaller, allowing parties with lower initial totals to win seats and effectively make establishing a majority much harder. 

In Scotland, the list vote is divided into the number of constituency wins in the region +1. This means that by winning more constituencies, you need a significantly larger list vote.  

In simple terms, the more constituency seats a party wins, the fewer list seats it will win. 

READ MORE: Gordon Brown launches pro-Union campaign aimed at 'middle Scotland'

A proportional system?

The Scottish Parliament typically works in a proportional way using the D’Hondt system, with the share of the votes aiming to closely mirror the share of the vote. And it has been relatively successful in doing this once again in 2021. 

The SNP obtained just under half of the vote, and has just under half of the available seats. The Scottish Conservatives, who campaigned on the List vote, or peach vote mainly, secured 23.5% of the vote and won 24% of the seats. Labour had a list vote return of 19% of the regional vote - which translated into 17% of the seats. The Scottish Greens won 8% of the vote and obtained 6% of the available seats in the chamber. 

The list vote is arguably a better indicator for proportion of the parliament given the increase in tactical voting at a constituency level, with voters effectively ‘lending their vote’ to the party with the best chance of stopping the SNP. 

In 2011 the SNP won a majority for the first and only time so far in Scottish Parliament history through losing out on more constituency votes but being propped up by regional votes. The party won 53 of seats at a constituency level but a high regional vote saw them obtain 16 list seats. 10 years on they have upped their constituency wins to 62 but only picked up 2 regional seats as a result. 

Do Westminster Government’s return majorities?

General elections are exceptionally likely to return majorities for one party, but once again this is due mainly to the voting system and not due to the percentage of the vote. 

For example in the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives won a majority and a mandate for Brexit with 43.6% of the vote - however as the system was less proportional they obtained 56% of the seats in parliament.

To further simplify, the majority voted against the party which won the election and ended up with the majority in the House of Commons.  

Does a majority indicate a mandate for independence?

The constitutional battle raised by the Scottish election is one for the politicians to argue over - however, early indications seem to imply that Westminster will rely on the constituency majority backing the union and the failure to secure a majority to oppose Indyref2. 

In a host of interviews over the weekend, Michael Gove said the failure to secure a majority meant that the UK Government was not considering a second independence referendum. He said “The majority of people who voted in the constituencies voted for parties that were opposed to a referendum” with the SNP obtaining 47.1% and Scottish Greens obtaining 1.3%.

Looking at the regional vote share, while the SNP’s list vote fell by 1.4% to 40.3%, the Scottish Greens obtained 8.1% and Alba obtained 1.7% giving pro-independence parties a 50.1% return at the regional list level. 

Many critics have also pointed out that the Conservatives used the 2019 election as their mandate for Brexit but secured less than half the vote.  Indeed over 52% of the population voted for pro-European parties. Others have pointed out that in a parliament designed to prevent majorities, a majority of pro-independence parties have been returned by the Scottish people.