Wave of SNP wins to bring culture shock to Westminster
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For a flavour of the political culture shock expected to hit Westminster after next month’s general election, consider Chris Law, Scottish National party candidate for Dundee West.
The bookies’ favourite to win his seat, the long-haired, bearded, 6’ 6”-tall financial adviser would certainly stand out on the House of Commons plush green benches — not least for his strongly Scottish sartorial policy. “You’ll only ever see me wearing tweeds,” he says.
Polls suggest that after taking only six of Scotland’s 59 constituencies in 2010, the SNP is now poised to win more than 40.
Such a result would introduce to parliament a large cohort of politicians committed to redrawing the UK’s constitutional map. And as a Financial Times survey shows, it would bring to the Commons dozens of new MPs with backgrounds sharply different from most incumbents.
The SNP candidates, many of whom have never lived outside Scotland, are a varied group. They include a youthful student, several city councillors, some campaigners from the days when Scottish nationalism was a fringe pursuit and — most famously — former Scottish first minister and Westminster veteran Alex Salmond.
Michael Moore, the Lib Dem former Scotland secretary, compares the situation to 1997 when a raft of Labour candidates made it into parliament — many to their own surprise.
“If you look at [Mhairi Black], standing against Douglas Alexander, she openly talks about having never stood for office before, there is a parallel with 1997 when Labour brought in a mix of experienced and new candidates who rode the crest of the wave,” he said.
Most SNP candidates share a marked lack of enthusiasm for the House of Commons as an institution.
“Westminster? I’ve visited it once. If I have to go, I have to go,” says Roger Mullin, who has stood for parliament unsuccessfully for the SNP five times but is now favoured to take Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath — Gordon Brown’s old seat — from Labour.
“You could say that it’s a necessary evil that we need to get down there to do as much reforming as we can [and] for the long term hopefully eventually get independence,” says Hannah Bardell, the 31-year-old candidate for Livingston and a former journalist.
Some commentators have questioned whether SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will be able to maintain authority over the new intake of MPs. But Paul Cairney of Stirling university said he did not expect this to be a problem.
“My gut feeling is that the distinctiveness of the SNP MPs will be in party discipline,” Prof Cairney says, noting that while Westminster backbenchers frequently revolt, the SNP has had no such problems in the Scottish parliament. “I think it will be a feature of the SNP that they will be a remarkably cohesive force in Westminster.”
SNP candidates are uniform in rejecting the warnings of opponents such as David Cameron, UK prime minister, that they would come to Westminster “with one intention only — to break the UK up”.
The SNP constitution has two goals — independence and the furthering of Scotland’s interests, says Callum McCaig, candidate for Aberdeen South.
“We have a responsibility to Scotland but also to the wider United Kingdom to act in reasonable manner,” says Mr McCaig, 30, a former leader of Aberdeen city council. “It’s not in our interest to disrupt the workings [of the UK] because that will disrupt Scotland.”
Mr McCaig is one of a number of SNP candidates who has served on a local council.
Steven Paterson, Stirling candidate, says being part of an SNP minority administration in the city offered valuable experience for the negotiations that could follow if Labour falls short of a majority but still tries to form a government.
“I’ve been a councillor in a minority administration for four years. We ran it by making deals on an issue-by-issue basis,” he says. “I think I understand very well how that can work.”
Tommy Sheppard, the Ireland-born former Labour assistant general secretary standing for Edinburgh East, says he expects to find plenty of common ground with erstwhile Labour colleagues from other areas of the UK.
“We are not a bunch of people coming down on the Megabus with claymores,” Mr Sheppard says. “We are all fundamentally reasonable and constructive people and we would go there … to work constructively with other people in the House,” he says. “Don’t expect us to be in the corner of the bar by ourselves.”
A central SNP demand will be fewer government spending cuts, which the party argues has been damaging for the whole UK economy. George Kerevan, the economist and commentator standing for East Lothian, says he hopes to make common cause with English grassroots campaigns for constitutional reform and higher spending.
“Not going for full austerity benefits the entire UK, not just Scotland,” says Mr Kerevan, 66.
Class of 2015: SNP candidate profiles
Mhairi Black, candidate for Paisley & Renfrewshire South
Like many SNP candidates, Mhairi Black went to the University of Glasgow,Scotland’s most important font of higher learning for the political classes. Unlike the others, however, Ms Black is still there.
