SNP numbers at Westminster

How Westminster will shape the SNP

Published: 24 April 2015
There has been much fevered speculation on the implications of a group of Scottish National Party MPs creating havoc in the Commons after this election.  In this piece, James Mitchell, suggests that a more informed and sober assessment suggests that a ‘large’ contingent of SNP MPs will create opportunities but also challenges for the SNP and that the greatest impact will be on the SNP than the House of Commons. 
The SNP struggled to be relevant in previous UK elections.  While devolution made it an alternative party of government (and become the party of government) in Edinburgh, it has always struggled to be relevant in UK elections.  It attempted to insert itself into previous UK elections by insisting that a hung Parliament opened opportunities for it to have an influence.  But success required three conditions that previously did not exist: public sympathy, and therefore latent support for the SNP; public perception that a hung Parliament would occur; and public belief that the SNP might play a pivotal part in such a Parliament.  This is the first election in 40 years when all of these conditions have been met.  What are the challenges and opportunities for the SNP?  Much fevered speculation is based on an assumption that the SNP will be able to disrupt proceedings or hold the rest of the UK to ransom.  A more sober assessment suggests that the SNP faces a number of challenges but mostly that it has little appetite to engage in the kind of action suggested in much commentary.
Alex Salmond enjoys comparisons with Charles Stewart Parnell but the comparison is far fetched.  Not only are their tactics very different but the Parliamentary context is wholly different.  The prospect of a nationalist MP cutting wires to prevent Tory MPs hearing a division bell, as happened in 1874, might be the stuff of Daily Telegraph readers’ nightmares but not how the SNP operates.  Even if Mr Salmond and colleagues decide to abandon the party’s deep rooted constitutionalism, Parliamentary procedures were tightened as a consequence of Irish disruption to prevent it happening again.  It is simply not possible to cause the mayhem that Irish nationalists did over a century ago even if the SNP abandoned the constitutional nationalism that has been a hallmark of its politics.  
The SNP Group’s first meeting as a Parliamentary group will be a novel experience for most present (assuming the group is comfortably in double figures) and most of the group will meet at least some and probably most of their colleagues for the first time in person.  Many may have met in the referendum campaign, some may have met through social media or even at party events but this will be a body of people who will hardly know one another.  Becoming a coherent group will be the most immediate challenge.  Some, perhaps many, will have not been socialized into SNP politics.  This is a key difference between the group of SNP MPs that will soon meet and the group of SNP MSPs who met for the first time as a Holyrood parliamentary group in 1999.
Coherence will be assisted by the existence of a core of experienced Parliamentarians and others bringing important skills and experience from outside politics.  It will contain much talent, expertise and idealism but also some independent-minded individuals.  Three of the SNP MPS elected in 2011 no longer sit as SNP members after disagreeing with the party’s support for NATO membership.  This is not to predict resignations from the party but that the SNP Whip may have the most challenging and important job.
The way the SNP Group operates will largely depend on whether it holds the balance of power and how it understands this much misunderstood notion.  Contrary to much speculation, the SNP leadership has always seen more dangers than opportunities in being part of a coalition with Labour.  It is not that so much that Labour have ruled out coalition with the SNP – it was never something on offer in the first place.
The SNP’s leadership will support a Minority Labour Government on a case-by-case basis.  The reason is simple.  The next UK Government will need to make uncomfortable and unpopular decisions and the SNP will seek to distance itself from those decisions.  Coalition Government means Collective Ministerial Responsibility, as the Liberal Democrats are painfully finding out, and that would be a high-risk strategy for the SNP.
It is difficult to imagine how a Labour-SNP coalition could last, for example, a vote on the future of Trident.  The renewal of Trident is almost certain to go ahead as there will be a (very large) Parliamentary majority consisting of all Tory MPs and most Labour MPs in favour regardless of the government in office: majority Labour or Conservative; minority Labour or Conservative; either with the support of the Liberal Democrats.  Trident’s renewal would put an end to any coalition with the SNP.  Trident and nuclear weapons are keys to understanding the SNP and its conception of independence. 
