What is wrong with the SNP’s 56, 55, 54 … MPs?
Let’s start perversely with an SNP minister at Holyrood, poor old Derek Mackay, minister for transport, who’s never been near Westminster and is currently being tested on the vexed issue of the Forth Road Bridge closure.
There’s an excellent article about him entitled Can Mackay cope with bridge crisis? in The Scotsman by Euan McColm. It brings a number of facts together that are relevant to exploring my question.
First, Mackay has been committed to the SNP from a young age. He even left Glasgow university at the age of 21 without finishing his degree to go into politics.
At that tender age, he went through the mill of council politics in Renfrewshire. Despised by many, the role of councillor is in fact a testing ground for the mettle of young ambitious politicians. This is especially true in the current council electoral system which means that most councils don’t have a single party majority and councillors are forced to work together with members of other political groups.
Not only was Mackay a councillor, he became the leader of Renfrewshire and a big cheese (leader of the SNP group) in COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. That will have opened up a whole new world of contact – with senior politicians of all parties and none from Scotland’s 31 other councils, and with government ministers.
He was elected as an MSP in 2011. Since then he’s been SNP business convenor (chairman), entrusted it seems by both Salmond and Sturgeon with a number of delicate tasks of negotiation within his party. He’s also been a minister for most of his time in parliament and, obviously, is now minister for transport where McColm says of his future, ‘much will depend on how [he] sees out the current crisis.’ Quite.
Mackay is, in short, the very model of a modern politician, a type that can be found in all parties. They live, breathe and eat politics from a very young age.
And yet, with all that intensity of focus, all that experience and political intelligence, and all those connections, he can still stumble.
Contrast his political biography with that of the vast majority of the party’s MPs.
There’s no denying that even with a 10% margin between the Yes and No votes, the SNP did a lot better in the referendum than they expected and were faced in the aftermath with a burgeoning membership and the prospect of doing well in a UK general election less than eight months away.
How in those circumstances do you choose candidates for 59 Westminster constituencies when you only have six sitting MPs, until recently all your energies were devoted to the existential referendum, and your prospects of significantly more seats had not been that great?
One of the problems political parties face is that the gene pool for potential elected office is actually quite small. Most members would not want to stand for election. Of those that might, you wouldn’t touch some with a bargepole for all sorts of reasons, and of the small minority left many, normally, will stand and be defeated. And in Scotland you have to find people to be elected not only in your own parliament (where surely the SNP of all parties would want their brightest and best) but also at European, UK and council levels.
Somewhere in all that arithmetic you need to identify your electable minority, devise some selection process to put them through, train them, ideally get them experience at the base of the greasy pole, then hope they perform sufficiently well with the voters to get and stay elected.
It’s not surprising that in those circumstances, the SNP’s selection of MP candidates was rushed and, I would guess, a bit rough and ready.
They already had six sitting MPs, who all wanted to stand for re-election, so that was easy. Salmond wanted to return to his old haunts at Westminster so that was number seven. And that left 52 people to find from that small gene pool.
I have no inside knowledge of the previous political history of most of the 52 (of whom 49 were actually elected) but this is my guess at how they were made up:
- long standing party members who already had some experience of seeking and achieving election. Salmond, doubling up as MP and MSP until the Holyrood 2016 election, is the obvious but unique ‘two-hatted’ parliamentary example. The rest in this category would have mostly been councillors
- other long standing members who had a party role although they had not been elected anywhere previously but who looked as if they might be electable and in some cases, heaven forfend, some sort of political favour was owed to
- loyal and probably decent ordinary long-standing members who had never thought of seeking election but whose constituency colleagues said, ‘ Look, Joe, you’re a respected local guy, just what [insert name of constituency] needs.’ Who knows, a few at first may even have been told that old political lie, ‘Don’t worry, there’s not much chance of your actually being elected’
- the rest – a mixture of Johnny-come-latelies who may have joined the party only recently, perhaps only when a call to stand came, but who had a good media profile, were well-known locally or had distinguished themselves in the Yes campaign.
Suddenly this group, or 49 of them, are elected triumphantly, have to head south to somewhere they really don’t like (one tweeted a photo yesterday from his London flight ‘Off down for another week in the imperial capital’), find accommodation in the big unfriendly city, resign themselves to weekly separation from friends and family, spend hours every day cooped up with, shock horror, hundreds of English MPs and, worst of all, resign themselves to five years in opposition while their colleagues back up the road enjoy (whatever they say publicly) the fruits of more devolved power and responsibility for another Holyrood parliamentary term.
Taking all those factors into account, it’s not surprising that even a few months after the general election there’s a certain amount of fraying at the edges. Two of the group have already departed, at least notionally and temporarily, because of allegations financial and ethical (Mesdames Thomson and McGarry), another – Paul Monaghan – is the constant subject of disparaging stories ranging from allegedly anti-semitic remarks to tricking his taxpayer-funded constituency office out with party posters, and a fourth, Phil Boswell, is coming under scrutiny for hypocrisy in relation to his tax affairs. There may be others.
Even the undoubtedly decent members of the group face the rest of the parliamentary term subject to the party rule they’ve signed up to under which they
accept that no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group.
Five years of that with everything else I describe above? Not an enticing prospect, is it? You have to wonder how many will stay the course, want to seek re-election next time round, or be de-selected as candidates by the party.
None of this, of course, addresses the bigger question of how the SNP perform in Scotland over the next few years and what that might lead to. But what’s wrong with their Westminster MPs will not help their wider single ambition. And back home they’re finding what all political parties find. Too long in power and things start to fall apart. Which is where we came in with Derek Mackay and the bridge.