Anyone involved in politics has to get used to a bit of political rough and tumble – it is part of the bread and butter of our democracy. But in the run-up to the general election, some of the language that was used about the SNP was pretty frenzied even by our media standards.
The Conservatives cast the SNP as some kind of bogeyman threat to democracy in an attempt to scare voters south of the border, with posters showing Alex Salmond as a pickpocket emblazoned with the slogan ‘Don’t let the SNP grab your cash’. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, described the SNP’s potential electoral success as the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. Even the normally respectable and thoughtful Paddy Ashdown succumbed to a political tartan-fever, saying that the SNP were heading to London to ‘burn Westminster down’.
Undeterred, the SNP arrived at Westminster with an unprecedented 56 MPs, just three fewer than the total number of Scottish seats. But the media frenzy raged on. Since the Election, SNP MPs have been called out for failing to sit in the Members only area, going for a drink in a bar just behind the bins that was deemed to be for the ‘workers’, their choice of lunch and the act of applauding in Parliament.
There press even reported on what they called the ‘Battle of Buttockburn’, supposedly fought over seating in the chamber, with the papers claiming that all-out war had broken out between the SNP and Dennis Skinner. (In fact, the SNP have made it perfectly clear that they will, of course, be happy for Dennis to remain in his seat. It is good having him there – my colleagues and I have already benefitted from his insight and experience in the chamber.)
If this is the Westminster perception of the SNP, Westminster may be in for a pleasant surprise.
A Tough but Constructive Opposition
The SNP has an overwhelming mandate from the people of Scotland, with 50 per cent of the vote and, of course, those 56 seats. The Conservatives have a majority in the House with less than 37 per cent of the UK vote and14.9 per cent of the Scottish vote – their worst result in Scotland since 1865.
The SNP has made it clear, therefore, that it will be a tough opposition. But it will also be a constructive opposition. We will play our part in scrutinising the government’s programme and providing tough opposition where we disagree, but we will also try to build alliances and push for progressive policies.
New SNP MPs have already demonstrated their willingness to work constructively in a series of impressive maiden speeches. The new MP for Glasgow North, Patrick Grady, started his speech with words from Luke’s Gospel: ‘Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, “Peace to this house.”’
The new SNP MP for Edinburgh East, Tommy Sheppard, perhaps summed up the approach best when he said:
We come here not to disrupt but to be constructive. We come here to be good parliamentarians and to use the often arcane and antiquated processes that exist in this Parliament for the benefit of the people who elected us. Sometimes we will perceive a Scottish national interest, and we will argue the case for that, but on many other occasions, the interests of our constituents will completely align with the interests of yours…
This does not mean we will sideline manifesto commitments. The SNP has a significant mandate from the people of Scotland to oppose further austerity cuts, whose predecessors are harming some of the most vulnerable in society and hampering the economy. We will also vote against the renewal of a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines estimated to cost £100 billion. And we will also be pushing the UK Government to fulfil the promises made to the people of Scotland during the referendum to devolve significant powers to the Scottish Parliament such as those over the economy or welfare.
But we will do so in a constructive manner and build alliances where we can. This is the politics we believe in, and the politics we are used to.
Could Westminster take lessons from Holyrood?
Indeed, this Parliament should pay close attention to the Scottish Parliament even apart from the question of new powers. Westminster is not built for consensus. The benches face each other, two swords’ lengths apart, well suited to aggressive exchanges. Prime Minister’s Questions is no less loud and confrontational inside the Chamber than on TV.
Holyrood works differently. The SNP Minority Government was, by any measure, a popular one – so much so that the Party was returned in 2011 with a majority, a result that the proportional system of the Scottish Parliament was ostensibly designed to prevent. Even today, after over eight years in government, Nicola Sturgeon and other senior Party figures enjoy popularity ratings that politicians from other parties can only dream of after a period in government. Just ask Nick Clegg.
But the government was ambitious, too. It passed four budgets, even at a time of significant cuts to its block grant. It passed what was then world-leading and internationally applauded climate change legislation. It implemented schemes such as the Small Business Bonus Scheme, which has helped 100,000 small businesses during some very difficult times. It reintroducing free education for students. And it passed many other measures too.
