Euan McColm: SNP aim to outfox with hand of friendship

Mhairi Black's maiden speech racked up more than 10 million online views. Picture: PA
Mhairi Black's maiden speech racked up more than 10 million online views. Picture: PA
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THIS week, in the world of Scottish politics, people have mostly been banging on about the maiden speech delivered by Mhairi Black, the SNP’s 20-year-old member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Black’s oration was hailed as a thing of rare wonder, its content marking the birth of a new star and what have you.

This was an unshakeable view which held steady until, at the click of a finger, it changed

It was certainly a jolly good speech, though I’m not convinced that extensively quoting the late Tony Benn, a man who was wrong about many things much of the time, necessarily signifies any great genius.

But Black had some decent lines – she was the only 20-year-old who now qualified for subsidised housing, for example – and she was gracious in her tribute to her defeated predecessor, Douglas Alexander.

Being of the hard-to-impress persuasion, I refuse to get caught up in the ludicrously over-the-top reaction to what was, after all, a few minutes talking out loud by a career politician. It was the bare minimum of what we might expect.

But there was, among the Benn-quoting and the Alexander-hailing, an interesting line in Black’s speech concerning co-operation.

The SNP has spent most of its existence in a place of comfortable, if often furiously angry, opposition to everything the Labour party says and does. Having all but eviscerated Scottish Labour in May’s general election, the nationalists now offer, in Black’s words, “a hand of friendship”.

Working together – in the sort of “progressive alliance” that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised during the election campaign – the SNP and Labour would hold the Tory government to account.

It was all very rousing and plausible. If one suspended one’s disbelief for a moment, it was possible to imagine that, yes, the nationalists and Labour could work in harmony, that they could unite against a common foe.

But the reality is that the SNP despises the Labour party – or the 
“Red Tories” as they frequently have it – and that feeling is entirely reciprocated.

Of course, maiden speeches are, by tradition, expected to be magnanimous, but the message about co-operation was pointedly political, echoing a strategy that the SNP’s redoubtable Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, outlined during a speech in the House of Commons to political hacks earlier this week.

Robertson revealed that the SNP’s 56 MPs are to get involved with more English issues, that his new colleagues had been instructed to look beyond the Scottish border and engage with politicians representing constituencies across the UK.

Head teacher Robertson has set his new pupils some homework, asking them to provide him with detailed plans outlining how they intend to make their presence felt.

Unsurprisingly, the nationalist members plan to build alliances with MPs in the north of England to look at improving transport links. This would form part of an SNP attempt to help improve the economic performance of the north of England.

It’s really all very neighbourly, 
isn’t it?

I would be inclined to believe the SNP is being sincere if it wasn’t for the small matter of the party’s continued commitment to Scottish independence.

The SNP will be a friend to England only until the point when it suits its aims for the relationship to change.

A few days ago, the nationalists became the toast of the progressive left for single-handedly preventing a relaxation of anti-fox-hunting laws south of the Border. Having learned that the SNP was to vote on this piece of English legislation, Prime Minister David Cameron lost his bottle and withdrew.

Things were not quite as they were spun, however. For one thing, the SNP cannot take sole credit (or blame, if you like seeing foxes torn apart by dogs) for this government backdown. They were one of a number of parties, including Labour, that stood ready to oppose any loosening of the legislation.

For another, the “clash” saw the SNP and Cameron alike at their strategic best.

For a very long time, the SNP’s “principled” position has been that it would not vote on matters relating to England. This was an unshakeable view which held steady until, at the click of a finger, it changed.

When Cameron called, after last year’s independence referendum, for a new settlement at Westminster where English votes for English laws (or Evel) was the norm, the SNP suddenly discovered that, actually, they were minded to vote on legislation that didn’t apply to Scotland, after all.

In fairness, this made perfect sense. Votes on English matters which involve the spending of public money have a direct impact on Scotland in terms of the amount of cash that’s released to the Scottish Government in the annual block grant.

After his party played its part in thwarting the UK government on fox-hunting, said Robertson, the SNP had been inundated by the “loveliest” emails from people outside Scotland, thanking them for standing up for “the English fox”.

This was not, however, the SNP’s primary aim. Instead, the nationalists saw the fox-hunting vote as the perfect opportunity to rile English Tory MPs. If you want to understand the SNP’s commitment to saving “the English fox”, you need go no further than reading the words of Glasgow East MP Natalie McGarry who, just a couple of months back, wrote that she didn’t want to get too tied up talking about the creatures and that she was disappointed that her email inbox had been “choked” with queries about them.

And just as it suited the SNP to play the part of progressive allies with the objective of upsetting English Conservatives, so it suited Cameron to watch this happen.

The SNP wants to provoke the resentment of English MPs and hasten a move to Evel so that it can report back to Scots about how its parliamentarians are being treated as second class representatives. Cameron wants to hasten a move to Evel so that the Tories’ position at Westminster can be consolidated.

It’s worth bearing this in mind when the likes of Mhairi Black and Angus Robertson talk about the hand of friendship because, we should remember, they want to use it to throttle the UK. «