Why are SNP MPs rapping and handing out red cards at Westminster?

SNP MPs have been indulging in stunts and photo opportunities. 

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Hannah Bardell started a fashion when she wore a Scotland shirt in the Commons back in the summer.

Not for MPs sporting the colours of their favourite team, but for Scottish National Party members displaying a range of attention seeking behaviours.

Shortly before the MPs’ summer recess, at a time when Scotland’s women’s team were preparing to take on England in their first European championships, Bardell, the SNP member for Livingston, pulled back her jacket part way through a speech to reveal she was wearing a Scotland top underneath.

As stunts go, it was a success. There was coverage in print, discussion on the radio and, most importantly, a viral clip for the Nats to share.

Because it worked, it’s been copied.

Continuing with the football theme, Falkirk MP John McNally held up a red card when Theresa May addressed the absence of newbie Scottish Tory Douglas Ross, who, having built his political career while maintaining a sideline as a top flight linesman, was in Spain to referee a Barcelona match.

In the last few weeks we’ve had Bardell, again, this time rejecting making a traditional speech in favour of rapping about Brexit (with her SNP colleague David Linden getting in on the act by beatboxing in the background).

This was followed by Pete Wishart brandishing a “nul points” sign at the PM (the cameras didn’t catch this one, so all Wishart got for his trouble was a ticking off from the Speaker – the rules are clear that MPs shouldn’t use props – but no viral clip).

And there was a rather pathetic photo opportunity involving Ian Blackford and the leaders of some other opposition parties “empty chairing” Jeremy Corbyn at a summit they’d convened on Brexit.

This last one is a missed opportunity, because if you’re going to empty chair someone, it’s best go the whole Have I Got News For You hog and replace them with a prop (a cardboard box has been known to stand in for the Labour leader in the past). This particular stunt also points to the reasoning behind this recent rash of cunning antics by the SNP.

It showed up how impotent they are. The folk round the table – Blackford, Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem leader Vince Cable and Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville-Roberts lead less than 10 per cent of MPs between them. If Corbyn had turned up, their meeting may have mattered. Since he didn’t, it was insignificant.

The Nats are struggling to deal with their reduced circumstances. Hence the increasingly desperate pleas for attention. When 56 SNP MPs were returned in 2015, in one of the most stunning results in electoral history, they garnered attention simply because of their numbers.

And inevitably among their number there were some curiosities that piqued the press pack’s interest; such as 20-year-old Mhairi Black, former soap actress Deirdre Brock and comeback clown Alex Salmond.

The party arrived in Westminster with a reputation, particularly among the London lobby who pay only passing attention to Scottish affairs, as a self-disciplined and successful election-winning machine.

Both qualities are now spent.

By 2017, the Scottish electorate had sussed that no matter how many SNP MPs they send south they’ll always be outvoted by their English counterparts. So they switched to Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories, creating a four-party system for the first time since 1974 and inflicting the first significant reverse on the SNP for years.

The bottom line is that just 35 SNP MPs were returned. While it is still a cracking result, the political landscape at Westminster had shifted decisively.

Blackford took over as leader, and while his predecessor Angus Robertson bossed Prime Minister’s Questions, Blackford has failed to make such impact.

There are whispers about Blackford’s tenure, which only serves to illustrate the main concern with his leadership. Discipline – something the SNP has prided itself on – is wavering. Some MPs talk more freely to the lobby, having learned that the press are not necessarily the enemy they were taught. Others cook up parliamentary ploys. Some simply yell “Independence!” louder and louder, to the consternation of the party hierarchy who prefer to have total control on playing the indyref card.

Remember Scottish MPs are competing not just with the other parties’ candidates for attention; they are up against their Holyrood colleagues.

Before 2015, Scottish Labour’s MPs and MSPs were constantly scrapping with each other to keep the media sweet, in the belief that exposure and recognition were key to re-election. Now the SNP have the same issue. The Scottish media still favours Holyrood for its political coverage. For an MP to get in the news they have to do something different.

And although that situation will only grow as the Brexit legislation passes and Scots MPs of all parties are left with less to do, it’s particularly acute for the SNP members. Their MSP counterparts make up a government that can actually do stuff, while they are essentially sidelined by bald mathematics and first past the post.

And so we have props and raps and crap photo opportunities. Expect more of it in the months to come.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is the author of The Gender Agenda and Dads Don’t Babysit