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SNP still have a job to do at Westminster

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 14th Jul 2023

On Tuesday evening MPs spent the best part of four hours walking round in circles voting on the Lords’ amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill.  Ludicrously we spent longer voting on the 18 amendments in issue than we spent debating them. The hours of walking around to vote were a terrible waste of everyone’s time.  The mechanics of voting at Westminster are crazy. With electronic votes taking say 5 minutes each, voting on the amendments could have been dealt with in about an hour and half.   

However, the madness of the voting system should not be allowed to detract from the importance of the subject matter of those votes. As Stuart McDonald MP the SNP Immigration Spokesperson said in the debate the legislation is “a rotten, utterly misconceived and cruel Bill that will not stop small boats but will cause immense suffering to people who have fled persecution and harm.”

The Tories say no one has an alternative strategy for stopping the small boats but this is simply not true. Three of the Lords’ amendments set out an alternative strategy. More safe and legal routes, a souped-up role for the National Crime Agency in dealing with the people smuggling and a new ten-year strategy for tackling refugee crises affecting migration by irregular routes, to be developed in collaboration with other countries and to include measures to tackle people smuggling.  Under my chairmanship parliament’s cross party Joint Committee on Human Rights produced a detailed report which concluded that “the Bill would result in the UK turning its back on the vast majority of refugees, in breach of a number of binding international human rights obligations.”  The Lords amendments go some way to reversing this but of course the Tory Government and most but not all of their backbenchers dutifully voted them down. It’s a paradox that it has taken the unelected Lords to address some of the worst parts of the Bill, but it illustrates the importance of having a revising chamber.  Stuart pointed out that this is exactly the sort of bill that the second chamber should be voting down particularly as it was not a manifesto commitment of the Government. 

A second chamber is something I would be anxious to see in an independent Scotland alongside a constitutional court and strengthened independent select committees in parliament to provide the necessary checks and balances on executive power and to protect minorities. The Labour party have been talking about House of Lords reform for decades without doing anything about it. Ditto meaningful constitutional reform. Thus, the only hope for a written constitution setting out the checks and balances needed in a modern democracy is an independent Scotland. Because independence is not as imminent as we would like, we need to continue to send MPs to Westminster to represent Scottish voters. I know some Yessers think that’s pointless, but the reality is that the majority of Scots don’t, and they are not ready for Sinn Fein style abstentionism.

Until independence is achieved, we will need Scots MPs at Westminster to represent our constituents’ interests in reserved matters and it is better that we have MPs from a party that believes in independence.  Yes, opposition is hard -that is why I and others would prefer to be in the Scottish parliament in government.  But there is a job to be done by nationalist MPs. Every parliament is different. The next parliament could offer opportunities the current one does not present.

This parliament feels tired and finished, but it could limp on for over another year. That gives those of us who support independence the time necessary to consider how best to use the next general election to elect independence supporting MPs and how they should use their position once the make-up of the next parliament is known.  Stephen Flynn has injected some much-needed energy into the leadership of the current SNP group, but a strategic re-think is needed overall.  Otherwise, we will see more MPs stand down, tired and disillusioned. 

That said, I do not find Westminster to be a toxic environment. Yes, there are some toxic behaviours, but I believe most MPs and their staff work hard to do what they believe to be the right thing.  The back-up staff are incredible and work long shifts in catering, security, and hospitality to keep the place going.  I support independence not because I think Westminster is a toxic place but because the arithmetic of this so-called equal union means Scotland’s representatives can always be outvoted in the UK parliament and the mandate of Scottish voters is mostly ignored.  It is true that some of the procedures at Westminster are archaic. Some good work has been done on modernisation but there is a great more that could be done.  However, Westminster has its plus points. Debates are not just an endless list of parliamentarians reading out short speeches prepared for them by party whips but real and sometimes vibrant with some great oratory.  The cross-party scrutiny committees have teeth and produce detailed reports that get torn into weaknesses in government policy even when the chairs are from the government party. These are both areas where Holyrood could up its game. 

As to the suffering of Scottish MPs. Yes, the travelling is tiring, and a drag and I have recent experience of how hard it is to have to leave loved ones every week especially when they are ill or dying.  But no one forced me to do this. Albeit in the heady days of 2014/15 I didn’t think I would be down here for quite such a long time….but that’s another story. 

Westminster is a place of privilege for those of us elected as MPs.   The salary is considerably better than most of our constituents could ever hope to earn, we enjoy subsidised food and drink, the benefit of free travel and a place to stay in central London to enable us to do our jobs. Speaking for myself I am blessed with a fantastic support team of office staff to help me deal with my constituency and a decent budget to pay for them, although I would like to pay them more.

The toxicity in politics comes from a public debate where it has become common place for MPs, particularly female MPs, to be called foul names, bullied threatened and attacked for simply doing their job or following their conscience. The leadership needed to instil respect for the legitimacy of different viewpoints and the importance of promoting debate and understanding has, in the main, been sadly lacking in this Westminster parliament. But it is also lacking at Holyrood.  

I am not one for Scottish exceptionalism. Holyrood has passed some flawed legislation in recent years although nothing as morally reprehensible as the Illegal Migration Bill. We need independence for Scotland not because Scotland is innately better than England. It isn’t. But because the union between Scotland and England is an unequal one in which there is a glaring democratic deficit.  

While we wait for a strategy to be devised that will deliver that independence, I believe that we should continue to send MPs to Westminster to represent our constituents in relation to reserved matters.   However, the SNP needs to rethink how best to use the time of those MPs once they are elected as well as having a clear strategy about how best to use elections to move things forward on independence.

Tomorrow I am attending Winnie Ewing’s memorial service in Inverness.  She had a hell of a lot more to put up with at Westminster than any of my generation of MPs, yet she did it with dignity and fortitude because she knew the cause of independence was a noble one. We should remember that.