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SNP MPs know they are pawns in Nicola Sturgeon’s game over the de facto referendum

Nicola Sturgeon prepares to address independence supporters at a rally in Glasgow | Credit: Alamy

SNP MPs know they are pawns in Nicola Sturgeon’s game over the de facto referendum

Many reasons have been given for the coup against Ian Blackford as SNP Commons group leader. These are not so much competing explanations but cumulative concerns. 

Mutterings of discontent have long been heard in the group and beyond. It was not that Blackford had done anything grievously wrong so much that he looked as if he was going through the motions. 

His contribution to the theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions lacked the necessary conciseness (the new leader should look at the late Tam Dalyell’s parliamentary contributions to see how it should be done).  

Blackford’s handling of the Patrick Grady case did not help his case, but he would have survived that had there not been a general sense of malaise. Personalities, jealousies and egos always play a part in these matters but again would not have sounded his political death knell but for wider concerns. 

Fairly or otherwise, the leader and those close to him were believed to convey a sense of self-satisfaction. This was not helped by marginalising talented members of the group. Joanna Cherry’s exclusion from the front bench, given she is the one SNP MP certain to give Tory ministers a headache, only contributed to the view that Blackford ran Nicola Sturgeon’s branch office in London.  

SNP MPs know the de facto referendum is high risk and that they are the pawns in Nicola Sturgeon’s game – the weakest and most dispensable players. They need a stronger voice that is heard in Edinburgh as much as Scotland needs a stronger voice in London.

The key question that looks set to be asked with increasing frequency as we approach the next election is what role should SNP MPs play other than being a support act for the main act in Holyrood?

The previous Speaker applauded SNP MPs for their good behaviour and attendance in the Commons chamber. The occasional anti-establishment act – the walk out of the Commons in 2018, for example – were designed, in typical SNP fashion, to grab a headline rather than as part of a strategy. The walk-out led to a mini-surge in membership but did little to further the cause. Talk of parliamentary guerrilla tactics never materialised.  

Blackford was no Charles Stewart Parnell, nor could he have been even if he had wanted to. Commons procedures were tightened up after Parnell and Irish nationalists disrupted parliament in the nineteenth century. SNP MPs are constrained by Commons rules and a fear that parliamentary disruption would be unpopular in Scotland.  

All of this contributes to growing frustration which basically sums up Blackford’s problems. Whether the new leader can do better remains far from clear. He may be better at the political theatre of PMQs, but these exchanges have little to no effect.

After the 1987 general election when Scottish Labour won 50 seats, its largest number up to that point, the SNP referred to Labour’s “feeble fifty”, in reference to Labour’s impotence. 

But SNP MPs have discovered that surpassing Labour’s best-ever share of the vote does not make them any more powerful than Labour was when the Tories are in power.

The SNP group can only go through the motions of opposition in the Commons with limited opportunities even for talented MPs to make a difference.  But that current problem is as nothing compared to the challenges the SNP will likely face after the next general election.

The SNP’s best hope is that it will win over 50 per cent of the vote and ensure Scotland’s constitutional status remains high on the agenda, but what if 50 per cent is not won?  Even if it is, what role should SNP MPs perform?  Should they boycott the Commons when the UK Government refuses to open negotiations on independence?

The SNP finds itself facing the prospect of a Pyrrhic victory, perhaps winning one of the highest shares of the vote ever of any party in Scotland but short of 50 per cent and the independence referendum goes into hibernation for a generation. It will be difficult to resurrect a case for another de facto referendum any time soon.

The SNP has become dependent on Tory bogeyman in power in London.  Changing the leader does not mean that SNP MPs have found a purpose, a strategy for dealing with the changing context of British politics. And the all too obvious bitterness of the displaced and entitled does not augur well for the new parliamentary group leader.

Facing a Labour government will be far more challenging than the situation SNP MPs find themselves in today.  There is a sense of déjà vu for students of Scottish nationalism but also a sense that the SNP’s lack of institutional memory is a problem. 

A contingent of inexperienced SNP members were elected to the Commons in 1974 with high expectations that independence was around the corner.

But relations with the party leadership in Scotland soon became a problem and the SNP struggled to find a consistent strategy in its relations with a Labour government. Petty jealousies, always present in politics, and poor communications contributed to a breakdown in relations within the group and between the MPs and SNP leadership in Scotland. 

The coup in the Commons is a symptom of a problem likely to grow.

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