The SNP managed to survive its full term by working together with parties across the chamber on a range of issues. The government worked with the Greens on Climate Change, the Liberals on Free Education, Labour on the Bedroom Tax and even the Tories on increasing police numbers. In government the SNP didn’t just survive; it thrived.
There is a lesson there for Westminster. Given the government’s lack of mandate in Scotland, and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, I hope that it will seek to go beyond the traditional Westminster style of politics and adopt a more consensual approach as has been tried in Scotland. In Holyrood the SNP first won power with just 47 seats in a Parliament of 129 members; Labour, incidentally, was then just one behind on 46 seats.
This government is also resting on a shaky mandate. It would do well to remember different parties ‘won’ the General Election in the four constituent parts of the UK. It should start seeking to build consensus where it can. There is a good resource in Alex Salmond, the MP for Gordon, who led that minority government and subsequent majority government.
Europe: the next referendum
One of the first major tests for the Westminster Government will be on the issue of Europe. During the Independence Referendum, Scotland was told (by the Prime Minister among others) that it was a full and equal part of the Union. Leaving the European Union would have a huge impact on people across these islands. By accepting SNP amendments to the Referendum Bill, and requiring majority assent in each of the four constituent parts of the UK to leave the European Union, the Conservative government would send out a strong signal that it is listening, and that it is mindful of its limited mandate.
Furthermore, if the referendum is to go ahead, the Government also needs to work with other parties on the nature of the reform it seeks and the kind of Europe of which we will be a part.
The European Union is unquestionably in need of reform. The Common Fisheries Policy has had a devastating impact on coastal communities across the UK, including my own constituency, protecting neither the environment nor the industry. The EU also needs to give member states greater leeway in terms of public health, as the debate over minimum pricing of alcohol demonstrated. We also desperately need to put a stop to the wasteful practice of moving the European parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg every month, something that undermines public confidence in the entire European project.
But we must also be positive. We cannot simply argue about what Europe shouldn’t be for. Nor, for that matter, should the ‘in’ camp run a campaign that seeks to scare people into voting to remain in the EU – the scaremongering tactics that were deployed during the independence referendum did not do the ‘no’ campaigners any favours.
If we are to have a truly great debate then those of us who are pro-European should also be prepared to consider where we should deepen our cooperation. We should, for instance, discuss greater cooperation in security issues. We cannot and should not leave Greece, Italy, Malta and others to deal with what has been described as the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Similarly, we must be prepared to work as a European Union to help with state-building efforts in the Middle East and North Africa to secure a sustainable future, much in the same way as the Marshall plan did in Europe after the War.
And we cannot leave our partners in the east of the EU to deal alone with the conflict in Ukraine and threats from the Russian Federation. No country – not even Germany – can deal with Putin’s Russia unilaterally. We need to work together in seeking a long-term solution to the situation in Ukraine and standing up to Russia when necessary. It is worthwhile remembering the Europe’s historical successes – notably Enlargement and dealing with the fall of the Berlin Wall – lie in cooperation.
Furthermore, we should look to work more closely on tackling Climate Change as a European Union, working more closely on Energy policy (for instance). No one member state can hope to find solutions to this huge issue unilaterally.
There are also areas of social policy that we can work on together. For instance, Europe should be promoting – not holding back – member states on the Living Wage.
So if there is to be a referendum, let’s be positive. That means reform, but it also means taking seriously the areas where we might consider deepening cooperation. The Conservatives cannot seek to do this alone – the government needs to work across the chamber and across European borders. Given their lack of popularity in the European institutions and capitals of Europe, we might even be able to help them build bridges.
Westminster should be prepared for a few surprises from the new SNP MPs, not least our desire to work for better policies for our constituents and people across the UK. In my maiden speech I reminded the chamber that no party, SNP included, has a monopoly on wisdom. I accept that there are good and decent people in parties across the chamber with good ideas to contribute. We know that we will not agree on everything and there will be robust exchanges over the course of this parliament. But we will seek to build progressive alliances across the Chamber.
The government has a majority of 12 and little support in Scotland; John Major had a majority of 21 and ten times more Tory MPs in Scotland than David Cameron does. As for Labour they need some quick wins – and the Liberals need to regain some relevance. All three parties would do well to listen to the SNP, as we intend to listen to them.
The European referendum will, of course, be a divisive issue in the course of this parliament But the EU was established to heal divisions and could be a good place to start a new kind of politics. Westminster might even surprise itself.