UK Politics

How are SNP MPs settling in at Westminster?

Saltire at Westminster Image copyright Getty Images

If anyone can resist the historic charms of the Palace of Westminster it should be the SNP - a party that seeks to dismantle the institution it houses. So seven months after they all-but swept the board in Scotland, how are their MPs adapting to life there?

"The SNP members I see around don't look particularly unhappy to be at Westminster, though of course there is a range of views," says Scottish political commentator David Torrance.

"On the whole it's very difficult not to enjoy working there because it's a historic environment, full of atmosphere, and a lot of them appreciate that."

Stewart McDonald is one of those newly elected MPs. He represents Glasgow South and overturned a 12,000 Labour majority to take the seat for the SNP.

He had never set foot in the Westminster Parliament before his election, and quickly formed strong views about the institution.

"The main thing that shocks me is just how inefficient this place is," says Mr McDonald.

"If the Commons was a quango, it would have been shut down years ago. If it was a business, it would have gone bust in a fortnight."

Former comedy club impresario, and one-time general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, Tommy Sheppard, is the new SNP MP for Edinburgh East. He insists that there's no risk of he and his colleagues being seduced by the history of their surroundings, which he compares to Harry Potter's school of wizardry.

"I bring friends from my past to look around, and have a drink on the terrace," he says.

"Even the most hard-bitten, cynical ones can't fail to be impressed with looking up at Hogwarts. It doesn't do it for me, I've got a healthy distance from it."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon celebrates the arrival at Westminster of the 56 SNP MPs

Before Philippa Whitford took Central Ayrshire from Labour in May's election, she was a breast cancer surgeon, and has been using her medical training to help her colleagues deal with the stresses of the job.

"As team doctor, I'm having to warn people to cool their jets a little bit, and pace themselves," she says.

"It is utterly non-stop. Because of previous things, like expenses scandals, the public have a terrible impression of MPs and think we sit around in the bars all the time.

"Nothing could be further from the truth."

'Robots' claim

The original 56 MPs who arrived at Westminster in May have seen their number reduced to 54, after two had the whip removed, but they appear to remain a remarkably tight-knit unit, who socialise together.

Their status as the third largest party in the Commons means the group's leader, Angus Robertson, gets to ask David Cameron two questions at each week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Image caption Tommy Sheppard says the SNP bloc 'is not that disciplined'

This has raised their profile as an opposition party, but also led some to question the role of Scottish Nationalist MPs in a parliament increasingly concerned with matters affecting England and Wales only.

Traditionally, SNP MPs at Westminster did not vote on England and Wales-only legislation, but they have dropped this rule, enabling them to force the government to retreat on some issues.

"You look at votes that didn't happen, over foxhunting or Sunday trading. It's clear that the SNP MPs are having a direct impact on the legislative programme," says David Torrance.

"They said after the election that they wouldn't sit there quietly, they would hold the government to account. I think they have done that."

One of the striking things about the Westminster SNP group is its discipline. None of its MPs have broken their party whip, the instruction which tells members how to vote.

During a recent SNP-led Commons debate on Trident, Labour's John Woodcock sparked anger by referring to them as "robots".

'English opinion'

"We're not that disciplined. We just happen to agree with each other most of the time," says Tommy Sheppard.

"A whip means you've got a view, a policy. If anyone felt really strongly, they could happily break the whip. Nobody gets sent to purgatory for disagreeing."

The long-term goal for the SNP remains achieving independence for Scotland. Former First Minster Alex Salmond, now sitting as an MP again, has described a second referendum as "inevitable", while his successor as party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that David Cameron is "living on borrowed time".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Angus Robertson gets to ask David Cameron two questions each week

According to David Torrance, the SNP are using their platform at Westminster to become a more UK-focused party, and now adopt positions on issues that do not directly affect Scotland.

"They have an ongoing strategy of trying to work on English public opinion, which in some quarters is quite hostile to the idea of independence," he says.

"Their aim is to de-stigmatise the SNP, and say we're not as extreme and boisterous and chippy as some newspapers say we are."

In the short term, frustrations remain on the SNP benches over the extent to which the views of Scottish voters are being represented at Westminster.

'Scotland sidelined'

"I don't feel like I have a stake in this place," Stewart McDonald says.

"It really came home to me when we had the debate on Syria. All but two of Scotland's MPs voted against UK participation in air strikes.

"Scotland's view was completely sidelined."

Philippa Whitford is in no doubt that independence for Scotland will be achieved in her lifetime.

"Our long-term aim is 'please get us out of here as soon as possible'," she says.

"I don't think it's going to be imminent. Maybe somewhere between five and ten years, we'll get another chance."

Until that aim of independence is achieved, the SNP will have to continue to stand for Westminster seats and sit on the green benches of the Commons. So is there a danger of getting a little bit too comfortable?

Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald says he still feels like an outsider and remains determined not lose track of his party's core purpose.

"We want to break up the British state," he says.

"Whilst we would argue that it's not radical to want your country to aspire to independence, in this place it's pretty radical, because it's such a conservative old boy's club.

"We don't want to be part of it for any longer than we absolutely have to be."

"Ultimately, we want Scotland to be an independent country."

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