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Stephen Flynn: “This election is a straight choice between Starmer or Sunak, dull and duller”

The SNP’s House of Commons leader on how the Westminster consensus fails the United Kingdom.

By Freddie Hayward

Stephen Flynn is one of the most articulate and fluent speakers in parliament. Every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader rises from the green benches, noteless, with his hand in his suit trouser pocket, to ask the first of the two questions he gets as the leader of the third largest party. Flynn’s delivery is sharp, combative and concise. His tactic is obvious: to skewer the Prime Minister from an angle, such as on Gaza, that draws a contrast between the SNP and Labour, his party’s main rivals in Scotland. He takes moral stands and, as you might expect from a man who wants to destroy the Union, presents himself as a political outsider, a constitutional rebel. These performances are a reason he is a plausible candidate to one day become Scotland’s first minister.

Flynn, 35, was not wearing a suit when we met in the Tate Modern café in London in early June. He arrived, earphones in, sports cap on, wearing navy shorts and a cotton jumper. Flynn was taking a break from campaigning in his Aberdeen constituency to be in London for media interviews. The general election announcement blindsided the SNP, which has been mired in a party finance investigation and the disastrous, short-lived leadership of Humza Yousaf. The polls suggest the SNP could lose half its MPs on 4 July.

“It’s been an uncertain time for the public. But it has been an uncertain time for the party as well,” Flynn said, handling a spicy crayfish roll. “We weren’t expecting a general election within just a matter of weeks of having a new leader of the party [John Swinney]. But I think that affords John the opportunity to engage with people very quickly.”

Is the SNP’s fundamental problem that its priorities – punitive hate speech laws and fighting Westminster over gender recognition reform – have not tracked voters’ concerns? Flynn’s reply is revealing: “I’ve been talking about, relentlessly, the cost-of-living crisis. I’ve been talking about the damage that’s been done to people and their mortgages.” That’s a yes, then. He added: “Much of [Labour’s success in Scotland] is determined by what’s happened to the SNP over the course of the last two years… I don’t necessarily need to be specific because you know what I’m referring to there.”

Nonetheless, Flynn believes Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are two sides of the same tired consensus. “This isn’t an election, this is a changing of the guard,” he said. “I feel a bit sorry for a lot of voters in England because it is a straight choice between Starmer or Sunak, dull and duller.”

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Flynn frames the SNP as the progressive alternative to an increasingly right-wing Labour Party. “Look at the migration stuff [Labour’s desire to reduce immigration] that Keir’s talking about again. He is chasing to the right to try and secure votes, when in reality, every single economist, every single person who works in the public sector, every single business is saying that you need more people coming to the UK to work because of our ageing population.”

Don’t immigrants get old? “Yes, but of course, in order to increase your tax base, you need more people of working age in the economy.” But not on a per capita basis? “There’s only two ways to increase your working age population: the traditional way, which takes a significant amount of time; the other one is to make sure you have people of working age coming [here] to work.” But immigration isn’t a sustainable solution? “It’s not a sustainable solution for any nation across the globe. But ultimately, what you need is people coming and living and working here.”

Flynn does not worry that high immigration could boost support for the nationalist right, including Nigel Farage’s Reform. “You have to stand up and challenge them. You can’t cower away,” he said. “You meet it head on and be positive about your vision. That’s what’s lacking in Westminster – there’s a fear of doing that. As such, what we’ve seen is the Labour Party try and attach themselves to the Tory party for months now.”

For most of his life, Stephen Flynn would not have been able to stand unaided at PMQs. He used a crutch for 18 years due to a condition called avascular necrosis. When he was growing up in Dundee, you either “worked in the NHS, you worked in the university, or you worked in Tesco – and I did the latter… You can’t stack shelves safely if you’ve got a crutch, so I was a check-out boy.”

He became a political researcher for the SNP politician Maureen Watt, then a councillor in Aberdeen before entering parliament in 2019. It wasn’t until 2020 that he got a hip replacement. “I had to relearn how to walk. And then I needed to learn how to run, because I hadn’t run since I was, like, 13 years old.” He held his wife’s hand with his right hand for the first time since they got together. “So that was cool. I got to go to the park with my kids – walk around with my kid on my shoulders.”

There was no single moment when Flynn became a Scottish nationalist. But lying disabled in bed gave him time to read and think about politics. During the Tony Blair years, he saw the “outrage among the Scottish population” about New Labour and the Iraq War. Independence “seemed like a no-brainer to me”.

The SNP claims to promote a “civic nationalism” that rejects the exclusionary nature of nationalism on the right. Is Flynn content being a nationalist? “Do I look unhappy?” he replied. He did not. But is there a risk that Westminster-bashing can bleed into anti-English sentiment?

“I would like to think not – that’s certainly never been my intention. I think England is a fantastic, vibrant country with phenomenal cities and beautiful countryside and brilliant people. I believe they should be able to govern themselves and the Scottish should be able to govern themselves… We believe in our positive, progressive future, and I’m quite proud of that. I’m very proud of that.”

According to Flynn, the SNP’s manifesto will state that winning a majority of Scottish seats – not votes – at the general election would give them a mandate for another independence referendum. Received wisdom is that a centre-left government in Westminster could blunt the independence cause. Flynn disagrees. He thinks Rachel Reeves’s “fiscal straitjacket and [her] decision to keep Tory cuts to the economy” will undermine Scottish Labour at the 2026 Holyrood elections.

The SNP leader traditionally sits in Holyrood. Could Stephen Flynn eventually head north? “As a Scottish nationalist, my hope is to one day serve in Scotland’s parliament. But I don’t know what the future holds.”

[See also: What Orwell got right]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency