So what now for the SNP Westminster group?

by | 29 Feb 2024

The general disgust at events in Westminster over the Gaza debate last week is dissipating. What could the SNP Group do now?

As a political strategist I often enjoy trying to work out in my head how I’d deal with a really difficult strategic situation (as long as it’s not actually on me). I guess it’s like a rollercoaster – a simulated crisis which helps me to compartmentalise the stress of a real one.

And since I have no influence over the strategy of the SNP Westminster group, I was thinking last week what I would do next post-Hoylegate. It really isn’t an easy puzzle to solve, for a load of reasons.

Let me start with this – I’m flabbergasted by some of the commentary around what happened last week. I’m not slow to criticise the SNP but why on earth is a party that has had a lifelong commitment to opposing international war and violence (Vietnam, Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria…) being accused of bad faith for sticking to its long-standing principles?

The suggestion from some commentators that the SNP doesn’t really care about Palestinians and is just being opportunist seems clearly, measurably unfair to me (though I do accept that the SNP has engaged in a little too much cynical opportunism and grandstanding over the last decade to be able to shake off such claims completely).

And the idea that it’s somehow wrong to expose Labour’s position on this barking mad. That’s what pluralistic parliamentary democracy is all about – different blocks of people debating and pushing each other into positions which are hopefully better than the ones everyone started in. Global justice absolutely required that Labour was exposed relentlessly until it changed its position.

Should the SNP have walked out? That’s tricky. To answer that you need to ask first if what happened in the Commons on that chaotic evening was honest or whether it was corrupt. Let me help you with that, using my standard technique.

If an individual decisions is honest then you can extrapolate from it a category of principle which made it honest and then you can apply that principle consistently. If you prosecute a person who is not in a position of power for a crime then you should be able to articulate why it is a crime. And if you are honest you would then apply that principle equally, even when the person concerned is powerful.

That’s the basis of our justice system, so let’s use a thought experiment to see if it is the basis of our parliamentary system. If everyone is telling the truth here, Hoyle broke parliamentary precedent because he was worried about the health and safety of MPs who’d received death threats. So let me run this by you; if the SNP had burst into the Speaker’s chambers and demanded precedent be broken to protect the welfare of its politicians, would that have happened?

It would not. I can promise that Hoyle wouldn’t have broken precedent for the SNP, or the Lib Dems, certainly not Alba or Plaid Cymru, and I’m sceptical he would have done so for the Tories. If I’m right (and you know I am), his decision is corrupt.

The SNP is not going to be permitted to use the House of Commons in a way that benefits it at the expense of British interests

I labour all this a bit to set out the dimensions of the problem the SNP face. While they often behave like a party of the Scottish establishment (and not infrequently of the British establishment), that’s not how the British establishment sees them. Much of the media is pulling out the stops here to suppress information about what is happening in Gaza.

The SNP can be anti-war for many decades and vote accordingly and be accused of bad faith in our media. That’s its problem – its actions will not be assessed fairly. And nor will it be treated fairly. Hoyle’s crocodile tears didn’t last long before he was conspiring again to ensure that the establishment line prevailed in Westminster, at the expense of the SNP.

A biased media and a parliament way too comfortable with corruption leaves the SNP with traps all around it. But that isn’t the only thing hemming in the SNP – as with so much else, it’s own track record over the last ten years now causes it problems too.

Some of those problems relate to unsupportable bluster – things like staging a walk-out then meekly returning the next day with no real follow-through. Some relate to the strong impression that too many SNP MPs love their life down there and are content to settle in. Others relate to the question of what mass SNP representation at Westminster had actually achieved.

Or, to put this another way, the SNP never had a strategy for what it was going to do in and with Westminster. Everything remained centralised in Edinburgh and frankly at times Iain Blackford gave the strong impression that he got his lines from whatever Nicola Sturgeon said in the morning papers. The party at Westminster has basically drifted for a decade and there isn’t much to show for it.

So where now? That’s the tricky thing, because various of the possible avenues are at least partly obstructed. Following up what happened in Hoylegate with the proposal for a substantive motion was clever in a number of ways, but it wasn’t going to be permitted. The SNP is not going to be permitted to use the House of Commons in a way that benefits it at the expense of British interests.

