IT wasn’t a question of if they would win, it was a question of by how much.

In this election – carried out during the Covid pandemic and branded the “independence election” – it was a foregone conclusion that the SNP would emerge as the Scottish Parliament’s largest party as polls repeatedly showed them ahead with the public.

Labour, the Tories and the LibDems campaigned for second place while competing to become the voice of Unionism and much of the media’s coverage revolved around the question of an SNP majority.

Behind the scenes, organisers and activists advocating for “both votes SNP” contended not only with the practical impact of coronavirus, but with the political ructions caused by the emergence of the Alba Party promising a “supermajority” for Yes just six weeks away from the vote.

Sitting SNP MPs and councillors and even 2021 Holyrood candidates jumped ship and Nicola Sturgeon’s party, it was claimed, was now in trouble.

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In the end, the SNP secured their largest ever vote share, with 1,066,858 votes confirmed by late afternoon as counting continued.

A record fourth term in government was confirmed with 64 seats, 48% of the constituency vote and 40% of the list vote.

“It’s a stunning result – any democrat who tries to say this is not a mandate alongside the Greens is just at it,” said newly returned MSP James Dornan (below).

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“The media have a role in this, unfortunately the role they are playing is the wrong one. They seem to be going along with this narrative that if we don’t have a majority it is some sort of failing. All we need is a majority of MSPs that support the idea of an independence referendum.”

Alex Salmond said his new organisation wanted to work with the SNP – but capture “wasted” list votes that wouldn’t return an SNP member under the D’Hondt system. He’d also pledged to start immediate negotiations with Westminster on independence, in contrast with Sturgeon’s determination to wait until the pandemic is under control.

The announcement came in a lengthy YouTube livestream marred by technical glitches. The announcement had been branded the biggest open secret in Scottish politics, but if it was an open secret, many high-ranking SNP figures hadn’t heard it.

“It wasn’t a total surprise but we didn’t see it coming, if that makes sense,” the Sunday National was told by one of his former colleagues. “Obviously Alex was looking to rebuild his reputation after the harassment inquiry, but the first I heard about it was when it appeared on YouTube, then the word went round.”

“That was like watching a car crash, I was shrieking and literally couldn’t stop looking at it,” an SNP MSP said. “It’s become like a dirty secret between us, we’ll message each other and say ‘I’ve watched it again’ or ‘did you see they’ve done another one?’ “I wouldn’t say it changed the ‘both votes SNP’ message, but it gave an emotional edge to it.”

That slogan was “hammered” in on election leaflets, letters and online ads. “It’s not like we’ve never said it before,” a councillor said. “But this is the first time we actually had people repeating it back to us. You’d go to canvas and they’d literally say ‘both votes SNP’, we didn’t need to say that.”

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The defection of well-kent faces like Kenny MacAskill, Neale Hanvey, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and George Kerevan triggered a range of responses from within the SNP. Some were angry, others felt let down (“They can all get stuffed,” one MSP said of the defectees). Still others felt some of those leaving the party – the contingent included councillors, branch officials, national executive committee members and grassroots activists who’d been publicly critical – were so unhappy within the SNP that the move made sense.

“Some of our members went over in good faith,” one MSP said. “I don’t want to criticise them. They’ve done what they thought was best. I’d like to work with them again.”

BUT few of those the Sunday National has spoken to thought the move was likely to pay off. Throughout the election period, sources from throughout the country became more convinced that Alba were not cutting through with the general public, despite a membership of around 5000. There were few public signs of support, they said, while poll projections were low and SNP canvassers failed to detect any signs of breakthrough. “My sense is that the extent of their support is the extent of their members,” an SNP official said.

Yesterday some hypothesised that Salmond’s approach – branded “independence now” by one MP – had put people off.

However, the party’s launch did change the election. There was some frustration amongst SNP ranks that more wasn’t being said about their manifesto instead of coverage revolving around the personal and professional clash between Salmond and Sturgeon.

The National: Pete Wishart will chair the committee hearing the evidence. Photograph: Getty

Pete Wishart (above), the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, was highly critical of Alba’s impact on the SNP, on the cause of independence and on the election campaign more broadly.

He said their emergence – accompanied by a group of supporters featuring “unsavoury” bloggers – helped harden the opinion of Pro-UK supporters and encouraged them out to vote for the Unionist parties.

“Alba have been a negative force in this election campaign,” he said.

“They have depressed the overall mood concerning the debate about independence. I think the most corrosive impact has been over the appearance of the former First Minister Alex Salmond, his refusal to acknowledge some of his past behaviours.

“Some of the most unsavoury people in the independence debate online, the online bloggers, for example, were given a starring role in his campaign and seemed to provide quite a lot of the ideological heft to his campaign.

“One of the consequences of his reappearance was to harden up the forces against independence. The biggest impact, I think, was on soft No voters, who we have won over in the past year and are tentative about independence, who still need to be convinced.

