The return of 56 SNP MPs to Westminster has generated much comment on just what they can hope to achieve. 56 is a lot in Scottish terms, but still a small minority in the grand scheme of things at Westminster, where they make up less than 11% of the total. Most, if not all, the focus has therefore been on what they can achieve for Scotland. Or more accurately what they will not be able to achieve for Scotland – stopping Trident, reversing austerity etc. However there is another aspect to the increased presence of SNP MPs at Westminster – their potential to change attitudes and perceptions in England.
56 MPs, though a minority, nevertheless represents a quite significant visual presence in the chamber. Particularly if they sit together and turn out in numbers to support each other, as seems to be the case. Such a presence is difficult for the media to ignore completely. The print media will probably try to, unless it is to highlight something they regard as improper behaviour, clapping for example. However the broadcasters will find it more difficult to ignore this presence. Angus Robertson will get two questions every week at PMQs, while there will be SNP members on every select committee. TV and radio will find it very difficult to simply not show this in their reports. The SNP should also find that one of their number appears much more frequently on Question Time and other discussion programmes.
The question then is what effect might this increased visibility have on people and politics in England? The Tories are unlikely to be impressed by anything the SNP do or say, so they can be discounted. Their voters may react differently and more positively, but in the end Tory voters or UKIP voters are most unlikely to change their votes due to anything the SNP say or do. This is not the case though with the Labour party or their voters and potential voters. The same may be true for the remaining and potential LibDem voters, assuming they can ever recover. I suspect that it will be the broad swathe of Labour and LibDem voters who are most likely to be impressed and surprised by the increased coverage of the SNP. What might impress them?
The first surprise will probably be that the new Scottish contingent looks and sounds a lot like them. A variety of Scottish accents will be heard, but all will speak in ways that will be clear and understandable to everyone across the UK. Taken as a whole, the SNP group is probably more reflective of the country than either Labour or the Tories. They represent a better balance in terms of gender, age and previous experience.
A particular and in many ways the stand-out example of this is that there are no Oxbridge graduates in the SNP group. Unlike Labour, which seems to have been taken over by an Oxbridge and London elite, at least at its leadership level. Many Labour members and voters may begin to ask why the Labour party has allowed itself to become dominated by such a narrow and restricted base.
The most important difference of course will be in the political message that the 56 will articulate with clarity and passion. They will challenge the Westminster consensus on austerity, immigrant bashing, punishing the poorest etc. They will also vigorously oppose the attempt to revoke the Human Rights Act. In general they will put forward a more positive alternative. Not based on the narrow individual aspiration that Labour seems to have borrowed from the Tories. But a positive vision that is more collective, people working together to improve the public services that benefit all of us. Dare I say it, a kind of pooling and sharing of resources. But one that involves the rich and better off contributing a bit more, and finally challenging the damaging dominance of the UK economy by an out of control financial sector, that only seems to benefit London. And only some Londoners at that.
While the SNP will of course continue to present the case for independence, during the life of this parliament they will also argue for more powers for Scotland within the UK. This too is likely to strike a chord with many people not just in England, but in Wales and Northern Ireland too. For greater powers for Scotland can be presented in the context of fundamentally changing the UK into a Federal country.
There is thus every possibility that many Labour voters will begin to ask why the Labour party is not more like the SNP in terms of its progressive and challenging policies. This will take time and any change will come too late for the current Labour leadership contest. But five years is a long time in politics and if the SNP get the coverage their numbers merit, their presence and actions can only be a positive force in England.