And the media wouldn’t give it the necessary boost anyway. I spent an early part of my working life in Westminster and it is very, very easy to disappear into the (increasingly tatty) furniture. My guess is that faffing about with parliamentary procedures as an opposition party is now futile – and by ‘now’ I suspect I mean ‘always’.

At the other extreme is withdrawal. There are major problems with this, starting from the fact that it won’t happen anyway. Go and look at the SNP’s accounts; Short Money from Westminster has been an absolutely crucial part of the party’s funding and keeping ranks of people on salaries good enough that they are easy to manage has also become standard SNP practice.

Even if principle could counteract self interest here, the SNP has spent so much time telling us how important it is to be in Westminster and left so many quotables lying around to that effect that it would now make itself look hypocritical if it did withdraw. Which it won’t.

So what is being floated is an even worse compromise – sort of tokenistic withdrawal, carefully designed so everyone can keep their salaries. That just stinks. A stunt like disrupting a parliament over the long term will just become waring and if those involved are making no personal sacrifices If they’re staying home and taking a salary, people will turn up their noses.

All the SNP can really do is think hard about what a wider external audience is hearing from the noise the SNP creates – it should be consistent and mount up to something greater than the sum of its parts

Let me be clear; what I’m saying is that the combination of the media, the nature of Westminster, the structure of the UK and the self-interest of the SNP makes using the Parliament of the UK as a platform to achieve the SNP’s stated goals an unlikely avenue to pursue. That’s not how Britain works.

So what can it do? I’m tempted to say ‘go back to 2015 and come up with a coherent reason to be there, set out a strategy and stick to it’. Personally I’d have used the Commons as a revenue-generator, advising all to just sit out much of the parliamentary business (which is largely England-centric), be good constituency MPs and otherwise deploy resources in a way capable of moving the chances of independence forward.

As in ‘take the money and serve your constituents, but not the British state’. That didn’t happen and there was a bit too much self-importance. Making a U-turn out of that situation isn’t easy, especially given the massive pressures coming to bear on the SNP just now.

It doesn’t leave an awful lot to do. Go after the Speaker? I don’t think that’ll work. The parliamentary lobby journalists are very capable of moving on quickly if they want to, and there is no media momentum around going after the Speaker. Nor is there enough momentum from the Tories.

The SNP has been excellent on Gaza and must continue the pressure, but I suspect that by far the strongest pressure point has now passed. Strategically I’m not sure how much extra political gain it will bring from here on and it feels to me like the SNP’s best shot was body-blocked by Hoyle.

So what is left? Shuffle in defeated and cower on the benches? The problem is that there’s a good chance it’s going to look like that no matter what they do. There’s a good chance this is just forgotten as a simple ‘pox on all their houses’ story whose significance is mainly trivia questions.

That leaves really only one opportunity – use the platform to make noises you want people to hear. That’s about it. Flynn is a good dispatch box performer and lands good blows, but I don’t really derive a strategy from his interventions. It looks too hit and run. He needs to pick some consistent themes and stick with them. He needs the accumulation of a message, and ‘standing up for Scotland’ has run its course.

What theme would I pick? Well, I think the House of Commons has provided a clear option. I’d push consistently the message that ‘the UK is fundamentally corrupt, a nation where it’s who you know not what you know, and this truth is almost universally recognised by the public – so the UK needs major, major reform’.

I might also pick one or two consistent policy themes where an incoming Labour Government will be weak and keep pushing ‘we could do so much more in Scotland’. It probably should have been climate change but that rings a bit hollow with the current SNP-hydrocarbons love-in.

All the SNP can really do is think hard about what a wider external audience is hearing from the noise the SNP creates. It should be consistent and mount up to something greater than the sum of its parts. And its purpose should be carefully considered. ‘We’re great’ isn’t going to work for the SNP now because too many people don’t agree.

Honestly, Westminster is a parliament in which only two things matter – who is in charge and who looks like they are going to be in charge next. The SNP is neither so it needs to be much cleverer. It should create its theme and make it stick. I’d pick British corruption. It’s not dynamite. It’s not going to bring the house down in one go. But, compared to what is happening, it might at least jolt the foundations a bit.

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