Andrew Whitaker: How long can SNP discipline last?

Party has so far kept a united front at Holyrood – but can it maintain this at Westminster, asks Andrew Whitaker
The SNPs group of 56 Westminster MPs have yet to see any rebellions or dissent within the ranks. Picture: ContributedThe SNPs group of 56 Westminster MPs have yet to see any rebellions or dissent within the ranks. Picture: Contributed
The SNPs group of 56 Westminster MPs have yet to see any rebellions or dissent within the ranks. Picture: Contributed

A defining characteristic of the SNP’s eight years in power has been the iron discipline among the party’s elected politicians with rebellions against the official line of the leadership virtually unheard of.

Such is the drive of the SNP towards its ultimate goal of independence, and to continue with its electoral success, that the words “rift”, “split” and “schism” which are regularly applied to other parties are simply an anathema to the Nationalists.

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Veteran commentators of the political scene report having never seen anything like it before even in Tony Blair and New Labour’s heyday, when a defeat-weary party membership was for a time prepared to swallow almost anything the leadership wanted in exchange for electoral success.

With the exception of the SNP’s abandoning its decades-long opposition to Nato membership in late 2012– a position that then leader Alex Salmond narrowly convinced the party to adopt – most people would be hard pushed to think of any other recent significant public divisions in the party.

It often appears as if the normal laws of politics do not apply to the SNP, particularly with the virtual non-existence of backbench rebellions against the Nationalist government at Holyrood during its eight years in office.

It’s sometimes forgotten just how long the SNP has held power in Scotland. Think of the internal rebellions Blair had faced after eight years – for example over Iraq, the use of the private sector in the NHS and university tuition fees, as well as the number of discontented former ministers languishing on the backbenches.

And since the general election it looks as though that famous SNP internal discipline at Holyrood has successfully been exported to Westminster.

None of what is clearly a heavily whipped group of 56 SNP MPs have yet shown any signs of going their own way.

Quite the reverse, in fact, when some newly elected SNP MPs seemed ultra-keen to follow their master’s voices in a questionable episode by seeking to take over the Commons seat occupied for decades by the left-wing Labour MP Dennis Skinner to secure it for their party leadership, according to some – an episode that did the SNP’s image few favours.

But will this state of affairs last forever at Westminster and will the 56 SNP MPs always be on message?

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Given the recent history of the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics it’s entirely possible this could continue for some time at least.

After all, following the New Labour landslide of 1997 the intake of new MPs did not exactly go out of their way to oppose the leadership over controversial polices such as tuition fees and a cut in benefits to single parents.

But the election of 56 new SNP MPs does change the dynamic in all sorts of ways, with the Nationalists now the third biggest party at Westminster, easily eclipsing the Liberal Democrats.

The tally of 56 MPs is also more than five times the size of what the party took during its previous high watermark in the second of two elections in 1974, when 11 Nationalists were elected to the Commons.

In the parliament after the 2010 election, the SNP’s Westminster parliamentary party numbering six MPs, and although it contained one of the party’s most senior figures in defence spokesman and national campaign boss Angus Robertson, he was nothing like as influential as the party’s Holyrood big hitters such as Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and of course Alex Salmond.

It’s perhaps stating the obvious, but numerically the two SNP parliamentary parties of 56 at Westminster and 64 at Holyrood are pretty similar in size.

With Salmond’s return to Westminster and the success of the SNP group helping to force David Cameron to scrap the Tories’ early move to repeal the ban on fox hunting, it’s clear the SNP are a force that even several years ago they had no apparent prospect of being.

However, it should not be ruled out that the creation of a significant powerful bloc of SNP MPs at Westminster may lead to tensions with its counterparts at Holyrood.

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After Scottish Labour’s near-wipeout at Westminster on 7 May it’s now not talked of at all, but it is only very recently that that party was gripped by tensions over its stance on devolution under Johann Lamont’s leadership.

Of course such tensions had been bubbling under the surface ever since the onset of devolution in 1999, with some figures in Scottish Labour lamentably and foolishly viewing the Edinburgh parliament as a place where its “second XI” should go – something for which the party is continuing to pay a heavy price for.

It’s unlikely the SNP, given its huge success at party management and internal discipline, will face anything even approaching that. But there may well be some differences emerge, including potentially over the question of whether to go for a second independence referendum, whatever platform the party decides to campaign on at the 2016 Holyrood elections.

There could also be some difference on domestic policies, with some new members such as Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard taking a more left-wing line in opposing the austerity agenda of the Tory government, with perhaps some others opting for a more centrist approach.

However tightly organised and well run the Nationalists are, there will inevitably come times when one of its MPs goes off message – think of issues like the abolition of the monarchy and perhaps the old Nato issue some way down the line, even if it’s not in the immediate future.

There have also been suggestions that some SNP MPs have sought to influence the party’s recent selection contests for Holyrood candidates – something that points to potential tensions in the offing.

Westminster has traditionally been much more prone to rebellions than Holyrood, with the Tories on the question of Europe being an obvious example and within Labour recently on whether to abstain or vote against cuts to welfare benefits.

Again, the SNP is unlikely to experience the same schisms, but the differences in Holyrood and Westminster, where the party is represented like never before, could bring out some such tensions even if it does take some time to emerge.