Euan McColm: SNP Lords could make a difference

The House of Lords. Picture: Getty
The House of Lords. Picture: Getty
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THERE comes a point when being a rebel is no longer dignified. After a certain age, you just look silly. As a youngster, you can rage against authority, lash out at “the man” and scuff along all mean and moody, like. But, one day, you look in the mirror and you’re just a middle-aged bloke in skinny jeans that dig into your paunch and make it impossible for you to bend down. If you drop your keys in the street, you have to leave them where they lie, glinting, taunting you.

At a certain point, the urge to rebel simply must be repressed; it’s time to get on with being a grown-up, or at least to give the impression that’s what you’re doing.

‘Impotent opposition in the House of Commons just isn’t going to cut it’

For a very long time, the SNP was the angry teenager of Scottish politics. Its answer to the question “what are you rebelling against?” was “what have you got?”

But teenagers grow up and calm down. They settle into adulthood, with all its contradictions. They buy trousers which leave them able to breathe.

And so it has been with the SNP. Not so very long ago, it was party policy to have a referendum on the monarchy, but a few days ago all 56 of the party’s new MPs brightly asserted their loyalty to the Queen. Any talk of republicanism is strictly verboten these days.

The party has grown up on the matter of Nato membership too. For decades, the official position was one of opposition to membership: an independent Scotland could do without that sort of “imperialist”, “warmongering” sort of thing.

Now – although it retains its completely inconsistent opposition to nuclear weapons – the SNP is fully in favour of being part of Nato: should Scotland, at some future point, leave the UK, a Scottish Nationalist government would be quite happy to sit under a nuclear defence umbrella.

There is an area of grown-up ­politics, however, that the SNP re­fuses to indulge. The nationalists remain vehemently opposed to the House of Lords, so much so that the party continues to refuse to nominate candidates, even though it has every right to.

Opposition to the Lords is a great remaining totem for the SNP. The upper house, full of unelected members, is an anachronism, they say, an undemocratic duffers club with no mandate.

There are many good arguments against the Lords and all mainstream parties have in recent years supported reform. The restriction of the number of hereditary peers 16 years ago was a step in the right direction and proposals to include elected members, perhaps selected by a proportional representation voting system, have recently been discussed.

But the need for reform of the Lords, while all well and good, does not negate the fact that, in its current form, it does an important job in keeping the government of the day in check.

It’s in all of our interests for legislation that passes through the Commons to be subjected to the greatest possible scrutiny, isn’t it? It is easy to dismiss the upper house as incompatible with democracy but, for the time being, it’s all we have.

And, after winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies, the SNP should soften its stance.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon insists that her MPs will make “Scotland’s voice” (a conflation of country and party, of course, but let’s allow that to pass for now) heard as never before. But how exactly, with a majority Tory government at Westminster, this is to happen is unclear.

There are, of course, good political reasons for Prime Minister David Cameron to make certain concessions to the SNP. He has said he wants to keep the UK together, after all, and if he is to achieve that objective then righteously hacking off the Nats is hardly the way to go about it. But the simple truth is that the SNP in the House of Commons is only as powerful as the Tory government allows it to be. It has no cards to play, other than the threat of making a racket.

The government has a majority and that’s that. Good luck, nationalist MP chums, overcoming that one.

The Lords, however, allows other parties to have some actual influence, even in opposition. Every amendment proposed in the Commons – even if it’s rejected by the government of the day – has a hearing in the Lords. And the Lords, irritating though this may be to opponents of the establishment, do take this responsibility seriously. The chamber is less partisan, less combative and, often, more thoughtful than the Commons.

The SNP is currently, nominally, represented in the Lords by Plaid Cymru’s two peers. How much more the Scottish Nationalists could achieve if they were to send their own people. Former Holyrood Presiding Officer Sir George Reid springs to mind as an obvious candidate. The MSP Bruce Crawford, now scaling back on his role within the Holyrood group, is another whose presence would both enhance the second chamber and strengthen the SNP’s hand at Westminster.

The Lords will go through further reform. That is inevitable. But waiting for it to become completely elected before countenancing sending members there is an adherence to principle by the SNP that has little benefit, as far as I can see.

This is certainly a debate the party should be having. Perhaps it could consider allowing members to nominate candidates. Maybe it could give the wider public a say.

Scots who voted SNP in the general election did so on the basis that their votes would matter, that those they elected would make a difference. Impotent opposition in the House of Commons just isn’t going to cut it.

If Sturgeon is serious about her party making a real difference across a range of policy areas in the UK, then it’s time for her to think again about creating SNP peers.

The Lords may be flawed and much of the nationalists’ opposition to it may be justified but it’s there and it makes a difference. It’s time the SNP grew up and came to terms with that. «