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Angus MacNeil: 'The sheep I shepherd at home show more of an independence of thought than the SNP'

Angus MacNeil photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Angus MacNeil: 'The sheep I shepherd at home show more of an independence of thought than the SNP'

According to Humza Yousaf, losing Ash Regan, former minister for community safety, to Alba over claims that the SNP had lost its way on independence was “no great loss”. A defection from the SNP to the Tories by MP Lisa Cameron over claims of a “toxic and bullying culture” in the party was “no great surprise”. And expelling one of the party’s longest-serving MPs for refusing to retake the party whip at Westminster because he believed the party of independence had lost a sense of urgency on that very cause was, according to the increasingly beleaguered first minister, “absolutely the right thing to do”.

Barra-based Angus Brendan MacNeil had been the SNP MP representing the Western Isles since 2005 until earlier this year when, following a suspension by the Westminster group after reportedly clashing with the [now removed] chief whip Brendan O’Hara, he refused to immediately rejoin the party group at the end of his suspension. MacNeil released a statement at the time, saying: “I will only seek the SNP whip again if it is clear that the SNP are pursuing independence.” And for that, he was expelled as an SNP member by an internal “member conduct committee”. 

And in echoes of previous bitter Labour Party splits, MacNeil claimed: “I didn’t leave the SNP, the SNP left me.”

MacNeil now sits in Westminster as an independent MP and says that is how he will contest his Na h-Eileanan an Iar seat at the looming general election. He also says, in the spirit of cooperation, he will work with any other party including the SNP and Alba if it helps further the cause of independence – but he will continue that fight on his own terms. Importantly, he is also Scotland’s voice on the influential Energy Security and Net Zero Committee at Westminster having been elected to be its convener in April while still in the SNP and having beaten two of his SNP colleagues – Kirsty Blackman and Stewart McDonald – for that prestigious role.

And while there have been calls from within his former party for him to stand down from the convenership, he’s not going anywhere and there is no compunction, under parliamentary rules, for him to do so. He was voted in by a cross-party ballot and says he will serve, as is his right, to the end of the current parliament. It is on that committee, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis, where he believes he can actually use his power as an MP to best effect, to make real change in people’s lives and also further Scotland’s cause.

“This is a UK committee that, for me, has the cause of independence wrapped around it given it is about energy, and, for me, being the only Scottish representative on the committee, never mind being the only independence supporter, the cause of independence can be useful in terms of uniting the committee because when they fall out over an energy issue I tell them how much better it would be for Scotland to be independent and then they wouldn’t have the energy to fight over. That stops them in their tracks.

“I often point out to them that Scotland is so energy rich, and it was Alex Salmond who was the first to coin the phrase ‘the Saudi Arabia of renewables’ which was then nicked by Boris Johnson. But by illustration, I am here at home on Barra today and even on a calm day here there is plenty of wind to power the island and plenty to export. There’s plenty of wave power too, and that’s before we even get onto fossil fuels or look at Aberdeen and the east coast and what is going on there and all around us. Look at the offshore wind licences, disproportionately in Scottish waters, and all the resource off the west coast, as yet untapped, because of the lack of infrastructure. When you are talking energy, it is Scotland, Scotland, Scotland. Scotland is the UK’s energy powerhouse.

“Having a Scottish voice on that committee is vital. Look at the stats. In the last 24 hours, Scotland has sent a couple of gigawatts south and this is normal. For the UK to have a backyard that is so energy rich is good for them, but they need to be reminded that Scotland is not a backyard – it is a nation with choices and not a backyard to be used.

“It’s not just that, the committee is really important because it allows you to drill down into events that affect peoples’ real lives. You can get the debate changed, and with speed. For instance, on the standing charges in the UK, which is a disproportionate cost that all constituents are bearing and people on the lowest earnings are being hit the most, you get the opportunity to move the dial on these things when you engage on that committee, regardless of party.

“For instance, I have had really interesting contributions from Tory MPs – when they are in the right mood – raising fundamental issues about why there is even a standing charge on your household energy bill because you don’t go to the petrol station and buy a litre of petrol and pay a standing charge, so why is there that on your household energy bill? If you bring a certain mood and approach and use quiet reason, and accept other people’s views, then you get a much fairer view.

“There’s a particular Conservative MP who uses the word ‘empathy’ a lot in that committee when he’s talking about power companies not dealing with customers empathetically. That’s interesting to note. We have SSE now, who made huge profits in the last year, and they are putting forced prepaid meters into people’s houses – they went to a magistrates’ court in Berkshire to do just that – and we have a huge opportunity in the committee to shine a light on that kind of injustice and do something about it. It was a poverty charity that actually brought that issue to our attention, and we are then able to get that up the political agenda fast and hopefully make a big difference to people’s lives because the people that are being forced to take prepayment meters are the people that can least afford the energy they need, and they are in real difficulty in life.

