It was the morning after the night before. The referendum was over. A politician, his generation’s finest, stands in front of a microphone on an Edinburgh podium. He looks out to a sea of ‘Yes’ signs and saltires.
No, not Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon. This is Tony Blair. The country’s voters had just delivered two majorities for his government’s plans for both a devolved parliament and for it to have tax raising powers. He clears his throat and declares, “This is a good day for Scotland and a good day for Britain and the United Kingdom too”.
New Labour, new Scotland and a new Britain.
While the architects of a new Britain relaxed, a group of talented politicians quietly plotted its downfall. They would use this new parliament as a stepping stone to separation; a gradual transition to independence.
The creation of a new Scottish parliament transformed the nation’s politics. Political compasses began to point not towards Westminster but to a new institution in Edinburgh. The Nationalists sensed this in the air. With their eyes fixated onto a new semi-proportional parliament, they sent their brightest talents to Holyrood whilst Labour sent their reserves.
The names leap out at you; Salmond, Sturgeon; Margo, MacAskill; Ewing and Swinney. Holyrood was the centre of the nationalist’s political universe.
As the years progressed these Nationalist giants turned the political thermostat up in Edinburgh. Scotland’s unionist parties started to become uncomfortable in this new climate. The heat became intolerable and their hegemony over those hallowed green benches wilted in the spring sunshine of 2015. As Mr. Blair once asked, ‘a new dawn has broken, has it not?’
The nationalist compass has reset again. With continued power and responsibility at Holyrood many are beginning to look to Westminster as a source to rejuvenate the party. If you want to find the next big things in Scottish nationalism, then look to Westminster. Holyrood is now filled with has-beens and those politicians who will never be much more than just vote button pressing MSPs devoid of any rhetorical brilliance.
In the immediate aftermath of the party’s independence referendum defeat, the SNP absorbed many pro-independence Scots who campaigned or donated money to Yes Scotland. They did not want that Thursday in September to be the end of their political activism. They found a home in the all-encompassing political machine which is the modern SNP.
This snowball in membership – from 25,000 to over 115,000 members – ensured constituency associations had a breadth of talent. When it came to selecting candidates for the Westminster election they possessed prospective politicians with lives, careers, specific policy interests and a yearning to change the world around them.
As Holyrood was in 1999, Westminster is now the parliament best placed to push the SNP forward. From those famous green benches, a constitutional assault will take place. It is here that the nationalists will attempt to drive a wedge between Scotland’s representatives and the Tory government. With Labour in disarray and the Liberal Democrats almost defunct, it is the Nationalist benches where you will find some of the finest political talent in these isles.
Despite some public embarrassments, the SNP grouping at Westminster is impressive. It contains a former speechwriter to a US senator, a breast surgeon, a QC, a teacher and the youngest MP for 350 years. The Baby of the House, Mhairi Black, has not been posted missing at Westminster. Instead she has made her mark not just inside the Commons but in British politics more widely. Her maiden speech has been viewed by millions online – which is not a boast many nationalist MSPs can make. How many of theses list MSPs’ names are even known to their regional constituents?
It is not just notoriety but quality which has shown through in the SNP benches. Glasgow Central’s Alison Thewliss MP has punctured hole after hole in the government’s changes to tax credit entitlement for women who have had a child conceived from a rape attack. When the speaker calls her name ministers and even the prime minister gulp knowing they are about to be on the end of a well crafted volley across the floor.
While another Glasgow MP, Stewart McDonald, has a growing number of fans amongst Scotland’s journalists. While some Nationalists, wrongly, see the media as an enemy McDonald is doing the opposite. As time goes on he will become the rational voice for independence.
Yet look at SNP MSPs of a similar party standing. The party’s backbench MSPs have barely said anything of interest in the last five years let alone five months. Where is the Thewliss and Black amongst the dozen of nationalist MSPs?
Spring is the season of new beginnings and 2015 brought the SNP a host of new talent. Yes, there will be some rotten apples amongst it but, on balance, the Nationalist’s Westminster group is impressive on anyone’s test.
If you want to see the brightest stars in the Nationalist sky, then look to the south. Some of these stars will only grow brighter in years to come.