The SNP must perform a balancing act at Westminster

Published: 19 May 2015
Author: Craig McAngus

Craig McAngus looks at how the SNP has to both protest and oppose, and this won’t be an easy balancing act. This post orignally appeared on Holyrood.

The SNP’s result at the General Election was nothing short of astounding. Despite being on the losing side of the referendum, the party has become a winner in an electoral contest that it has never managed to conquer before.

The hard work now starts for the SNP: it is now the House of Commons’ third party, replacing the decimated Liberal Democrats, and will play a far more significant role in the business of the UK Parliament than it has done in its entire history, with the exception of the late 1970s perhaps.

This provides the SNP with valuable opportunities, but it also presents the party with some potential obstacles as well.

The polls did not predict the outcome of the General Election, and with a Conservative government possessing a majority there is now no opportunity for the SNP to be proactive in the sense of playing a role in shaping UK Government policy. They are very much resigned to the opposition benches.

How they choose to oppose will therefore be of huge importance. 

The SNP is a very different party now to what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Devolution gave the party a new type of relevance and thus shaped its behaviour, strategy and organisational profile. 

It has become a party of power as opposed to a party of protest. However, now it has to be both: it has to oppose and protest against the Conservative government whilst governing in Scotland. 

The SNP has flagged up the question of legitimacy.

Indeed, legitimacy was a crucial ingredient that helped to deliver devolution. How could a Conservative government justifiably govern Scotland having only a handful of Scottish seats?

Now, of course, that question is even more pronounced given the success of the SNP in Scotland and the success of the Conservatives in England. Furthermore, the manifestos and policy commitments of these two parties is very different, further increasing the lack of legitimacy of the current UK Government from the point of view of the SNP.

The spectre of a Conservative government, coupled with the legitimacy issue, will encourage many to protest against it rather than simply oppose it. This will be undoubtedly true for the SNP too, and there is always a balance to be struck between opposition and protest.

Nicola Sturgeon’s threat to withhold legislative consent regarding the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act is a good example of effective protest of UK Government policy. 

The new contingent of SNP MPs contains a high proportion of individuals who have had no parliamentary experience of any kind. Indeed, many of them have cut their teeth in grassroots politics during the independence referendum.

On one hand, this is perhaps one of the reasons why they have been elected: they represent a breath of fresh air and a shift away from the traditional image of a politician. On the other hand, politics at Westminster is a very different animal and requires a very different approach and set of skills in order to make any headway.

There will be a number of contentious issues that arise over the next parliamentary term, and it will be tempting to use the House of Commons as a platform to vocally protest against government policy.

Assuming that there will not be another independence referendum in the foreseeable future and assuming that Scottish Labour is not in the position in 2020 to win back its former heartlands, the SNP will continue to be a major force in the House of Commons.

Over the next couple of years, it will be important to display its credentials as a party of the left, perhaps over and above its credentials as a party that believes in independence, in order to build alliances with other, like minded individuals in other parties, namely the Labour party.

Nicola Sturgeon has spoken of the potential of a sizeable contingent of MPs as a catalyst for reforms to, for example, the budgetary process so that the budget is audited and assessed in terms of its impacts on women, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Rather than position the SNP as a party of nationalism she has attempted to position the SNP as a party of the reformist left, one that will challenge the structures of the British state in order to make it more effective in reducing inequality and promoting social justice.

If the SNP are to remain a significant force in the House of Commons in the future, focussing their attention outwards will help them build bridges and alliances with other parties in future, especially Labour.

It will also show voters in other parts of the UK that the SNP is not a party that has independence and, as many see it, the destruction of the UK as its only focus and objective.

And yet, the SNP’s members and supporters will want to see tangible constitutional progress being made. It is not enough for the party to simply portray itself as a constructive, reformist party of the left. It has to show those loyal to it that the cause of independence is being furthered.

Therefore, the SNP will always have to balance between attempting to build alliances and improve the current system of governance that the UK practices with its aim of removing the influence of the British state over Scotland.

This will not be easy given that it may make the business of any potential alliances with Labour, however fleeting, particularly difficult.

Therefore, existing as an elected protester against the British state whilst being part of an effective opposition to the Conservatives and their policy programme will be a balancing act that the SNP will have to play very carefully.

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