Free from the realities of government and the third party, the SNP is making strides, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
Last May, when the 56 came rattling down the tracks from Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon made a promise to voters who had put an unprecedented level of trust in the SNP: that the flood of nationalist MPs would “make Scotland’s voice heard” at Westminster.
With elected members back in their constituencies for the summer recess having completed their first full parliamentary year, how well are they delivering on that pledge?
The subtext was that Scotland parliamentary revolutionaries were going to shake up the Westminster establishment like Afghan Mujahideen, to quote one enthusiastic admirer.
A year on, the banal reality is that the most successful members of the 56 are the ones that have become quietly effective parliamentarians.
Within the first few days, the new SNP MPs made their presence felt by seizing the best seats on the opposition benches. Dennis Skinner was briefly ousted from his spot, before the firebrand ex-miner formed the kind of progressive alliance between Labour and the SNP that is often talked about but rarely seen.
And nationalist MPs were certainly heard in the chamber when they attempted to overturn hundreds of years of convention by replacing the lowing noise made by members with more civilised applause. That rebellion, too, was cut short by the Speaker, and next time the SNP group put their hands together, they’re likely to be reminded that they sat on them during the ovation for outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron.
Free from the realities of government and occupying the safe ground of being the third party, at Westminster the SNP have been able to advance a left-wing agenda that colleagues at Holyrood would never be allowed to endorse. An alternative Queen’s Speech put out by the SNP included measures like a Fair Tax Bill -– despite Nicola Sturgeon’s hesitation over raising the top rate of income tax.
A stunning electoral victory like the one the SNP enjoyed last year was always going to prompt close scrutiny from the media, and the nationalists have not been immune. The 56 have had to navigate their share of controversy and scandal, and two of them currently sit as independents following revelations about financial dealings and property transactions that are the subject of police investigation. The ongoing deputy leadership race was triggered after Stewart Hosie gave up the job following reports of an alleged love triangle involving him, fellow nationalist MP Angus MacNeil, and a female parliamentary journalist.
So they’ve suffered their knocks. But political showboating aside, where the SNP group have got on with the job, they’ve done so with distinction. Leading that effort has been Angus Robertson, who has set the tone in many of the key exchanges with the government, particularly at Prime Ministers’ Questions, where Jeremy Corbyn has refused to engage. With Labour in disarray over its position on Trident, it was Robertson who led parliamentary opposition to renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
As group leader, Robertson cleverly gave every member of the enlarged intake a stake in policy discussions. That has paid off with the graft of MPs like Mhairi Black on issues such as pensions. On their own initiative, others such as Kirsty Blackman and Alison Thewliss have challenged the way Westminster working practices impact MPs with families.
On committees, the SNP has used its newfound heft effectively, too. Douglas Chapman has played a key role in embarrassing the MoD and defence contractors over the shambles of the Type 26 frigate programme. On the Home Affairs Select Committee, Stuart McDonald led efforts to have the text of its recent report amended to make it more critical of UK policy on welcoming unaccompanied child migrants. And another Stewart McDonald has led criticism of car manufacturer Vauxhall over its handling of a recall of exploding cars.
The most remarkable display of SNP soft power on committees came two weeks ago, with the publication of the report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee into the Scottish Six.
Proposals to give viewers in Scotland a different network news broadcast to those in the rest of the UK has been a shibboleth for nationalists and unionists alike since the dawn of devolution. Labour ministers who signed off the creation of the Scottish Parliament believed that allowing the Six O’Clock News to become a Scottish production would be the beginning of the end of the UK.
Despite the Scottish Six saga running on for close to 20 years, a committee of MPs had never before given it their support. Now one with a Conservative majority has not only backed the idea of a Scottish Six in principle – it specifically called for the most radical version.
Much of the credit for the turnaround must go to the SNP MP on the committee, John Nicolson. He was helped by unconvincing evidence from BBC executives, but such unequivocal backing for a Scottish Six must have involved some cajoling from Nicolson.
Nuclear weapons and broadcasting aren’t day-to-day priorities for Scottish voters. People in Scotland are wary of Trident, rather than overwhelmingly hostile as the SNP would have us believe, and a large majority are content with the BBC’s current news offering.
But bigger things are coming down the track, and in a week when accusations of Trotskyist infiltration were leveled, it seems fitting to say that in parliament, Labour isn’t working.
The party has been sued by its donors on the one hand and its members on the other. Its leader and deputy aren’t speaking to one another. Across the Labour shadow ministerial team, several spokespeople are doubling up on portfolios and a number of positions remain vacant, making it impossible to properly hold opposite numbers to account.
Government needs an opposition. A statement of the obvious, perhaps, but not so obvious that it occurred to the parties facing the SNP in the last Scottish Parliament when it came to the Named Person provisions.
The next parliamentary year will likely see the triggering of Article 50. The following one could involve a vote on Brexit negotiations. SNP MPs will have their work cut out for them.