CISSIE LIU, Public Affairs Co-operative’s graduate intern from the University of Edinburgh’s Master of Public Policy Programme comes to us with over 5 years of experience in parliamentary affairs in Canada. Here she offers insight into what Britain can expect from the SNP’s astonishing general election success drawing on lessons from Canada and Québec.
The political map in the UK is being redrawn. The SNP made history last Thursday, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and once dominant Scottish Labour were left with one seat each.
Thursday’s results resonated parallels to Canada’s federal election in 1993, when Québec’s independence party, the Bloc Québécois became the Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in the House of Commons, not only winning 54 out of 75 seats, but holding these seats, and more until 2011.
The 1993 national sweep by the Bloc was followed by the the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Québécois returning to power in the provincial legislature in 1994, and setting the stage for a second referendum on Québec independence the following year. Similar reverberations are occurring in the wake of Scotland’s independence referendum just last September.
Despite the unpredictable nature of the political landscape in Britain, one thing is certain: SNP success will change ‘business as usual’ in London.
Public Affairs Co-operative suggests 10 changes to expect with SNP as the third largest party at Westminster:
- Get used to it: David Cameron and the Conservatives, as well as the rest of Britain will need to get accustomed to significant numbers of SNP MPs at Westminster. Though these days in Canada, the Bloc Québécois is regarded as a party on life support, they maintained vast number of seats for nearly a decade.
- More, More, More Devolution: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said loud and clear that she doesn’t believe the Smith Commission devolution proposals go far enough. Heavy pressure from SNP MPs, as well as from Sturgeon herself will be the party’s starting point of the new session. Prime Minister Cameron will face intense pressure from the SNP to go further than Smith.
- Something EVEL this way comes: The Conservative manifesto made clear that ‘English Vote for English Laws’ (EVEL) lies at the heart of their programme for parliamentary reform. For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has stated that SNP MPs will vote on “English” matters at each and every opportunity when Scotland’s national and economic interests are directly affected. With Labour only retaining one seat in Scotland, and a leadership election underway, their pre-election opposition to EVEL may change.
- Jockalypse Now?: The SNP will maintain, and hope to increase its credibility as the third party in the House. They are unlikely to be a destructive force, despite warnings from London-based political commentators. The new SNP class of 2015 at Westminster has talent in depth. Long-standing party activists like Roger Mullin and George Kerevan are there along with business leaders such as Ian Blackford and Chris Law. While the occasional ‘stunt’ from fresh faces such as Mhairi Black and Hannah Bardell might be expected, the SNP will play a constructive role in keeping David Cameron and his party accountable to their promises in their manifesto; both for Scotland and Britain.
- #indyref2?: More seats in the House of Commons does not follow a natural path to a second referendum. There was no mention of a second referendum in the SNP manifesto, and there has been no concrete commitment from Nicola Sturgeon during the campaign. Similarly in Canada, following the razor-thin 50.58% ‘No’ and 49.42% ‘Yes’ outcome in the second referendum on Québec independence, the Bloc seemed to slowly shift their efforts away from separatism, and focussed on their efforts on channelling funding and ensuring success for Québec interests on a national stage.
- Not so Short Money: The SNP will have access to new resources that it has previously not known. As the third largest party, this means two questions during Prime Minister’s Questions, increased short money, seats and chairmanship of committees, more facetime with London press, and increased responsibilities, and obligations that once belonged to the Liberal Democrats. These new means will be a significant level up for the SNP to increase influence and visibility, not only in Parliamentary debate and legislation, but UK-wide media as well.
- Select Affairs: Chairmanship of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee is a significant opportunity for the SNP, who previously boycotted the committee in the last session under the (partisan) chairmanship of Ian Davidson, MP. At the same time, the committee may prove to be an effective thorn on the UK Government’s side if the SNP continue with that approach. Committees are meant to be reflective of the Commons; tough Conservative and Labour membership will be needed.
- The Corridors of Power: SNP are hoping to takeover the former main offices of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, known as the Irish corridor. Physical presence in the corridors of Westminster will allow permeability for daily interactions and negotiations, discrete discussions and policy sharing between the SNP and other parties. A prime “courting” location for the SNP and Tory backbenchers.
- Brexit or Better Together? in-out EU referendum: There have been suggestions that the EU Referendum will be fast tracked to 2016 to avoid a clash with the French and German elections in 2017. At the same time, this means going head to head with the Scottish Parliamentary elections on 5 May, 2016. As SNP foreign affairs spokesperson, Alex Salmond will be putting the case for Scotland to remain in the EU despite how the rest of the UK might vote. Holding an EU referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections is not ideal but there is precedent from 2011, when the AV vote coincided with that year’s Holyrood election. Business is pressing for an early vote so May 2016 may emerge as the preferred option despite some issues for Scotland.
- Labour Missing in Action: As Labour Party candidates, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham put their names forward for the leadership race, much of Labour’s efforts and media activity will be diverted away from the usual focus of being Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. The SNP are seeking to fill this vacuum and become an effective critic on behalf of ‘progressives’ wherever they live in the UK. Scottish Labour faces its own difficulties with Jim Murphy seeking to stay on as leader despite increasing criticism from sections of his own party in the Scottish Parliament.
At Public Affairs Co-op we think the SNP will play an important and constructive role at Westminster befitting their newly won status as the third party of British politics.
Media driven misconceptions of SNP as unrepentant wreckers intent on disrupting Westminster will be shown to be well wide of the mark.
Businesses and charities will need to create partnerships and build relationships with new SNP MPs.
Introduce your issues and create supporters amongst the SNP before you need to do it. For advice on how best to do this tailored to your own circumstances please contact us.