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20 December 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 7:26am

The SNP MPs to watch in 2017

SNP watcher James Millar decides who is naughty or nice. 

By James millar

I’ve been making a list and checking it twice. I’ve been finding out who’s naughty and who’s actually quite competent among the SNP’s MPs.

Alright, it may not scan as well as the popular festive song about Santa Claus (a man with a white beard in whom huge numbers of people put great hope but who actually does nothing – there’s a whole other column about Jeremy Corbyn right there). But since the SNP came to town in record numbers in 2015 they’ve been an integral part of Westminster. As their first full calendar year in the Commons comes to a close, it’s only now clear who are the ones to watch.

For the SNP are splitting.

Not over any ideological differences (not yet at any rate). They remain committed to independence and the summer’s Brexit vote has emboldened many on that front.

The divisions are between the competent and the inept.

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Interestingly a straw poll of MPs – Nats and their opponents – throws up a range of names deemed to be succeeding, including Martin Docherty-Hughes, Joanna Cherry and Chris Stephens.

On the other side of the ledger there’s a shorter list of the same people who are not impressing their colleagues.

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Which mainly shows that it’s easier to be rubbish than to be good.

Top of the class is surely Stephen Gethins. He’s feted by his fellow MPs more than any other.

A huge part of his success has been down to being handed the Brexit brief.

Until Keir Starmer joined the fray for Labour, Gethins was largely alone in effectively holding the government to account.

Starmer and Gethins are among the best MPs in the Commons. And Gethins has been around parliament enough – he spent years as an SNP backroom boy before getting elected – that it’s a question of when, not if, he teams up with Starmer to inflict some damage on Brexit secretary David Davis.

If a progressive alliance is ever to become reality, pragmatic Gethins could be the lodestone.

And that’s a large part of the difference between the good and the bad among the SNP MPs.

The party is opposed to Brexit after Scotland voted to remain.

The more wooden-headed among their number look aghast at Labour appearing to back Brexit, partly because they are unable to think beyond the party line, partly because the SNP don’t regard referendum results as final.

Gethins, however, is a creature of politics, and if he can wangle a way to embarrass or defeat the government he will. It was his smart manoeuvring that ensured the foreign affairs committee on which he sits came out against airstrikes in Syria ahead of the big October 2015 debate.

That parliamentary flashpoint also saw Stewart McDonald come to prominence.

For while his colleagues were furiously tweeting that Tony Benn would be birling in his grave after his son’s barnstorming speech in favour of strikes, McDonald shot them down. In a well-timed tweet, he suggested such comments were distasteful.

And he was at it again last month, taking his colleague George Kerevan to task for an article in The National in which Kerevan claimed Scotland could learn from Cuba because Fidel Castro “managed to link national identity and national independence with a progressive, socialist project”.

McDonald suggested that a regime that imprisoned gays and trade unionists was not “progressive”.

An SNP MP who is independent minded as well as independence obsessed is rare indeed.

This yellow-on-yellow stuff didn’t happen 18 months ago.

Party whips and apparatchiks are getting fed up with the weaker members of the team. One told me: “We’re doing an awful lot of work, just most of it we’re doing awfully.”

Many of the 56 – they may technically be 54 now since Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry resigned the whip – have picked up chairmanships of all-party groups and taken up pet issues as they see fit. This has caused confusion as to who actually speaks for the party on certain issues.

For example, Eilidh Whiteford is the SNP lead on work and pensions. But Alison Thewliss took on the Budget “rape clause” and Mhairi Black spoke up for the so-called Waspi women who claim they’ve been cheated by increases to female state pension age.

Black has hardly lived up to the hype that accompanied her election – and since she became the youngest MP in nearly two centuries after defeating Labour’s election supremo Douglas Alexander in 2015, that’s quite a lot of hype. But she’s not put a foot wrong either.

The party likes it that way.

It’s why the likes of Hannah Bardell and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh are fielded for high profile media appearances like Question Time. They aren’t going to make the news for their insightful contributions, but crucially they are trusted not to gaffe.

John Nicolson is another media darling. Despite the long weekend commute from Scotland, he’s invariably available for Thursday night appearances on Andrew Neil’s This Week and Sunday night turns on the Westminster Hour.

One exception to this “say nothing but say it well” rule is Callum McCaig. The Aberdeen MP is becoming a regular on the news channels reviewing Prime Minister’s Questions, and he does offer noticeably intelligent contributions. With so few thinkers in the SNP’s midst it’s no surprise he’s being talked up as a future leader.

And so to the other end of the scale.

Here two names crop up again and again.

Any SNP MP who manages to get in an expenses imbroglio is special. Steven Paterson made the front of his local paper for lodging a claim for dog care among the £99,000 he trousered in his first 12 months in parliament (he later repaid it saying it was an error).

Among his lacklustre contributions in the House are two separate occasions when he asked for Scottish votes for Scottish laws only to be give the same answer – that’s what the Scottish parliament does.

Paterson probably falls in to the category of “Nats who weren’t expected to get elected”, but mainly that phrase refers to someone else. Like wizards whispering of he-who-must-not-be-named, they are talking about Paul Monaghan. Unlike Paterson he’s managed to make a name for himself, unfortunately it’s been for allegedly abusive and anti-Semitic tweets, talking up the impartiality of Russian news outlets Sputnik and Russia Today and for employing his brother at the public’s expense.

Like Gethins, McCaig and McDonald he’s worth the watching over the next few years. Just for different reasons.