PMQs played host to some rare political theatre yesterday as the SNP’s MPs left the chamber in a ‘spontaneous’ exodus – helpfully trailed in a tweet by Pete Wishart – in protest at the Government’s handling of devolution.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, criticised the Government for instituting ‘a power grab in direct opposition to Scotland’s elected Parliament’ and for failing to allow MPs from Scotland to debate the matter. Naturally, in response to this ‘democratic outrage’, Blackford invoked an arcane and entirely unconnected motion requesting that the House sit in private, which would clear the public gallery and eject the press. How this would enhance democracy is anyone’s guess. The Speaker, clearly enjoying himself immensely, refused Blackford’s request to hold an immediate vote on the issue and, after Blackford repeatedly refused to take his seat, ejected him from the chamber.
While the standoff between the Speaker and Blackford seemed nonsensical and engineered, the SNP got what they wanted: an opportunity to storm out of the chamber, baying and gesticulating at the Government benches. This is the image the SNP wanted to convey to voters back in Scotland. They know that the finer details leading up to the walkout won’t matter to their voters. The SNP instead want Scottish voters to see Scottish politicians standing up to an oppressive, bullying Government and disengaging from a process they feel excluded from anyway.
The effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen. Following their walkout, the SNP’s membership rose by over 5,000, so, as a fund raising stunt it is fair to say that it was reasonably successful. However, while the stunt may have excited a revolutionary fervour in a number of Scottish people already inclined to nationalism, the SNP may find that the manner of their protest could easily be construed as wilfully disruptive, petulant, or just plainly bemusing to more moderate voters.
Theresa May should expect more difficulty from the Scottish nationalists as Brexit approaches. As a party, the SNP are implacably opposed to Brexit; they will continually try to frustrate its progress. But more than that, the SNP’s main priority continues to be an independent Scotland. Brexit is probably the best opportunity that the SNP will ever have to reinvigorate the country’s flagging interest in independence.
Yesterday’s walkout shows that the SNP is less interested in Parliamentary scrutiny – the walkout denied five of their MPs the opportunity to question the Prime Minister on Brexit and devolution – and more interested in portraying themselves as a victim and Westminster as disrespectful and disinterested. May needs to make sure her government does not play in to that narrative. At the moment the SNP does have legitimate concerns about Scottish devolution and Brexit, and this serves only to give oxygen to their nationalistic fire.