Scotland politics

Settling in: SNP making its voice heard at Westminster

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The SNP recorded a near-sweep of Scotland in May's general election and the party is making its voice heard at Westminster more than ever before.

BBC Westminster correspondent David Porter examines the impact that 'the 56' have made at the Commons.

They knew that they were going to do well, but in their wildest dreams they never imagined they would do so well.

When the election waters subsided in the early hours of 8 May 2015, it became apparent that there had been a political tsunami in Scotland.

Of the 59 Westminster seats the SNP took a staggering 56 - more than 90%. To put it another way, the three unionist parties: the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats each only got one seat.

Look at a political map of Scotland and as far as Westminster is concerned it is now virtually ALL yellow.

While the colour on the map surprised many in the SNP, the UK political establishment has also spent the past few months coming to terms with what happened on general election night as well.

The previous high water mark for the SNP was 1974, when the nationalists returned 11 MPs; they called themselves Scotland's political football team. Fast forward, and since May 2015 the SNP have been able to field five political football teams and still have a substitute to spare.

When the SNP group gathered outside the commons entrance just days after the election it all seemed a bit surreal to those present, the political players themselves and those of us observing.

The six existing MPs who'd been returned were joined by 50 new colleagues (actually 49 to be precise, because the former first minister Alex Salmond was returning to the Commons).

Practical consequences

It was obvious many of the new arrivals felt a bit out of place, and equally some of the old hands weren't sure of the names of those standing next to them for the photocall.

But in politics as in so much else, size matters. With 56 MPs the SNP became the official third party in the House of Commons, behind the Conservatives and Labour.

But it's not just a matter of numbers, it has had very real practical consequences as well.

Image copyright PA

For instance, it meant the SNP were able to take over the Commons offices previously occupied by the Liberal Democrats. A newly refurbished office block nicknamed ''Jockopolis House'' by some of the new nationalist MPs was also assigned to the SNP.

As the third party of the Commons the SNP also received more public funds, so-called ''short money'', for research purposes.

Finding a seat

In the Commons chamber itself it was very different. Yes the SNP were still with the opposition but their ranks had swollen almost tenfold. Finding somewhere to sit on the green benches became a very practical issue.

The geography of the Commons has changed. There were a few well publicised spats about where MPs would sit but also some very noticeable differences.

Image caption The SNP group have been praised for their high attendance rate at Commons debates

Now with the official status of the third party, the SNP gets to play an enhanced role in commons proceedings.

It means the Westminster leader Angus Robertson is guaranteed two interventions at the weekly prime minister's questions, and as a right the SNP get called whenever there is a Commons statement.

As the leader of the third party, Mr Robertson was also made a privy counsellor. It means he and other senior SNP figures get access to security briefings not available to most MPs.

Initially, there was a bit of a rumpus about where SNP MPs would sit, and some of them got told off by the Speaker for applauding - not seen as the done thing in the Commons, but that quickly settled down.

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Media captionMr Bercow told SNP members not to clap

Next up, scores of SNP MPs had to make their maiden speeches.

Mhairi Black, the youngest MP in the Commons, had defeated the former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander to take Paisley and Renfrewshire South. Her speech went down a storm.

The veteran political commentator, Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association, who has witnessed more Commons maiden speeches than most of us have had hot dinners, described it as the best one he had ever heard: praise indeed. It also received millions of hits online.

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Media captionWatch Mhairi Black's first Commons speech in full

Once the speeches had been made and offices allocated the new SNP group got down to the business of being MPs. As with all members the emails and letters from constituents soon came flooding in. MPs can be elected one day, the next their constituents expect them to hit the ground running.

Most have been given portfolios, often allied to their interests: be it health, law, culture or foreign affairs.

SNP MPs now chair two Commons select committees. Unsurprisingly the Scottish affairs committee is now chaired by the SNP (Pete Wishart), but still has a majority of unionist MPs.

The energy and climate change committee is also presided over by the SNP member Angus MacNeil.

Who does what?

Westminster Group Leadership

  • Angus Robertson MP - Group Leader and Constitution
  • Stewart Hosie MP - Deputy Group Leader and Economy
  • Eilidh Whiteford MP - Social Justice and Welfare
  • Joanna Cherry MP - Justice & Home Affairs
  • Alex Salmond MP - International Affairs and Europe
  • Brendan O'Hara MP - Defence
  • Tasmina Ahmed-Sheik MP - Trade and Investment
  • Hannah Bardell MP - Fair Work and Employment
  • Drew Hendry MP - Transport
  • Callum Kerr MP - Environment and Rural Affairs
  • Callum McCaig MP - Energy and Climate Change
  • Carol Monaghan MP - Public Services and Education
  • Hannah Bardell MP - Business, Innovation and Skills
  • Philippa Whitford MP - Health
  • Pete Wishart MP - Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
  • Mike Weir MP - Chief Whip
  • Deidre Brock MP - Scottish Parliament/Scottish Government Liaison

Image copyright Thinkstock

Because the SNP has such a big block of MPs, the way the group votes is now of real importance.

The Conservatives only have a small overall majority, so what the nationalists will or will not do has to be factored into the calculations of the government whips.

In the votes on Syria, welfare reform and any future vote on renewing and replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system, the SNP bloc could loom large.

Away from the Commons, the national media are also paying greater attention to the SNP.

Nationalist MPs regularly appear on radio and TV discussions as a matter of course. The party is expected to have a view on every subject that comes to Westminster, even if it does not always directly affect Scotland.

From 56 to 54

It hasn't all been plain sailing for the party; 'the 56' has been reduced to 54 after two MPs resigned the party whip.

Michelle Thomson - Edinburgh West MP and initially the group's business spokesperson - withdrew after a police investigation into property deals she was connected with.

Then Glagow East's Natalie McGarry followed suit as police investigated alleged discrepancies in a Women for Independence campaign fund.

Image copyright Business for Scotland / BBC
Image caption Michelle Thomson, left, and Natalie McGarry, right, each resigned the SNP whip

Both in and out of the chamber, one thing is noticeable: this is a very tightly disciplined group.

Even on the issue of military intervention in Syria there was no division, they ALL voted to oppose the extension of bombing of so-called Islamic State.

As the new year gets under way, the SNP contingent will be looking ahead, probably with less trepidation than they did when they arrived after the general election.

Everything they do and say in the months ahead though will go through the prism of what will happen in May 2016 with the Holyrood elections.

They may not have a direct stake in the contest, but from the green benches at Westminster they will certainly be looking to make their voices heard.

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