The Scottish National party is planning to reach out to businesses, arts organisations and civic society in the rest of the UK in an unprecedented charm offensive, as the party seeks to use its “transformational” Westminster presence to establish greater links across England, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland.
With the government’s plans for English votes for English laws now on hold until September, and its attempt to relax the UK’s foxhunting ban thwarted, both largely as a result of SNP opposition, the increasingly confident cohort of nationalist MPs will spend the recess developing plans to approach stakeholders who share their interests in an attempt to significantly expand the party’s reach beyond Scotland.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said: “We have been very successful at talking with civic society in Scotland, at having good links with the business community, creatives, all of that. We are now in a position to do that in the rest of the UK.
“If it’s colleagues in the economy team speaking with the Chamber of Commerce in Leeds about what needs to happen with transport links and HS2, or talking with the trade council in Cardiff, I’m asking my colleagues in the various policy teams to have a plan in place about how we are going to engage with the rest of the UK in a way that we have never been able to in the past.”
Speaking to the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists’ Association, Robertson described the growth of the Westminster group from six to 56 MPs as “transformational”.
“This is something that’s totally new for the SNP: the size of the parliamentary group that we have, our ability to reach out to potential stakeholders or people for whom it makes perfect sense to be talking with. We are now going to be able to do that in the rest of the UK in a way that we have not been able to do.”
Throughout the recent election campaign, party leader Nicola Sturgeon worked hard to reassure voters in other parts of the UK about the SNP’s motives, insisting in an interview with the Guardian in April: “[They] don’t have to be scared of the SNP having a big influence, because there is a vested interest on our part in helping to make politics at Westminster better.”
The SNP’s manifesto consciously cast the SNP as a party of government for the whole of the UK, with plans to reverse cuts to disability benefits and the roll-out of universal credit, but it was assumed at the time that references to forming a progressive, anti-austerity alliance across the UK were mainly coded invitations to Ed Miliband’s Labour party to reconsider some form of post-election arrangement.
Now the expanded Westminster group, having found their feet in the Commons, appear to be developing their own version of this progressive alliance.
Robertson denied that this was an attempt to detoxify the SNP in English marginals, with the Conservatives’ aggressive pre-election messaging about the “SNP threat” seeming to have hit home, saying: “There’s no need to – take a look at my inbox.”
Appearing to mirror the experience of Nicola Sturgeon, who saw her profile and popularity soar after appearing in the UK-wide televised election debates, Robertson explained: “Because of our position in the chamber, in the debates, in the media coverage we’re getting, there are people in the rest of the UK who are hearing about the SNP for the first time. And what they are hearing is often not what they expected.”
“The number of people who have taken time to write the loveliest of letters and emails, saying I can’t vote for you, I didn’t know anything about you, I wish we had people like you running where we are, or ‘please can the SNP stand in Dorset?’”
He added: “We have an opportunity to build on the goodwill that we have in the rest of the UK, the understanding that because we have a vision for a different constitutional future for Scotland does not mean that we do not share a great much in common when it comes to living in a fairer society, or a more successful economy, or talking about issues that other parties don’t, like immigration. These are issues that we are proud to raise.”
Asked whether the SNP’s decision earlier to vote on foxhunting, although it is an issue devolved to Scotland, meant there was a new test for what the party defined as “English-only”, Robertson insisted: “We have always approached the issues of Scottish interest on the basis of the measure being proposed and the context of the time it is being proposed. It is often a matter of judgment.”
“Also, we went into the Westminster election saying we were in favour of a progressive alliance and where we could we would work together on issues where there might be shared values.”
Asked whether the plans made the SNP any more in favour of the union, Robertson said: “You know that we believe in a social union, that the home nations matter, that we have ideas about how we would wish to work with our friends and neighbours on these islands in a different way – we are in a position to do that now.”
This article was written by Libby Brooks, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th July 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010