Now the SNP’s 56 have taken their seats at Westminster, the party needs to consider how it will use its greater voice, tackle the challenges of war on two fronts, and maintain a strong, consistent approach whilst being stretched between Holyrood and Westminster.
The new SNP group have had an unsettled start to life at Westminster with over-excitement threatening to turn the group into an awkward sideshow. With petty bickering over seats and breaking Westminster protocol beamed onto social media, elder SNP statesmen were too slow to issue warnings before perception was being affected before any debates began.
However, the SNP do face a conundrum. The party has been provocative in its attitude to Westminster (amongst other things), particularly under the former First Minister. The party has derided the British political establishment, arguing that it is damaging to Scotland’s interests. Now they have to sit alongside it.
In Angus Robertson’s response to the Queen’s Speech, he began to shape what their approach party would be: “constructive but tough”. In doing so, the group has to be seen to combine being a thorn in the side of the establishment without becoming part of it – it requires a mix of SNP provocation and pragmatism. With all the new voters and members to please, it will be a difficult line to tread.
The immediate application of this approach will be on the Scotland Bill.
With the House of Commons set to debate the clauses of the Scotland Bill before the summer recess, with this greater voice, the SNP quickly need to establish their position. The party campaigned on Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA) for Scotland, but it is not clear if the SNP amendments will include this call.
John Swinney has gone as far to say that “there could be other amendments to try to strengthen the power” – which isn’t far at all. The party is seeking to work their way out of a political trap with Labour pressing the SNP on the matter to extract an early U-turn on FFA proposals on one side, and a fear of right-wing Tories ambushing SNP amendments by backing FFA on the other. They need a way out, but it will be tough. Its base line will be rectifying what the party sees as ‘Smith Undelivered’, but how far the further powers argument will go is yet to be seen.
The SNP have a great deal of goodwill to trade on, but the party will also face a challenge in how to use the new Smith powers.
As David Cameron has challenged the SNP, devolution is about the use of powers, not just about receiving them. The unionist parties support the further devolution of powers, and even before the powers reach Holyrood, the debate will quickly turn to how they are used. How varying income tax rates can benefit the improvement of public services in Scotland will be chief amongst them. If they were to refuse to use the powers, it would trigger criticism that the Government was inadequately responding to Scotland’s societal challenges and further offset ‘Tory austerity’.
Spread to thinly?
The gravitational shift to Westminster creates challenges for the SNP, and opportunities for opposition parties at Holyrood.
Whilst the recent focus has been at Westminster, the SNP’s expanded support has been built upon sound administration in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon now has to call the shots in London and Edinburgh – will greater cracks start to appear if she is stretched too thinly? Can the discipline seen at Holyrood be reflected at Westminster which has a more radical streak?
After eight years in power, without the distraction of a referendum or general election, and new powers delivered before May 2016, the opposition will seek to hit the SNP on its record over existing powers such as health, education and justice.
The Cabinet, under Sturgeon, has sought to admit and confront their weakness on education. Admitting the need for improvements seeks to defuse Labour’s election strategy, but without measurable, detailed progress of key services, the SNP look vulnerable.
Though Scottish Labour has a period of reconstruction to go through, progressive proposals for the use of further powers, combined with attacks on the SNP’s track record, could allow Labour to take back ground and unsettle the SNP. Without a majority at Holyrood, another referendum would be off the table and with it a potential lapse in support.
Let’s be clear, the SNP have faced bigger challenges and the professional party is set to recruit a new batch of researchers, press officers and spinners to meet them head on. The maiden speeches of the new SNP MPs have been widely praised, and set out a vision for what they hope to achieve. But with great power, comes great responsibility and the voters that elected them are expecting delivery on the mantra: “Stronger for Scotland.”