You wait years for an SNP scandal and three come along at once.
First it was Michelle Thomson, she of the totally-not-an-SNP-front Business for Scotland who stood for the Nationalists in Edinburgh West in May. Barely had she planted bum on green leather before the boys in blue started looking into a series of property deals cut by solicitor Christopher Hales. Although there is no suggestion Thomson is being investigated by police she “withdrew” from the SNP whip pending the outcome of enquiries. She denies all wrongdoing.
Then Natalie McGarry, a scowl with parliamentary privilege, found herself at the centre of a Police Scotland probe over alleged discrepancies in the finances of the Women for Independence group. McGarry too has been deprived of the whip until investigators clear up the matter. She denies all wrongdoing.
Now Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill MP Philip Boswell is accused of tax avoidance. The Mail on Sunday claims he benefitted from an £18,000 loan that minimised his HMRC bill. Such a scheme would be entirely legal and he contends a common practice in the industry where he worked. However, it somewhat flies in the face of Boswell’s public condemnation of tax avoidance. He too denies all wrongdoing.
Some Twitter users put “all views my own” on their profile. Maybe SNP MPs should stick “denies all wrongdoing” on theirs just to be on the safe side.
The 56 has become 54, though don’t expect Boswell’s alleged dodge to take the number down to 53. Nicola Sturgeon thinks tax avoidance is “obscene and immoral and downright wrong” but not when there’s an election six months away.
If nothing else We Are The 56, a collection of SNP MP profiles by Josh Bircham and Grant Costello, will prove useful to journalists for the next scandal. When the slim volume arrived on my desk last week, my first thought was that the authors had missed a trick in not presenting the “56” on the front cover in the form of an adjustable countdown. Bircham and Costello are Nat whippersnappers and We Are The 56 predictably reads like a hagiography of the 54(+2), the new priest class of the SNP. It is the ideal stocking-stuffer for the cybernat in your life but also a marker of the historic upset of May 2015.
The reverberations of that result still tremor and the loss of political heavyweights like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling is keenly felt. There are no elder statesmen in Scotland’s delegation to Westminster. Missing too are seasoned political battlers Tom Harris and Margaret Curran and rising stars Gemma Doyle and Gregg McClymont. But if we’re honest, the great yellow landslide was a long-overdue clear-out of dullards, timeservers, and superannuated mediocrities. There was more than one ousted comrade whose number I was happy to delete from my phone on May 8.
The new intake have attracted ridicule as chip-chomping oiks from some newspapers and drawn the simpering supplications of the candle-clutchers who now form part of the SNP coalition. Haters gonna hate and cultists gonna cult but the vast majority in the middle were happy to give them a fair go. Now I detect a slight adjustment in the mood; a sourness has begun to creep into the way we talk about the Nationalists. “I can’t wait till their first expenses claims are out,” a not terribly political friend trilled over the weekend.
In part this is to be expected after the publicity surrounding Thomson and McGarry but there is also an instinctive mistrust of politicians’ motives, the pungent cry of “they’re all in it for themselves”. That jaundiced attitude has been put on hold in Scotland amid unprecedented levels of public enthusiasm for Nicola Sturgeon and her party but complacency is the opium of the foolish.
It would be a pity if voters became lazily contemptuous of their new representatives. It’s true the group has its fair share of careerists and toadies, just like its Labour predecessor. Parties in the ascendant attract all sorts and it’s fair to say there are more zoomers in the Nat ranks. Paul Monaghan, MP for Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and the comment threads on Derek Bateman blogs, is one of the more colourful honourable members. (I used to be sceptical of the SNP’s state guardian scheme; now I think it should be piloted on a number of their MPs.)
But if you are seeking more than good copy, you will find amongst the lobby fodder men and women of ability. There are the stars, of course. Mhairi Black and Tommy Sheppard have deservedly attracted plaudits and promise significant parliamentary careers. Just outside the limelight are the likes of Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central), who first spotted the grim consequences of the UK Government’s plan to limit child tax credits to two children, and Hannah Bardell (Livingston), a first-rate communicator and down to earth with it.
Consider too Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute), the party’s defence spokesman. His parliamentary style can be a high-wire act and not everyone has taken to it but I find it refreshingly blunt. The SNP needs to convince people it is not a daisy-chained Woodstock reunion but a hard-headed party of national security. O’Hara is equal to that daunting task.
Joanna Cherry QC (Edinburgh South West) has proved a doughty opponent of the Tory government’s efforts to scrap the Human Rights Act and Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) is already demonstrating how to make a grown-up case for Britain’s place in the European Union. Glasgow South’s Stewart McDonald has more political nous than any 29-year-old ought to and has shown himself willing to challenge grassroots activists and even his own colleagues. (And not to demolish his Nat street cred completely but he is the SNP MP journalists and even Labour folk most consistently describe as impressive.)
And then there’s Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South). Swoon. I would note my approval that the Scottish MP group still contains some eye-candy post-Hunky Jim but the poor lad has to deal with Aberdeen City Council every day. He’s suffered enough.
Whatever the outcome of police investigations into Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry, whatever the low calibre of some of their colleagues, these and other Nationalist MPs put paid to the nonsense about claymore-wielding Bravehearts giving us a right showing up in the House of Commons. There are 400 miles between Scotland and Westminster; that is distance enough without allowing cynicism to widen the gulf. Nor should the fandom they enjoy from the paranoid sociopaths of Cybernatland define them. The 45 endorse the The 56 but not necessarily the other way round. (I am as guilty of that mistake as anyone else and maybe more so.)
Allowing the MPs to speak for themselves, as Bircham and Costello do, lets us see what they are really like. And in many cases that is talented and conscientious politicians caught between their supporters’ sky-high expectations and the essential impotence of a third party in the Westminster system but trying all the same. That’s not terribly revolutionary but it is reassuring.