“They would have been appalled about some of the things Alex and his blogger allies were saying about negotiating independence in a week and leaving out the necessity of an independence referendum.”

He added: “While Alba have had little impact on the arithmetic, they have had a huge impact on the mood of the campaign and possibly how some people perceive the cause of independence.”

THE launch of Alba is also thought to have driven a change in list voting behaviour, according to some sources. In the Stirling, Glasgow, Ayrshire and North East, activists reported that Yes backers who weren’t marking their papers for the SNP had told them they were considering the Greens instead. In West Dunbartonshire, Greens were getting 50 votes to every one for Alba in SNP canvassing, a senior figure said. Meanwhile, the Tories were telling Unionists of all colours to forget their party preference and vote Conservative to block indyref2 and George Galloway’s All for Unity was doing the same.

With the same message going out on both sides of the constitutional divide, tactical voting was perhaps more of a feature this year than ever before.

In Aberdeenshire, where the SNP missed a target seat, there was frustration towards Alba yesterday. “In this area there are a lot of small Conservatives who are probably willing to have their eyes opened to the opportunities of independence,” a source said. “They want answers to the facts like the economy, currency, but are willing to be convinced. I think we were getting there, there were high percentages a few months ago of over 50% for independence in areas like the North East.

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“I think Alba really put a spanner in the slow and steady wins the race approach, the urgency which they were saying we need independence would have put people off, what they heard was we wanted independence in the middle of a pandemic and it put people off.”

But a successful MSP said “fundamentally, it comes down to you vote for what you believe, you vote for the party you want in government. That’s a personal decision, regardless of what anyone tells you to do.”

There were swings to the Tories in many areas, compared with the 2016 results. But Gordon MP Richard Thomson says there’s little to compare, given that Brexit’s happened since then and changed everything.

“A more instructive comparison is between now and the council and Westminster elections of 2017,” he said. “Back then, at the height of the 2017 local elections and just before Theresa May triggered the Article 50 process on Brexit, the SNP announced plans to press ahead with indyref2, in line with what we’d said we’d do in the event of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against our will. However, there was a strong push-back to that in parts of the North East, even amongst some SNP supporters, largely I think because of the continued uncertainty at that time over what Brexit might look like.

“That contributed to a blue tide sweeping over the North East for the Conservatives, firstly in the council elections and then shortly after at the snap Westminster Election.

“What we’ve seen since in Westminster elections, council by-elections and now in the Holyrood results is that 2017 represented a high-water mark for the Tories here. This election isn’t an upward trend for them – it feels very much like a snapshot of them on the way back down.”

With the campaign period beginning during tighter Covid restrictions, there were some concerns that the SNP, who have the largest activist network in Scotland, would be hamstrung and that the big-spending Tories would be able to match SNP campaigning through force of bank balance.

Massive effort was put into developing digital content for social media networks, as well as creating reams of leaflets and letters. “In a normal election the SNP can put feet on the ground like no other party can,” a source said. “More money was put into paying for mail. Activists couldn’t put stuff through doors and Royal Mail are seen as less objectionable – nobody minds getting their birthday card from Aunt Agnes delivered, but they might mind someone coming up with a leaflet. People were careful to be seen to be doing the right thing. We always have to think, ‘what will the public think?’”

“There was a ridiculous amount of wasted mail from the Conservatives. They just wouldn’t stop sending stuff telling you who not to vote for. Their election returns will make extremely interesting reading and we’ll see how much each vote cost the parties.”

To attract newer voters, SNP youth wing Young Scots for Independence (YSI) used its funds to pay for targeted ads in marginal seats for the first time. Content went out on Facebook and Instagram. Members also got involved with candidate campaigns, running social media drives and co-ordinating press releases and interviews for some.

“Usually we’d just be canvassing and chapping doors, it’s been a really big learning curve,” said a YSI source.

“Getting young people involved in campaigning has really, really helped.”

HOWEVER, everyone the Sunday National spoke to said Sturgeon’s stewardship during the pandemic had been key to winning and keeping the public’s trust.

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Ruth Maguire, returned to Cunninghame South, said that had been key, along with a manifesto that provided “a real injection of energy” for the party. “There’s really good stuff in there – tangible, exciting policies, progressive and practical stuff,” she said.

Maguire shared confidence in the party’s national campaign but says she was unable to get a feel for her own chances before the count began due to the arm’s length conditions it’s unfolded under.

“My election agent told me fairly early on that he thought I was winning but honestly I didn’t really believe it until I was told the numbers.

“I really hope we never have something like this again.”

Bob Doris, who was re-elected in Maryhill and Springburn, agrees good governance has been key to returns and that the hard work of constituency teams – his has handled 10,000 cases over five years – shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I want independence yesterday but I want it when a majority of the people of Scotland are ready for it,” he said.

“If we get this right the next set of Scottish elections will be for an independent Scottish Parliament. Let’s bolt down this recovery with the powers we have.

“The next step has to be independence to build the kind of Scotland we want.”