On Wednesday, Ian Blackford enlivened the start of the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill by insisting on a superfluous division and raising several spurious points of order.
The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and as parliamentary leader of the Scottish nationalists he performed that function.
So although the thought of breaking the Union of 1707 fills me with horror – I believe the destruction of Great Britain would be “a monstrous act of vandalism” and turn England and Scotland into narrow-minded nations – one should perhaps, as one stumbles into the new year, lighten up occasionally, and admit that the Nats bring life to a House of Commons which might otherwise die of boredom.
Quentin Letts, sketchwriter for The Times, yesterday described them to ConHome as
“a sketchwriter’s dream – I often give thanks for them. Labour are a non-event. The Scots are always indignant about something.”
Boris Johnson has stolen many of Labour’s clothes, and with them many of Labour’s seats. He tore Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn’s palsied grasp, and on Wednesday left Sir Keir Starmer with no sane course but to follow in the Government’s wake.
Labour under its new leadership has not yet worked out what it believes in, who or what it is there to fight for.
The SNP knows exactly what it is fighting for, and can adopt the most irresponsible tactics as it strives to embarrass the British Government.
It hopes that this year will be its year, and that by sweeping the board at the Holyrood elections in May it will place Johnson under unbearable pressure to concede another referendum on independence.
It also regards Johnson as the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence. Kirsty Blackman (SNP, Aberdeen North) opened her speech in Wednesday’s debate by declaring:
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister. In recent years he has done more for the cause of Scottish independence than any other Unionist politician.”
And yet the role of Blackford and his colleagues at Westminster is not quite as easy as it looks. Later in her speech, Blackman said:
“I refuse to vote for this dreadful deal. It is a bit like we had been drinking a lovely glass of water. The Brexiteers offered the UK a malt whisky, but they are now saying that we will all die of thirst if we do not choose to drink the steaming mug of excrement that the UK Government are offering us. There is no way that I am choosing to drink that excrement, and neither will I be complicit in forcing my constituents to do so. Scotland’s future must be in Scotland’s hands, not those of the Prime Minister.”
This kind of horrible image, well calculated to appeal to the cybernats, gets any amount of play on social media. Blackman used the Commons as a broadcasting suite, with Twitter as the amplifier – an attitude by no means confined to the SNP.
But as a shrewd Scottish journalist remarked to ConHome, “There is a law of diminishing returns on that.”
He observed that if the SNP talks too often in that manner, respectable voters, whose support will be needed in the Holyrood elections and any subsequent referendum, will declare in a stern tone: “You’re an embarrassment to Scotland.”
And neither Blackford nor most of his colleagues wants to be an embarrassment to Scotland. They are not disgusting people, and in their most objectionable performances at Westminster there is a high degree of bogusness.
As Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, put it to ConHome,
“The difficulty for Ian [Blackford] is that he’s such a fundamentally decent and nice man that he can’t really upset proceedings in the Commons. He’s not Parnell.”
Blackford’s speech in the debate was too long, and contained a flagrant inaccuracy about Scotland’s role in the Hanseatic League, identified by my colleague Henry Hill.
But as the next speaker, Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, remarked,
“The House will know that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is a more cheerful person than his speech suggested.”
Other witnesses have confirmed that Blackford, whatever his public awkwardness, is in private life a delightful man.
Because of the obstructionism of Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish MPs in the late 19th century, the Commons amended its standing orders in order to prevent business being brought to a standstill.
So even if the SNP wished to wreck the Commons – and delightful people do sometimes feel an urge to wreck things – the necessary means are not to hand.
But most of the SNP MPs are not, at heart, wreckers. Many of them grow fond of the Commons. Just as a footballer cannot help feeling an affection for a stadium in which he or she scores goals, so a debater cannot help feeling an affection for a Chamber in which he or she scores points.
The SNP’s star players include Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East), Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) and Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East).
Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) is described as being “terrific in the Defence Committee”.
And what is even more wonderful, some of these SNP MPs yearn to become members of the Privy Council, entitled to be addressed as Right Honourable, and sworn to defend Her Majesty the Queen against all assaults by her enemies.
In 2015, when the SNP made its great Westminster breakthrough, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third party, its then parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, was made a Privy Counsellor, having been appointed a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
To compile a full list of the SNP MPs who yearn for this distinction would be beyond my powers, especially as those on the list might deny any desire for such a bauble.
But only last month Patrick Grady (Glasgow North), the SNP’s Chief Whip, remarked of his party’s longest serving MP, who was first elected in 2001:
“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend —he really ought to be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).”
Grady is an amiable man, who may be presumed to know that Wishart (who incidentally would have loved to become Commons Speaker) would also love to become a privy counsellor, so entitled to be addressed in the Commons as right hon.
This streak of conservatism – of loyalty to existing institutions – within Scottish nationalism is not sufficiently appreciated.
Nor are the deep divisions within the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and supporters of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sufficiently understood.
The Nats preserve an outer unity which is far from doing justice to their inner hatreds.
Their discipline renders them incapable of working out what to do when one of their number – for example Margaret Ferrier – strays from the strict path of virtue.
They are, in short, in many ways ludicrous. As Michael Gove, winding up Wednesday’s debate and using to the full the advantage of being born a Scotsman, asked:
“What have they said in the past? Nicola Sturgeon said that no deal would be a ‘catastrophic idea’, that the SNP could not ‘countenance in any way’ no deal, and that SNP MPs will do ‘everything possible’ to stop no deal—except, of course, by actually voting against it today.
“Indeed, so opposed to no deal was the SNP that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) went to court to ensure that if the Prime Minister took us out of the European Union without a deal, he would go to jail. Now the leader of the SNP is voting to take us out of the EU without a deal—something that his own party said should be an imprisonable offence. So what is he going to do now? Turn himself in? Submit to a citizen’s arrest at the hands of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West? If his party follows through on its previous convictions, I, of course, will campaign for him. The cry will go out from these Benches: ‘Free the Lochaber one!'”
The SNP ought not to be taken as seriously as it wishes us to take it. Much the best way to embarrass its members at Westminster would be to hail them as friends and fellow members of the Establishment.