The SNP thinks Westminster is an anachronism but boy does it love those anachronisms.
The Nationalists’ London leader Ian Blackford got himself thrown out of the Commons for disrupting Prime Minister’s Questions. Blackford attempted to move — inartfully and tagged onto a question rather than as a substantive motion — that the House sit in private. The Speaker showed no little patience in explaining to Blackford that the matter should be raised at the end of PMQs. Of course, that wouldn’t be the optimal time for capturing the attention of political correspondents and TV news producers.
Blackford steamed away like an angry little pressure cooker, rumbling for a vote to clear the public gallery. It is an old procedural trick and the Nats deployed it to secure maximum publicity. Eventually Bercow invoked Standing Order 43 and ordered Blackford to leave, whereupon the entire SNP group got up and walked out, waving triumphantly as they did so. All 35 Nationalist MPs, we are asked to believe, came to the same conclusion at the same time and decided on the same form of protest. Helpfully, Pete Wishart had tweeted in advance: ‘I’d be watching #PMQs if I were you. Corbyn will sit down soon…’ Only the SNP could give an unplanned walk-out all the spontaneity of a North Korean military parade.
I’d be watching #PMQs if I were you. Corbyn will sit down soon…….
— Pete Wishart (@PeteWishart) June 13, 2018
The Nationalists were determined to disrupt the House and there is only so much licence the Speaker can afford such behaviour. Nonetheless, the SNP calculates that the sight of Scottish MPs walking out of the hated Westminster will stir Scots to anger that their representatives are being ignored. Their sympathetic commentators will echo this line and once again the SNP and Scotland (the two are considered synonymous) will be the victim of the hated oppressor.
The SNP wants more time to question the government on Brexit and devolution, not least because the Holyrood parliament has not given its consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill. Blackford railed that the government had ‘plunged Scotland into a constitutional crisis’. It’s anarchy up here. Elderly ladies are smashing up tearooms over whose turn it is to pay for scones and Church of Scotland ministers have started lamping passing policemen with bottles of Irn-Bru.
The SNP is determined to convince Scots that Westminster is using Brexit as a pretext for a ‘power grab’ against the Scottish Parliament. So far Scots remain unconvinced and, for some inscrutable reason, the SNP thinks today’s stunt might change their minds. In fact, it looked more like the kind of grand-standing the SNP is famous for. Alex Salmond made his name by getting himself chucked out for interrupting Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget speech. The Nationalists like to bray about the Commons’ antiquated rules but they’ve always been canny about using them to their advantage.
Whether it is to their advantage we shall see. Far from the grand theatrics of Dillon and Parnell, the SNP looked like cynical self-promoters trying to grab the spotlight. Their stunt meant that four Nationalist MPs called on by the Speaker were not there to ask a question. Their motion to compel a debate on Brexit and Scottish devolution fell and, under procedural rules with which they are well familiar, it was too late for other MPs to lodge another such application. The impact of Brexit on Scotland will undergo less scrutiny thanks to the SNP.
All of that is politics, albeit especially immature and vulgar politics. What is truly objectionable is that the SNP is not entirely without a point — the government’s handling of the Holyrood consent issue is by no means blameless — but this paroxysm of petulance will draw attention only to the SNP, not the constitutional issue. Today MPs from all parties, nations and regions held the Prime Minister to account on Brexit, youth unemployment, Grenfell, personal independence payments, abortion, children targeted in war zones, and human trafficking. The SNP were where they most like to be: in front of the TV cameras.
When they stomped out, Labour MPs took their seats instead. If nothing else, it was good preparation for 2022.