Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 19 May. Today (1 December) it has been confirmed that Ian Blackford is to stand down as leader of the SNP group at Westminster.
It has become something of a parliamentary tradition that when Ian Blackford gets to his feet each week at PMQs he is greeted with groans and sighs and even fake yawns across the chamber.
This includes the press gallery. The main event — Boris Johnson versus Keir Starmer — is over and the next day’s news lines are in place. There is nothing that Blackford, the leader of the SNP at Westminster, will say or do that will add any value, even if his Scotland-only party is, remarkably, the third biggest in the Commons.
It doesn’t help that Blackford resembles a baked potato in a three-piece suit; physically and sartorially, he would fit quite comfortably among the Tory trenchermen opposite. Blackford, like Alex Salmond before him, is a creature of Westminster and gives every impression that he happily avails himself of the place’s fine dining and sedentary lifestyle.
Nor does it help that almost everyone else in the place can predict his lines before he stands up. There will a grumble about the latest crisis facing the UK government, then a comparison with the much better performance of the SNP administration in Edinburgh, then a final flourish that always invokes Scottish independence as the answer to whatever is the issue at hand. He shows little of Salmond’s guile or strategic brilliance and his only trick seems to be to threaten either to walk or be kicked out of the chamber, without quite fulfilling either scenario.
The Nats at Westminster are a curious breed. They are neither completely free of Nicola Sturgeon’s long leash nor entirely controlled by it. A fair few of them, having been elected in the great SNP tsunami of 2015, when the Nats went from six seats to 56, still seem slightly stunned to be in the place and have barely made a dent in the public consciousness. The group has its own factions and personality clashes and it is much less tightly managed than the MSPs in Edinburgh.
The MPs have also somehow missed the gender revolution at the top of the Holyrood party. The presence of Sturgeon as First Minister has radically transformed the image of nationalism following the boorish swagger of the Salmond era. Her cabinet contains five men and five women, and Kate Forbes, the Economy Secretary, is still most often tipped as her probable successor. At Westminster there has instead been a succession of hulking, hairy bruisers as leader: Salmond, then Angus Robertson and, since 2017, Blackford. Each had distinctive talents, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a favoured type, and that this type is something of a throwback.
Due to PMQs, Blackford arguably has the highest public profile in the SNP after Sturgeon. The UK broadcasters are often obligated to show his contributions, regardless of their quality or relevance. It is a powerful post that plays an important role in shaping Scotland’s view of its ruling party. And increasingly, these days, I hear the same question being posed: is Blackford really the best we can do?
After five years in the hotseat, with an unremarkable track record and a reputation as a repetitive blowhard, one would hope not. His own backbenchers seem to regard him with something between bemusement and contempt, and it feels like this unimpressive medium has become the message. He is tolerated rather than respected. Tightly strapped into his Highland laird outfits and issuing his doomy, Reverend IM Jolly warnings, he seems to belong to a different nationalist era to the feminised, Nordic-lite social democracy being pursued by Sturgeon. Blackford increasingly feels like a category error, and his job a missed opportunity for someone more eye-catching and representative of the modern party.
Perhaps this suits Sturgeon, as it means that whoever is the London leader poses no challenge to her personal dominance of the party. But still, as she begins to reshape the SNP’s independence offer in important ways, she could probably do with a better salesperson covering the company’s southern region.
The Nats are on the move. The war in Ukraine has allowed them to sharpen up their approach to foreign and defence policy, as seen by the First Minister’s commitment to Nato membership during her visit to the US this week. This strategy has been chiselled and polished over the past few years by Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesman, and Alyn Smith, its foreign affairs spokesman, both of MPs who are younger and have greater political agility than Blackford.
[See also: The second coming of Nato]
They are also hard at work on the “Good Neighbour” doctrine that will form a key part of the Yes campaign in any second independence referendum. This would meant that Scotland would remain the closest possible ally of the remainder of the UK, working alongside it diplomatically and militarily, more often in agreement than not. It is an extension of a previous position — keeping the monarchy, the BBC, etc — that was intended to avoid scaring off middle-ground voters. We will hear much more about these Good Neighbours in the months ahead, particularly because of the new difficulties thrown up by Brexit and the prospect of significant trade barriers with England if an independent Scotland rejoined the EU.
In this light it would seem that the SNP could indeed do better at Westminster. There are some interesting contenders for Blackford’s job, were it to become vacant. His deputy, Kirsty Blackman, might fancy the promotion, while both McDonald and Smith would be a marked improvement. Brendan O’Hara has given a good account of himself at Westminster. Mhairi Black and Joanna Cherry are both powerful parliamentary performers, but probably too divisive to work in the top job. Kirsten Oswald and Alison Thewliss could be contenders too — both well liked and highly rated. SNP MPs speak warmly of Stephen Flynn, who was only elected in 2019 but is said to be widely liked across the group and have “a low threshold for bulls***”.
Blackford is likely to stick it out at least until the next general election, but at that point a word in his ear would surely be wise. He can continue to enjoy all the comforts of the Westminster estate, but it’s time the Brit-baiting and the TV cameras passed on to someone else.