Perhaps the key defining feature of the general election was that almost nothing happened as we had expected. Even in Scotland, where the result was broadly what had been predicted by the polls (though as Andrew Marr wrote, ‘anybody who stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and bought a latte would have picked that up’), the consequences were different. The SNP thought that they were going to hold the balance of power at Westminster. They were going to lock out David Cameron and the Conservatives, and demand constant concessions Ed Miliband. Instead, they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of a small, but workable, Conservative majority. Ahead there are five years of heckling the steamroller.
Of course, they will do all the things that opposition parties can do to try to constrain the government, and they might occasionally score hits. Between 2005 and 2010, the Lib Dem group of MPs was slightly larger than the SNP group is today, and they had their moments – the Ghurkhas being the most obvious one – but it was hardly a record of massive political influence. Even with this smaller majority, to defeat the government you need issues which can unite the SNP and Labour and Tory rebels, and they’ll be harder to find than you think. Yes, they’ll sit on committees, but even where they chair them they will have to work with other parties to achieve anything, and anyway, the government will have a majority there too. They’ll do all the worthy constituency work – which will take up a much larger proportion of their time than they realise. (I suspect some of the ostentatious sitting in the chamber seen so far will soon go out of the window once the postbags start to build up). Like all MPs, some will do that well, some less well but (like all MPs) it’ll take up a lot of their time, and they won’t get much thanks for it. And yes, they’ll get two questions a week at PMQs, but ask Nick Clegg or Ming Campbell how easy it is to make a mark there.
This isn’t to say that the SNP contingent won’t achieve anything, just that, bluntly, they probably won’t achieve much in policy terms. And that is not how they need their time at Westminster to be seen.
This helps explain many of the recent antics – the clapping in the chamber, the row over seats, and so on. True, the SNP don’t want to be seen as wreckers and irresponsible. They want to be taken seriously, with an eye on next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. So it can’t all be about seating and clapping. But seating and clapping is a good start, and an easy way of demonstrating making a difference. There is an obvious risk that it gets presented negatively: a bit petty, childish, trivial. But it is easy enough to present all of these acts rather as ‘shaking up Westminster’, ‘doing politics differently’, ‘challenging the establishment’.
They’re helped in this by the fact that in Scottish political discourse Westminster has ceased to be a geographic location. It is where ‘they’ are, where everything is wrong, broken, and in need of change. And they’re helped by the current status of Scottish politics – where even if Nicola Sturgeon was filmed drowning kittens, there would be people claiming that the kittens were in the employ of MI5, and anyway, drowning kittens was actually a progressive thing to do. Anyone who doubts how this sort of stuff plays to SNP supporters should look at #the56 on Twitter.
There’s also a second benefit to all of this, too easily overlooked. The expansion of the SNP from six Westminster MPs to 56 in one election is the largest sudden growth of any party since the emergence of the Home Rule League in 1874. (They went from zero to 60, as a result of the introduction of the secret ballot). The SNP party managers have taken a group of extremely inexperienced MPs,
50 49 of whom are new to Westminster, and have already inculcated in them a sense of esprit de corps. Even before the Queen’s speech, they had something to do, helping to build up a bit of them-and-us mentality, a bit of no-one-likes-us, we-don’t-care attitude, which will do no harm. It would be easy to get sucked into Westminster, and to achieve only marginally more than nothing. Less than a month into the parliament, they have already made their mark. I described this recently as ‘gestures’, and got complaints that I was being negative. But it wasn’t meant to be negative: gestures can be important.
UPDATE: In a piece of top-grade pedantry, John Shand pointed out that ‘only’ 49 of the MPs are new to the Commons – since included in the 50 is the retread Member for Gordon. So have amended.