“It’s a real symptom of the UK to keep people on the edge of financial stress for so long, Mandy, and people are wasting their lives because of that financial stress. I’ll never forget the time we went, as a previous committee, to a technical university in Denmark and James Cleverly, who was there, asked about fuel poverty and the woman responded, ‘in Denmark, folk can afford stuff’, and I’ll never forget that ‘in Denmark, folk can afford stuff’. We seem to want to keep people poor here in the UK.”

This is serious stuff coming from MacNeil, who is routinely portrayed by some in his previous party as a bit of a clown. I suspect they underestimate him. I tell him that on the day he was suspended one of his former parliamentary colleagues dismissed him to me as a “man-child who has thrown his toys out of the pram”.

MacNeil laughs, which he does a lot, and which is often used as evidence of his lack of gravitas. “I suppose if someone doesn’t know what to say politically then they respond defensively and go for that sort of slur, and it is in keeping with the Humza reaction to Ash Regan. They don’t know what to say, so they just chuck mud and display an inability to think.

MacNeil with the SNP leadership in happier times | Alamy

“I think they don’t want to deal with substantial issues, and they get annoyed with the substantial being presented to them. The substantial threatens their worldview, which is one shaped by being sheep, and if the shepherd on high says ‘we are not going to debate something’ then they all fall into line.

“If the shepherd says ‘we are not using elections for independence’, they all bleat ‘we are not using elections for independence,’ and if the shepherd on high says ‘we are using elections for independence’, then they all bleat that back. If the shepherd is undecided, then they are all undecided. If the shepherd is fudging it, they fudge it, and that is the problem. Too many people in the SNP now take a line without thinking it through.

“The SNP has become very unthinking. It’s frustrating because when myself and Chris [McEleny, now general secretary of Alba] started talking about using elections for independence back in 2019, had people engaged with that discussion then, even to oppose it, it would have allowed us to get to a place quicker where we had argued through all the pros and cons, but it was dismissed out of hand, without any thinking, and when you don’t have an opposing view it takes you longer to get from A to B because you are having to think through the pros and cons yourself, so it is useful when someone does oppose you and you get to debate the issues – it helps improve or change your argument. The devil’s advocate idea is a really useful one because it forces thinking and, right now there is not a lot of thinking going on. Even asking how independence will happen is seen as disloyal. That’s madness from a party that is meant to be about independence, and yet they think I am the clown…

“And so, when I hear them dismissing me as some kind of idiot, what I think is that some people struggle with the concept that if you are friendly and gregarious, and I like to be quite light sometimes, then you can’t possibly engage with the serious stuff, which is a nonsense.

“What they want to do is portray me as a one-dimensional character because that is a comfort to them, and I sometimes wonder if it is because they must lead very dull lives. It’s only when you try out a range of emotions and thoughts that certain ideas occur to you and clearly there are some people in politics, particularly in the SNP, that are totally untroubled by ideas, and that is quite a serious point; they are untroubled by ideas, an idea never occurs to them to trouble them, and it is far easier to bleat the line than be troubled by your own ideas, or even be inconvenienced by your own ideas, or be paused for thought by your own ideas, or even be challenged by your own ideas. That’s an intellectually shallow view of the world but one that so many seem happy with. I wish they were as bothered about independence as they are about me.”

MacNeil’s frustration with his former party’s record in not pursuing independence is palpable. It led him, twice, to intervene personally by writing to sitting Conservative prime ministers following the Brexit vote, first to Theresa May in 2018 and then Boris Johnson in 2020, asking when they would grant a Section 30 order which would allow for a legal second referendum to take place.

Sometimes the sheep I shepherd here at home show more of an independence of thought than the SNP. They dart off here and there, and actually, if more of my sheep were as compliant as some SNP politicians, being a shepherd would be a lot easier.

MacNeil asked Johnson to say whether he would grant the Section 30 order should there be an independence majority in Holyrood following the Scottish Parliament election in May 2021 and added, in his letters to both prime ministers, that should they not grant the request, would they instead support an approach – once backed by former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher – that a majority of independence-supporting Scottish MPs would constitute a mandate for independence. He received negative replies from both and, for showing initiative, nothing but scorn from his own party leader.

“My frustration about the lack of action on independence lies with Nicola [Sturgeon] and some other senior people in the party. My alarm bells started ringing when I had a conversation with Michael Russell at the party conference in Glasgow, 2018. I asked him if he was writing a letter requesting a Section 30 and he said there was no point because Theresa May won’t give it.

“And I thought, well, surely there is a point; if she won’t give it, we then move on to the next thing, because what do we do, hang around and do nothing because she’s not going to give it? I just found that self-defeating attitude astonishing. But nothing was happening from the Scottish Government so, around November 2018, I wrote a letter to Theresa May myself. I think I was the first Scottish politician to do that, and it was actually the night of the SNP St Andrews do where, incidentally, I think, Nicola Sturgeon gave Margaret Ferrier an award for best campaigner of the year or something similar. Bizarrely, at the same time, I wasn’t really considered flavour of the month for taking that initiative at all. And obviously, the response we got about a refusal to grant a Section 30 should have told the Scottish Government that they then needed to plan for the next stage, and they refused to.

