Back-benchers in any government are encouraged to support their ministers on every vote, whatever the issue or the political scenario; loyalty is all.
But this week was a notable lesson in the control that the SNP leadership exercises over its troops. This was not an issue of strategic positioning. It was not a Scotland-wide policy, such as centralising police into one national force. It was local. Very local. There are few issues as local as the sheriff or district court. Access to justice needs to be local. So say lawyers, victims organisations and many other groups who help people through the process of law. Yet the Scottish Government has decided to close sheriff courts across Scotland.
Many of these – such as Cupar, Peebles and Stonehaven – are in areas represented in parliament by SNP members. Christine Grahame, who won the Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale seat in 2011, has long championed Peebles Sheriff Court in parliament. She has initiated parliamentary debates saying as much. But this week she joined her SNP colleagues in voting for closure.
This is puzzling. Ms Grahame is no standard SNP back-bencher. She is spirited and quite able to make up her own mind. But this week she put her party before her constituents in Peebles. Why?
The big picture still points to 18 September, 2014. The independence referendum provides a laser-like focus for Nationalists. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the objective that remains the only factor that unites all SNP members.
Divided parties do not look good as the electorate looks in on parliament. Look at the embarrassment of the SNP’s numerous positions on the currency an independent Scotland would adopt. Alex Salmond’s assertion that Scotland would walk into a sterling currency zone is hotly disputed. Not only by the UK government, but also by leading advocates of independence. The chairman of the Yes campaign openly disagrees with Salmond.
But the loyalty demanded by SNP ministers of their back-benchers must have come at a cost. A new constituency member such as North East Fife’s Rod Campbell voted this week to close Cupar Sheriff Court, despite arguing to the contrary. Uncomfortable stuff. Mr Campbell must be hoping the Kingdom of Fife forgets this before the 2016 election. He is not alone.
Could it be that these back-benchers are so wedded to nationalism that the greater goal of independence must be put before local people who elected them to represent their interests? Will these backbenchers ever say no to the great leader? Or was the 2011 election simply an SNP flowing tide that swamped all other parties and carried many surprised Nationalists into Holyrood – Nationalists who find constituency representation difficult. But tides do not just flow. They ebb, too. For some MSPs, the tide just turned.
• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland