THE expulsion of Ian Blackford from the House of Commons and the immediate walkout by all the other SNP MPs catapulted Scotland to the front of UK political consciousness in a way little else short of another independence referendum could.
Opponents dismissed the drama as a stunt, but it was none the worse for that. It achieved its objective of grabbing headlines and reminding MPs, UK media and the general public of Scotland’s existence as a distinct political entity – and it also secured Commons time for a debate on the Westminster “power grab” into the bargain.
After the months of argument over the UK Government’s insistence that some powers coming back from Brussels must be retained at Westminster for up to seven years, it was adding insult to injury that only 19 minutes was devoted to the issue when it came before MPs for approval as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill debate last week – and even worse that no Scottish MP was allowed to speak.
Mr Blackford’s protests and his temporary expulsion by the Speaker had echoes of previous Common walkouts by Alex Salmond – suspended for five days after interrupting Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s Budget speech in 1988 – and Donald Dewar, who led 50 Labour MPs out of the chamber in 1987 in protest at Scotland not being taken seriously.
The latest “stunt” led more than 5000 people to join the SNP in just 24 hours. Now the party is threatening “guerrilla” tactics to make life even more difficult for Theresa May and her already struggling government. If the procedural sabotage takes off it could mean regular filibustering, all-night sittings and legislative timetables upset.
Former Justice Secretary and ex-Edinburgh East SNP MSP Kenny MacAskill welcomed the walkout as a “long overdue” change in the party’s attitude to Westminster and an end to the “far too supine posture” that had been taken up till now.
Alex Salmond, claiming he had advised Mr Blackford on the walkout, also criticised the previous record of the Westminster group, saying “too many seemed intent on winning the gold star for good attendance rather than independence”.
He added: “The people who send the SNP south expect their MPs to shake it up, not settle down.” On top of the extensive coverage of Mr Blackford’s protest, the SNP got another unexpected boost when ex-Daily Record editor Murray Foote, the man behind The Vow on more powers for Holyrood if Scots voted No in 2014, came out in support of independence.
The conversion of someone who played such a key role in the other side’s victory is a powerful signal of a shifting mood. But the SNP is still up against opinion polls which show little advance in support for independence, despite the party’s clear lead for both Westminster and Holyrood elections.
The Scottish Government still also faces a UK prime minister who will not countenance another referendum and shows little respect for devolution.
The SNP’s Westminster walkout was an important gesture and concerted filibustering and other procedural disruption have the potential to cause trouble for the government.
But trying to secure a better Brexit deal or move Scotland closer to independence both remain uphill struggles for the SNP.