“In hindsight, I think the way I was dismissed was because this was about who was doing it, and who wanted to be seen doing it and that was fine, but they weren’t doing it. And my hope was that when you got that definitive ‘no’ to a referendum, you would move to the next stage, i.e., go and legislate for one.

“And I remember the point where Nicola decided to go to the Supreme Court to get that legal judgment, and I asked her in an online meeting, ‘what happens if this fails, where do we go next?’ and she said, ‘I have a number of ideas and I want to keep them close to my chest, I don’t want to elucidate at the moment, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’, and I said, ‘well, that’s assuming there’s a bridge to cross, Nicola’. And in a very typical Nicola fashion, she said to me, ‘well, Angus, we’re looking for credible ideas, not incredibly daft ideas’. And that was that. And then a few weeks later she announced this plan for using the general election as a de facto referendum. Somebody else told me that was going to be a joke at cabinet and then she announced it in parliament. No wonder even John Swinney didn’t know whether she was talking about seats or votes, just a mess because none of it had been thrashed out.

“It didn’t really bother me the way she spoke to me. I think I was always quite outspoken in primary school, and maybe even secondary school. I think I tested the patience of quite a lot of teachers, even though I became a teacher myself, so it was not a unique phenomenon to me. It didn’t bother me at all, but I think that the wider effect it had was in bothering other people, so they basically stopped speaking up. So, after the Supreme Court argy-bargy and when some of us were talking about an early Holyrood election, and she was screeching at me, saying it couldn’t be done, and I said, ‘rather than us arguing about this, Nicola, why don’t we get a legal opinion so that we all have the facts?’ she stormed, ‘I don’t need a legal opinion for a political position’.

MacNeil intervenes during a debate in the Commons | Alamy

“That way of trying to shut down any debate didn’t have much of an effect on me, as you can probably see from my tweets at the time, and I was still battering on about the ability to have an early Holyrood election. You can have an election whenever the MSPs want, and you can make it about independence, have the Scottish people vote for independence, they can’t stop you asking that question at an election in a democracy, no court can stop that, or else you don’t have a democracy.

“I genuinely like Nicola, but I think it was probably when I saw her becoming more and more intolerant of anyone else’s view or not being inclusive, then I saw this had a detrimental effect on our movement. There was no testing out of arguments with Nicola, which is why I think she was caught short on a number of things latterly, including her plan for a de-facto referendum, and when she proclaimed that Scotland would have a consultative referendum on October 19th, 2023. She had no plan, which is why it was never going to happen.

“The SNP is at a crossroads right now and they either carry on throwing playground slurs at people like Ash Regan and me or they get serious about independence. Nicola Sturgeon had the ball at her feet so many times and she either didn’t see the opportunity or was too scared to touch the ball.

“There are bigger things at play for us than day-to-day egos in politics. If you look at Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Ireland, with its 10 billion euro surplus that it doesn’t even know what to do with, and compare that with a Scotland that is struggling to even build small four-room hospitals on small Hebridean islands – and that’s just the kind of thing they are not getting a grip on when they are caught in the minutiae of who is saying what about independence – and you talk to the public just now, and they are not happy and that’s not good for the SNP.

“I find that I am in a much better position, politically, not being in the SNP than being in the SNP and I am really sorry to say that because for so long, all you had to say was ‘the SNP’ and people understood that that meant you stood for independence, but they don’t think that’s clear now.

“I don’t get emotional about leaving the SNP, I get emotional about the squandering the SNP is doing at the moment. I was on a small island in Iceland a few weeks ago, a quarter the size of Barra, four times the population, remote in Icelandic terms, and it is thriving, and we should be thriving rather than facing the demographics we are facing with people leaving, and they are leaving as a consequence of the political inaction in Scotland during the last 10 years.

“We are only going to change these demographic trends by making radical change upstream in terms of political power and decision making. I get emotional about that. I get annoyed about that because on a personal level, I look to the future and it doesn’t look good. Will you have children and grandchildren living on the island, will you have a carer if you get old on the island, what is going to happen when the future just doesn’t look good? This is what decline will look like and the SNP could have changed things, they were trusted by the voters to change things, and they didn’t do it. As gently as you could push from the inside to have a Plan B, they refused to have a Plan B, so when they went and asked for a referendum and the answer was no, they didn’t have a plan to fall back on, and they still don’t.

“People are not going to engage with the arguments for independence until we have a serious date and what Nicola should have said about October the 19th was that we will have a referendum, or an election, no ifs or buts, and had she put in those three other words ‘or an election’, things could have been very different, and that is the point that Nicola could have been very clear with the UK Government about and she missed the moment, yet again, and the sheep went along with it.

“Sometimes the sheep I shepherd here at home show more of an independence of thought than the SNP. They dart off here and there, and actually, if more of my sheep were as compliant as some SNP politicians, being a shepherd would be a lot easier.
“I tweeted a poll for independence on October the 19th just so there could actually be one on that day that she had proclaimed it would happen, and the result from a few thousand voters was 85 per cent for and 15 per cent against and I suppose, cynically, the 15 per cent against might have come straight out of SNP HQ.” 

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