Tom Peterkin: SNP MPs yet to make mark on Westminster

Mhairi Black has been the most "box office" of the SNP MPs. Picture: John Devlin
Mhairi Black has been the most "box office" of the SNP MPs. Picture: John Devlin
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When he stepped down as First Minister, Alex Salmond promised the SNP would hold “Westminster’s feet to the fire” as politics entered the post-independence referendum era.

In this year’s general election, the Scottish electorate gave the Nationalists an unprecedented opportunity to do just that when 56 MPs were returned to the House of Commons.

Of course since then a couple of unfortunate scandals have seen the SNP’s representation dwindle from 56 to 54. The suspension of Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarrie has deprived the SNP of two politicians, who were expected to shine in London.

The controversies which put Thomson and McGarrie out of the picture (at least for the time being) hogged the headlines, naturally enough, when it came to coverage of the SNP’s new intake at the tail end of 2015.

Standing on the cusp of 2016, the SNP leadership has its fingers crossed that no further distractions emerge that prove unhelpful to the party. At the same time, there is a feeling that 2016 has to be the year which sees some more SNP MPs put their heads above the parapet – but for more positive reasons.

Under their Westminster leader Angus Robertson, the 56/54 have proved a well-whipped and cohesive group. Through sheer weight of numbers they have managed to put some pressure on the UK government on issues like English foxhunting and David Cameron’s proposal for a British Bill of Human Rights.

But this has been more down to strong leadership and discipline than any initiative from the new intake. Now is the time for SNP MPs to prove that they are more than just lobby fodder.

Admittedly, there is a handful of Nationalists who have made names for themselves. The youngest of them all Mhiari Black,20, has proved herself to be political box office. Her youthful precocity, her maiden speech and all backed up by a first class degree from Glasgow University has ensured that. The likes of the former cancer surgeon Philippa Whitford and Tommy Shepherd, the comedy impresario, have had their moments.

As a former BBC journalist, one would expect John Nicolson to be a darling of the media classes. He has proved an adept performer on the television, chewing the fat with Michael Portillo and others on Andrew Neil’s late-night politics discussion programme.

There is, however, a tranche of less visible SNP MPs, who have yet to make their mark. A good deal of them are no strangers to the rough and tumble of political debate having been schooled in council chambers across Scotland. Of course the mother of parliaments presents a different set of challenges to those posed by municipal politics.

A lot of the SNP’s pre-general election rhetoric was about how their representatives would play a constructive role in the parliament that Alex Salmond et al unsuccessfully asked the electorate to vote to get rid of during the referendum.

Bearing that in mind, it is not too much to expect a few more SNP MPs to stand up and be counted?

From the SNP’s point of view, having a few more heavy hitters makes good political sense. One only has to look at what happened to Scottish Labour MPs. With the honourable exceptions of their big names (Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander being two of the more obvious examples) – too many Labour MPs slid into obscurity in London only to be swamped when the tide turned against them.