Somebody at the House of Commons has a sense of humour, or history, or quite possibly both: when the SNP’s new MPs were settling into their new digs at Westminster, some were amused to discover that a bust of Charles Stewart Parnell had been situated in their whips’ office.
The cool countenance of the Irish Home Rule leader now gazes at Alex Salmond, Angus Robertson et al as they flex their parliamentary muscles, just as he and dozens of Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) MPs did more than a century ago. History, as they say, repeats.
Parnell, however, preferred direct action, practising what was known as “obstructionism”, the use of technical procedures to disrupt the Commons’ ability to function normally. This included “filibustering” (now a tradition more associated with the US Senate than with Westminster), giving lengthy speeches largely irrelevant to the matter at hand.
The modern SNP is much more conventional. Like the IPP they have strength in numbers, but unlike their Irish forebears they don’t hold the balance of power. Remarkably, today’s Nationalists are managing to make life for a majority Tory government extremely difficult, and there’s likely to be no let-up after the summer recess.
In little more than two months “the 56” have certainly made their mark. Having promised to shake things up on the green benches, it would have been disastrous had they lapsed into obscurity. They wouldn’t have been the first.
Thus they wasted little time, deploying social media to chart their journey to London, diligently attending debates and putting an extraordinary amount of effort into a series of often-eloquent maiden speeches. These all served to reinforce a vital element of the SNP narrative, that it is the true party of social justice (dozens of speeches focused on poverty and inequality), the implicit message being: we are the real opposition, not Labour.
Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that Labour had won the election, so consistently have Nationalists made a point of attacking Her Majesty’s Opposition. With Labour leaderless and enduring yet another bout of ideological self-flagellation, the SNP has filled the vacuum.
Fresh from victory over fox hunting, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also indicated a division later this year on assisted dying might once again result in the SNP denying, so to speak, its self-denying ordinance over English-only issues. Nationalists, as Parnell understood, cannot afford principles or consistency, and under the long leadership of Alex Salmond the SNP has made political “pragmatism” into an art form.
A few days ago the Prime Minister was huffing and puffing about what he called “opportunism”. He still thinks the old rules of the political game apply, but the new rules are that there are no rules. Indeed, the subtext of the SNP’s attempt to explain its fox-hunting intervention – typically convoluted nonsense about Barnett consequentials and the “Scottish interest” – was very simple: we can, and will, do whatever we like.
So the gloves are off, and even in Commons votes where the SNP stand no chance of success – for example on Trident renewal – they will reap political dividends. Sure, it’ll get through Parliament, but eloquent Nationalist voices will articulate the case against nuclear weapons much more loudly than Labour, and the outcome will be wielded as tangible evidence that the Union is a busted flush.
Of course, even Parnell’s IPP ran out of steam eventually, waylaid by personal scandal and events. But it’s difficult to see anything seriously undermining broader SNP goals, for so nimble is the party that even if the Tories suddenly scrapped Trident and reversed austerity it would find some way of exploiting that volte-face to its advantage.
And that’s another edge the SNP has over the two big parties: sheer discipline. It was Parnell who created the (then) UK’s first modern political party through professional candidate selection, powerful whipping and a formal party structure. If he were alive today, he’d be full of admiration for his Scottish counterparts.
Time is also on the SNP’s side. Next year’s Holyrood election is all but in the bag (most likely with an increased majority) and under the fresh, vigorous leadership of Nicola Sturgeon the party has that most valuable of political commodities: trust. And once a significant number of voters have decided they trust a party or its leaders, they’re generally prepared to forgive a multitude of sins.Reuse content