In the event that the SNP holds the balance of power, even if it won all seats in Scotland, it will still be a small group in the Commons.  Holding the balance of power is a relative term.  In the event of a minority Labour Government, the Conservatives will also hold the balance of power.  Labour will rely heavily on Tory votes when it finds the cost of SNP support unpalatable.  From some perspectives, this will create mayhem more than the SNP holding the balance of power.  The notion of ‘creating mayhem’ is not an empirically testable, objective concept.  It will come down to which party a minority Labour Government is most keen to lock out of power issue by issue.
A minority Labour Government will be under pressure from both sides.  Siding with the Tories may cause it difficulty in Scotland where the Conservative Party remains the bogeyman of Scottish politics while siding with the SNP may cause it problems in England where the SNP is fast becoming the bogeyman of English politics.  But a minority Labour Government will never have to rely solely on the SNP to build a majority in the Commons.
The strategy of an SNP Group in a pivotal position in the Commons will be very different from that of an SNP Group in opposition.  The former will need to invest heavily in a strategy designed to win concessions, understand and influence Whitehall.  The latter will see the SNP Group in the usual oppositional role using Parliament as a platform.  This raises the prospect that drawing the SNP closer to government would have the opposite effect of that suggested by those who (purport to) foresee mayhem. 
There is much speculation that the SNP’s efforts will focus almost exclusively on Scotland’s constitutional status.  This is unlikely without a significant shift in SNP strategy.  The SNP will seek public policy gains on issues that are of importance to Scottish voters and voters elsewhere.  There is a clear strategy to disabuse the public and commentariat outside Scotland of the wilder perceptions of the SNP.  A key problem faced in the referendum was that sections of the London-based media had drawn their understanding of the SNP from a rather partial range of sources.  The SNP is not seeking to convert outside Scotland, only to offer an alternative narrative.
This does not mean it has abandoned support for independence but that there are more people who now support independence not as an end in itself but as means to other ends.  Moreover, the SNP leadership will not seek another referendum until and unless certain conditions are met: there is sufficient public appetite for a referendum and there is a clear and consistent lead amongst the public for independence over a reasonable period of time to make them confident of victory.  At the moment, none of these conditions exist.  Defeat in a second referendum shortly after the first would be the worst situation in which the SNP would find itself.  But the opportunity may present itself to make other public policy gains.
Since devolution, the SNP has worked on the assumption that it needs to be seen to be responsible, to focus on delivering services competently and winning for Scotland.  Its strategy has been to avoid causing mayhem.  That is the strategy that gave Alex Salmond an overall majority in Holyrood against the odds in 2011.  A strategy of mayhem would undermine his successor’s prospects of winning next year’s Scottish elections and do considerable long-term damage to the party.  The only rational advocates of SNP mayhem are its opponents.
This raises one of the most important challenges for the SNP.  Between 1974 and 1979 when the SNP had eleven MPs – its highest on record to date – and held the balance of power along with other parties, it suffered from internal differences within that small group and more significantly from poor relations between the Parliamentary group in London and its National Executive Committee (NEC).  This time it will not be an SNP NEC but a more exposed SNP Government in Edinburgh.  Liaison between the Parliamentary Group in London and the SNP Government will be aided by much closer and deeper relations than existed in the 1970s but communication between them will attain far greater significance than previously.
There is, of course, a further complicating factor.  The SNP’s mass membership will need to be taken into account.  There can be little doubt that the SNP’s current membership brings with it more opportunities than challenges but there will be challenges.  It is difficult to imagine that SNP strategy can be hammered out between the leadership of the two Parliamentary groups without reference to its engaged and active membership.
The likelihood is that a large contingent of SNP MPs will have a bigger impact on the SNP than it will have on Westminster.  The combination of a large group of MPs – possibly larger than the number of MSPs elected in any of the Holyrood elections before 2011 - and a mass membership seem set to change the nature of the SNP though time and serious research are necessary to get a sense of how this may work out.

James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and held an ESRC Scotland fellowship in 2013-14. He is author of The Scottish Question, Oxford University Press 2014 and co-author (with Rob Johns and Lynn Bennie) of The Scottish National Party: transition to Power, Oxford University Press 2012.


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