The possibility that the 20-year-old politics and policy undergraduate could unseat Douglas Alexander, Labour shadow foreign minister, has made Ms Black one of the most closely watched stars of the SNP election campaign. A poll for Tory peer Lord Ashcroft this month found Ms Black 11 points ahead of Mr Alexander.
With Labour suffering a historic slump in popularity, Ms Black’s youth does not appear to be a disadvantage with disillusioned voters and may have helped some discount reports of crude tweets about football opponents and drinking.
Opponents have seized on a post-referendum speech in which Ms Black told a crowd of fellow disappointed independence campaigners that she had been sorely tempted to headbutt triumphant Labour councillors as the results came in.
Ms Black has said she regrets the comment and had no intention of using violence at the event. And to those who argue that she lacks experience, she says she has a long track-record of campaigning, participating “from a very young age” in marches for devolution and against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a conflict that turned many Labour supporters in Scotland against the party.
Lisa Cameron, 43, candidate for East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow
The day after Scotland’s voters rejected independence in last year’s referendum, a deeply disappointed Lisa Cameron applied to join the Scottish National party.
The NHS mental health consultant had been active in organising the referendum Yes campaign in the small central Scottish town of Lesmahagow and in February was selected as the local SNP candidate in next month’s general election — a vote she is now firm favourite to win.
Like many of the 80,000 people who have joined the SNP since the referendum, Ms Cameron remains convinced that Scotland should leave the UK. But she says it would disrespectful of the public to try to use the general election as a backdoor route to independence.
“I think that could potentially create a backlash,” she says. “I think Scottish people are quite canny and I think they would know if someone was trying to undermine the system.”
Ms Cameron, an experienced organiser for trade union Unite who also works as an expert court witness in historic sexual abuse cases, says she wants to work for greater powers for Scotland as part of the UK and to oppose austerity.
Spending cuts and resulting hardship have made her feel “deskilled” as a doctor in the face of increasing sense of hopelessness felt by many of her patients, Ms Cameron says.
“Many of the struggles that they bring are more what I would call socio-economic difficulties rather than pure mental health difficulties,” says Ms Cameron.
“Those are not things that I can shift in my current role, but they’re things that I think politicians and the political system should be addressing,” she says.
Chris Law, 45, candidate for Dundee West
For voters tired of politicians with identikit political CVs, Chris Law has a refreshingly diverse employment history.
The Dundee-based financial adviser trained in his youth as a chef, then studied anthropology and started a business running vintage motorcycle expeditions to the Himalayas.
During last year’s referendum he used a Cold War-era “Green Goddess” military water carrier to travel across Scotland distributing campaign leaflets for a host of pro-independence groups.
While most of Scotland rejected the message, Dundee was one of four local authority areas that voted Yes to leaving the UK and Mr Law is considered a near certain winner on May 7.
Unlike some SNP candidates, who say independence is primarily a route to creating a better and fairer Scotland, Mr Law is comfortable striking a more romantic nationalist note. His yellow campaign van boasts a painting of an alluring female “spirit of independence” clutching a Scottish thistle. “It’s about the heart as well as the head,” he says.
But Mr Law sounds most passionate when he talks about inequality in Dundee and welfare cuts that he says have hurt the city’s most vulnerable people. There is a personal reason for his depth of feeling: his disabled single mother relied on state help when bringing him up.
Tommy Sheppard, 56, candidate for Edinburgh East
Comedy club owner Tommy Sheppard is standing for the Scottish National party — even though he does not consider himself a nationalist or even entirely Scottish.
For Mr Sheppard, a former senior Labour official who represented the party on Hackney council in London in the 1980s, Scottish independence offers the chance of a political restructuring that would open the way to social and economic progress across the British Isles.
“I’m quite at ease with people who describe themselves as nationalists but that’s not my political credo,” he says in an interview in his basement comedy club in central Edinburgh.
So for Mr Sheppard, who was born on the north coast of Ireland, it is important that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is welcoming of those whose roots lie outside Scotland. “I quite like the ‘New Scot’ concept,” he says. “But I’m not a big identity person.”
Like many who came to the SNP after joining the wider Yes campaign for independence, Mr Sheppard argues that action to promote greater equality and social justice is more likely to succeed in a small nation with a left-leaning political discourse than in the UK as a whole.
He sees himself as a representative of the shift to the SNP from a Labour party that he feels no longer stands for its socialist traditions. “I put it that the Labour party left me rather than the other way round,” he says.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard