Germans, magic carpets and chips: or how not to report the 56

Yesterday’s  Observer had a long piece on the 56 SNP MPs. I rarely do this, but it was so poor that I’ve written to the paper to complain about it. On the basis that they’ll probably not publish my letter, and even if they do, they’ll cut it (it’s too long), here it is:


The arrival of 56 SNP MPs at Westminster is one of the most significant parliamentary developments of the last 100 years. It deserves serious coverage. Alas, your extended profile (‘The SNP 56: a breath of fresh air… or a timebomb at the heart of Westminster?, 12 July 2015) was not serious.

We learnt that there are now lots more Scottish accents at Westminster. Presumably all those Labour and Lib Dem MPs previously representing Scottish constituencies spoke with German accents? SNP MPs apparently have long commutes to and from their constituencies, unlike all of their predecessors who presumably travelled by magic carpet. ‘They eat chips’, because it is a fact that chips were never served in any Westminster canteen until May. They ‘turn up’, because other MPs never ever do that.

You report the claim that because of the new SNP MPs, Westminster now has the highest number of openly gay and lesbian MPs anywhere in the world. But the Westminster parliament already held that record before the election in May. But to know this would have required research, and to report it would have challenged the entire thesis of the article.

You interview Stuart Donaldson, without noting that he is the son of a MSP – a minister in the Scottish government – as well as the grandson of an MP. Imagine interviewing, say, a new Conservative MP elected at the age of 23, who was the son and grandson of politicians. It takes nothing away from his astonishing achievement to note that you might have reported that slightly differently.

There are some really interesting questions about how such a large influx of MPs might change Westminster, how it might change them, even how they might in turn change the SNP. There are interesting questions about how the SNP MPs – who, like almost everyone, thought they would be the balance of power in a hung parliament – achieve change when facing a government with an overall majority. It would have been useful if the article had engaged properly with some of those.

Philip Cowley