Thursday, 28 May 2015

It is not about the 56, it is about the 5.3 million

Here's a column I wrote for on what the SNP hope to achieve at Westminster
Ever since the Earl of Bute stuffed his 18th century cabinet with so many cronies that there were fifteen Ministers with surnames beginning Mac, Westminster has borne waves of Scottish political invasion.
This parliament will be the first in many years to have a Treasury team without a Scot in a key role. It will also be the first to have the vast majority of Scottish MPs of a nationalist bent, borne south on a pendulum swing to patriotism following a hard-fought and hard-headed referendum vote.
They’ve been a political and media sensation, the new SNP MPs. They’ve played musical chairs with Dennis Skinner, claimed Westminster’s Sports and Social bar as their own, and their every utterance and antic is amplified in Scotland where fascination with what the SNP will do in Westminster remains high.
Regarded with something approaching alien intrigue by sections of the parliamentary lobby, most new SNP MPs fall into the category of fully-rounded human beings.
They come from diverse backgrounds - teachers, entrepreneurs, actors, with a smattering of party insiders and former advisers.
Scottish accents will be to the fore in Westminster, not least that of Angus Robertson MP. The SNP parliamentary leader will be entitled to two questions a week to the Prime Minister. Former First Minister, Alex Salmond, will lead on Europe and Foreign Affairs, so plenty airtime guaranteed.
The SNP will have the chair of two committees, Scottish Affairs and Energy and Climate Change, and a voice on every other.
The first lesson opponents need to learn, one easily forgotten within the mock gothic Palace walls, is SNP MPs don’t want to join the Westminster establishment, they want to break it apart.
But to begin with, the main mission of the SNP is to retain the trust of so many former Labour voters in Scotland.
So, the buzzwords are foodbanks and anti-austerity, and all newbys have been strictly on-message. The frustrating arithmetic of Tory majority rendering them powerless to prevent cuts may change that.
The R-R words, that’s “referendum-re-run”, are a no-no, unless you happen to be a “senior SNP source” briefing journalists as the drinks flow on the first night back.  R-R remains the aim although, ironically, Nicola Sturgeon scored the SNP’s greatest political victory on a platform explicitly not for independence.
Gauging the mood of a divided nation is not for fresh schism, Sturgeon said it would take “a material change in circumstance” for her to put forward another independence vote.
You could argue with Labour leaderless in Scotland and the UK, and an austerity driven Tory government in place (she’s alleged to have told the French ambassador that is what she really wanted), circumstances could not be more fortuitous.
But Sturgeon is a gradualist, albeit a strategic politician scanning the Westminster horizon for an opportunity while constitutional devolution moves on apace.
The Scotland Bill, containing the powers of the Smith Commission, will be laid before the Commons with as much symbolic importance as the EU referendum bill.
MPs will be debating devolution clauses on the floor of the House before the summer break. The SNP will demand more powers but it’s clear the Scotland Office is kicking the can down the road until the Calman and Smith tax-raising powers bed in.
Right-wing Tories could ambush the Bill with a call for full fiscal autonomy, an SNP policy the party disavows because it would actually cost Scotland £7.6 billion in lost Barnett funding.
Next up in the permanent political campaign that Scotland has become is the Holyrood 2016 election. That’s the real mission for the 56. It is hard to imagine an SNP manifesto next year that does not contain a commitment to an independence referendum, although in terms that will not bind the party leadership to a timetable.
The EU referendum could provide the opportunity to re-insert a vote, but more likely is renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. If Cameron was cute he would delay the maingate decision on Trident until after the Holyrood elections in May of next year.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, education and health standards are falling off the scales in Scotland after eight years of SNP rule.
Sturgeon and her Ministers are going through a quick stepchange to confront this weakness, admitting they must improve things and so neutralise Scottish Labour’s 2016 election platform.
By adopting Labour’s shape the SNP has all but defeated the last bulwark against independence. And thanks to the patriotic pull of nationalism, Sturgeon continues to walk on water, over the floating hulk of Scottish Labour.
The SNP does this by practising not so much politics as psychology, first on itself and then on the nation. In the last decade the party has been transformed from a gurning, political fringe to a positive force of government and optimism.
Scottish Labour regularly beats itself up for allowing this to happen, but is only partly to blame. The relentless accent on a positive, different future in an age of anti-politics where people are looking for alternatives to the mainstream has made the SNP’s battle easier.
So much easier that under Sturgeonomics the figures don’t matter that much, only the commitment to better times ahead under independence.
The nationalist cause has been helped enormously by Westminster too. A long time ago the SNP turned Westminster into the dirty word of Scottish politics.
As a euphemism Westminster has supplanted hostility towards the English, the implicit appeal of old woad and freedom nationalism. The narrative of Westminster as the embodiment of elitist, remote politics fits into the SNP’s agenda as well as it does UKIP’s.
The state of the palace (and the UK state) is typified by the expenses scandal and surely symbolised by a vote for multi-billion pound Trident renewal in a Foodbank Britain and against the democratic mandate of Scotand where the missiles are based.
If that isn’t a trigger for a “material change in circumstances” and another referendum, Westminster will not have served its purpose.
You see, for the SNP it is not about Westminster at all. The prize is much bigger. It is not about the 56 coming down to London, it is about getting 5.3 million Scots away from it.

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