WHEN a relationship comes to a end, it’s tempting to focus on the positives. Maybe they really meant it when they said “it’s not you – it’s me.” Maybe it honestly was the case that “the timing just wasn’t right.” Anything to avoid the horrible possibility that you blew it or, worse still, they just weren’t that into you all along.
The loss of the SNP’s “big beasts” at Westminster has dictated the narrative about last week’s shock result. If savvy operators like Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson could be heartlessly dumped, what hope did their lesser-known colleagues have of making their relationships with the electorate work?
Yet 35 of them did, with some of them endorsed by majorities of many thousands of votes. And while a glance at the electoral map might seem to provide big-picture answers, it’s still not really clear why anyone on either the left or right would decide to desert the SNP at a time when the United Kingdom is in constitutional crisis.
So some of those who were ditched should probably be taking it personally.
During the election campaign Nicola Sturgeon was at pains to stress that this was not a vote about Scottish independence
Yes, a portion of the voters will have been “sending a message” that they didn’t want a second referendum – not now, not ever – but does this factor alone explain so many seats turning from yellow to blue? During the election campaign Nicola Sturgeon was at pains to stress that this was not a vote about Scottish independence. And it wasn’t, so she should take heart from the fact that many of her MPs were actually a bit rubbish. This, rather than a Unionist fightback, could go some way to explaining why they got the heave-ho.
To be fair, the fact that many of the 56 failed to make an impact at Westminster wasn’t entirely their own fault. No doubt many of them were full of good ideas for Scottish policies in areas like health, housing, education and justice – but unfortunately they were 500 miles away from the parliament where those decisions were being made. Instead they had to find reserved issues to care about, in between trying to demonstrate that they were “strong for Scotland” by parking their bums on green benches and trying to remember not to clap.
For every Mhairi Black, taking a lead with the WASPI pensions campaign, there was a Kirsten Oswald, wanting medals for all those serving in the armed forces. For every Alison Thewliss, making waves with emotive talk about the “rape clause”, there was a Richard Arkless, getting upset about David Mundell opening a food bank without sending him a note first. Of course, the non-famous MPs may have done sterling work behind the scenes, helping individuals in their constituencies, but if it didn’t translate into parliamentary action the average voter likely won’t have been aware of it.
This wasn’t the breath of fresh air that had been promised in the wake of the 2014 referendum. It was the whiff of rot from the bottom of a barrel.
What voters did become aware of were dubious expenses claims, nepotism, and demonstrations of hypocrisy – the kind of stuff that lands politicians of all stripes in hot water and goes some way to justifying public cynicism about the motives of those who seek to represent them. The ousted Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill MP Phil Boswell scored a hat-trick by failing to register interests, claiming expenses for making a video to promote himself, and speaking out against tax avoidance despite having personally benefited from a tax-avoidance loophole before he was elected. This wasn’t the breath of fresh air that had been promised in the wake of the 2014 referendum. It was the whiff of rot from the bottom of a barrel.
While Sturgeon publicly pointed to the quantity of SNP MPs as evidence of Scotland’s desire to take a different path, privately she must have had concerns about their quality. The dramas surrounding Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thomson – the former now facing criminal charges of fraud, the latter irreparably tainted by a probe into her buy-to-let deals – brought unwelcome scrutiny and raised questions about the party’s vetting processes. The SNP managed to cling on to McGarry’s Glasgow East seat last week by a mere 75 votes, while the LibDems reclaimed Thomson’s Edinburgh West with a majority of nearly 3000.
Even Mhairi Black, whose passionate maiden speech made waves around the world, has admitted to being pretty fed up with Westminster life
The landslide election in 2015 certainly made a statement about the SNP’s popularity and the increased clamour for independence compared to 18 months earlier, but MPs are not meant to be purely symbolic or ornamental. They have a job to do too, and some of those who were never expected to win may simply not have been up to it. Even Mhairi Black, whose passionate maiden speech made waves around the world, has admitted to being pretty fed up with Westminster life. And why wouldn’t she be? She wants to make a difference, not just make a name for herself, and opportunities to do so when the Unionist parties refuse to work with the SNP are few and far between.
The challenge now for Sturgeon, and her party’s new leader at Westminster, is deciding which issues should be priorities for the slimmed-down SNP group. If the election post-mortem shows Scots simply aren’t as left-wing as is often assumed, a change of approach may be required. But if voters in many constituencies were rejecting unimpressive, ineffectual or downright unlikeable candidates, the lesson to be learned is that sticking a yellow rosette on an eager volunteer is not enough to guarantee both election and re-election.
Some will no doubt take the view that the SNP should be backed at every general election until independence is achieved, regardless of the quality of their candidates. But with no clear indication of when, or even if, another referendum will be held, we could be left in limbo indefinitely. If the strongest candidates become scunnered with the job, weaker ones will step up to replace them.
For now, the SNP still have a clear majority in Scotland. Perhaps all their MPs need to do is keep their noses clean and sit it out until Prime Minister Boris Johnson hammers a nail into the UK’s coffin.
A version of this article first appeared in The Herald.