Former Holyrood Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, writing in The Herald last week, advised the SNP to take note of the tactics used by Charles Stewart Parnell, great Irish Home Ruler of the 1880s, and his Irish Parliamentary Party. He is not the only one to offer advice to them either: at the close of Tuesday’s proceedings, the Speaker recommended the disgruntled nationalists make use of parliamentary procedure to make their unrest known. This certainly seems to have been good advice, if the spectacle of the following day is anything to go by.
The comparison between the SNP and the IPP, however, is more complicated, and more flawed, than MacAskill realises. Both are highly-centralised parliamentary nationalist movements, seeking to use Parliament, procedure, and the constitution to reassure the public about their supposed threat. Both struggled to find direction after the departure of a charismatic leader – although in the Irish case, the departed leader did not continue to claim credit for his party’s successes once he had left, as Mr Salmond does in this week’s Sunday Herald. The SNP should be wary of following the IPP’s lead too closely, though: it did not end in victory, but in Sinn Fein, a member of the House forming the UVF, and in an unpredictable, volatile constitutional crisis, the kind of which not even the SNP could take advantage.
This is not, of course, to say that the Scottish question is anywhere near the same as the Irish one of the early 20th century; to do so would be facile and offensive to both parties. Nor do I suggest Scotland of the 2020s would resemble Ireland of the 1920s. But the IPP, even with their charismatic leader and their clever uses of parliamentary protocol, found that when the rest of Parliament was not inclined to grant Home Rule then that was simply the end of the matter.
There is little to suggest the Government has the time or inclination to give much thought to the SNP or other parties’ Scottish MPs beyond wishing they’d shut up and let them get on with Brexit. Their allocation of fifteen whole minutes to the topic of the implications of our withdrawal for Scotland is proof of this fact.
The reason the IPP and Parnell were as effective as they were in the 1880s was that the general elections of 1885 and after meant that Gladstone would depend on them and their votes to sustain his government; they held the balance of power in the Parliament. By contrast, the SNP, and indeed any MP not in the Cabinet, holds less scrutinising power than at any time in modern history. The role of the House of Commons seems to be expected to be that of rubber-stamping the government’s Brexit programme, with just enough ground given away by Mrs May to allow her to fight another day. Indeed, even Tory backbenchers like Sir Christopher Chope and his colleagues who would doubtless scoff at much of the SNP’s actions, have made clear their disquiet at legislation being passed without proper debate or scrutiny which is, after all, where last week’s acrimony ostensibly had its roots.
In this current scenario, with Labour paralysed on all Brexit issues despite, in Holyrood, agreeing with the SNP’s stance, and “Ruth Davidson’s” new Scottish MPs putting up a less than robust fight for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP have little real power. They are in no position to extract any meaningful concessions or exemptions from Brexit with their stunts.
But that is not what they want to do - not really. They wish to present the image of reasonable people frozen out by an institution which doesn’t care what Scotland has to say, and every time back bench Tory MPs seem to dismiss what they say without even listening, or Labour MPs dismiss the walkout despite pulling a similar stunt under Donald Dewar’s watch, then they are helped in painting this picture. It is of course somewhat disingenuous to act as if they are interested in compromise when the SNP want a fight, but there are far worse political sins than disingenuousness on display in the current Parliament.
The SNP has a clear goal which unites the party above all else. One could certainly not say this about the other two main parties, and it is here that the example of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and how it worked and when it did not, should serve as an inspiration. The SNP, through stunts and ingenuity, can and should try, or, more importantly, be seen to try, to work through the gaps in other parties to carve out what they want, without letting up with the flashier side of things. If, as is more than likely, this yields nothing, then their argument for a more radical course of action come the 2021 Holyrood election will become all the more compelling.
Whether the SNP have a legal, constitutional point about the “demolition” of devolution is not really the point anymore – it is more a matter of using their platform to convince Scotland that they do. The Sewell Convention is just a convention after all, and unconventional times will call for unconventional actions. The SNP would do well indeed to follow the advice of the man for whom they intend to cause such consternation in the coming weeks. Last Tuesday, during the debate which sparked the PMQs stunt, the Speaker offered this advice to Labour MP Paul Sweeney on “how to stand up for the people of Scotland and the devolution settlement”: “In so far as he wants my advice, my general advice to all colleagues is a word beginning with p and ending with t—persist. Persist, man!”