Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Nats in Westminster: Runaway Horses?


The SNP is a party that has undoubtedly enjoyed significant electoral success and has conferred upon itself an advantageous political position. The party of government, yet simultaneously the party of opposition and resistance; arguments against its 15 years in government in Holyrood have so far, failed to cut through. Compared to most of the other parties, they've presented a relatively united front - could that be about to change? With the fractious change in their Westminster Group leadership, more focus has been turned on the way in which Blackford's resignation came about - and Flynn and Sturgeon's differences. So, are the SNP's Westminster Group becoming runaway horses in the Party's machine?

The SNP's change of leadership in Westminster is the most recent of these dramatic turns of events for the SNP - a change in tide for the SNP's fortunes in Scotland, or simply the drawing of new dividing lines in the Party. It was once believed that the old fundamentalist versus gradualist divide, that between those who want more immediate moves towards independence and those who seek more, well, gradual change, had calmed since the end of the Salmond controversy and the former First Minister's establishment of the Alba Party - Alba's inability to win any seats in the last Scottish Parliamentary election was supposed to have drawn a line under it, few ripples or scars caused amongst the Nats. However, the change of leadership down South has bubbled up old resentments once more - now, it's a question of Nicola Sturgeon's control of their Parliamentary Group in Westminster.

Since the resignation of the SNP's Leader in the Commons Ian Blackford and his replacement by Stephen Flynn - who won by a 26-17 majority against rival candidate (and supposedly Sturgeon's preferred candidate) Alison Thewliss, 3 Frontbenchers have left from their position, with 2 resigning and 1 being replaced. Compared to the government, this barely qualifies as controversial by their standards. But, for a 44-person team of SNP MPs in parliament, where unity in taking the Nat message to Westminster is paramount, division could have significant implications for the nationalist movement. So, the question is, are the SNP's Westminster group bound to be runaway horses? What implication does this have for indyref2?

The division between SNP MPs branded 'Sturgeon allies' and 'others' has been boiling since some time, at least during the course of this Parliamentary term and the recent Holyrood election. Most notably, Joanna Cherry's candidacy for the Holyrood seat of Edinburgh Central for the 2021 Holyrood elections (formerly held by Ruth Davidson) against 'Sturgeon ally' and now, her External Secretary, Angus Robertson became a flashpoint for Sturgeon-Salmond divisions - now, the same can be said of the alleged 'coup' against the now-former Westminster Leader Blackford.

On Brexit, it's agreed - the consensus is undoubtedly a rejoiner one and the Eurosceptic remnants of the SNP's past such as former Depute Leader and MP Jim Sillars no longer hold sway in the SNP. On independence and how to get it, it's a rocky question but there are no accusations of disloyalty being thrown around to the cause or high-level advocacy for 'wildcat' referendums of the sort, yet. One can say this is temporary settled. So, are we seeing a new, broader dividing line?

Within the Labour Party, it was the bomb and, often by extension, NATO membership, that served as one of the most infamous dividing lines in the party during Hugh Gaitskell's leadership, although it merely revealed further, pre-existing, divisions between the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites in the party - and it would come to give way to wider economic divisions, in a way mirroring today's Conservative party, surrounding taxes.

So, what is the SNP's dividing line here?

Drilling in the North Sea Oil is an unforeseen cause of potential angst for the nationalist party down the road - it hits at the question of the kind of Scotland they seek to govern. For long, the Scottish government's pseudo-foreign ministry has sought to ape their Nordic neighbours' politics, likening themselves to a sort of Nordic social democracy understood only on a surface level. In the past, nationalists like Alex Salmond, an economist by training, looked to Norway and how its Labour Government utilised their North Sea oil reserves to ultimately create their sovereign wealth fund, in order to make the case for what an independent Scotland could do. Nowadays, green rhetoric has taken over the framing of this and hence, the idealisation of the Nordics as a progressive haven has once more come to include the latest COP commitments and more.

In light of his election, Stephen Flynn's supposed opposition to the First Minister's position favouring blocking the development of new oil fields is likely to undermine not just messaging on energy issues, but also questions on broader 'green issues', as shown with his views on the SNP's partners in government in Holyrood, the Scottish Greens. As the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South, the north east of Scotland is the region most likely to suffer from such radical green moves to block future drilling.

On comments by the Greens' Co-Leaders and Holyrood Ministers Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, Flynn said "You can support a just transition without denigrating an industry that supports the jobs of thousands of my constituents. Tone things down and work together to hit net zero." - he is certainly no radical 'hunker-down' greenie. The First Minister's coalition partner's unwavering support for blocking oil development in times like these has certainly touched nerves - and is bound to touch nerves for other neighbouring constituency SNP MPs.

Oil isn't just the likely source of a divide between the SNP's MPs and the Holyrood leadership (and their MSPs who are physically closer to the Nat nerve centre), it's age. It's been 15 years since the SNP entered government, 11 years since their Holyrood majority, and 7 years since their Westminster landslide. Most of the SNP Parliamentary Party were elected after the 2015 landslide - Flynn himself was only elected in 2019. His coming of age, as The Scotsman notes, was when the SNP was under Alex Salmond and became a party of government. Sturgeon, and moreover Flynn's predecessor Blackford, on the other hand, were from a different generation. At the time of Sturgeon's political coming of age, in the Thatcher era, and in the 1990s, the SNP had a handful of MPs and the Scottish Parliament hadn't been created yet - and when it was, she was elected a Member of the first Scottish Parliament. The same can be said of Blackford, a former investment banker who stood in the 1997 election and served as the SNP's Treasurer under Alex Salmond's leadership. Both are veterans of a party that wasn't always in government, of a movement that wasn't always at the forefront of Scottish politics.

Formerly the bedrock of the SNP's movement in the pre-devolutionary days, a Westminster group split from the aims of the government it says it represents could hobble the very kind of independent Scotland they envision and seek to build. It would create a tale of two parties. With an SNP government allied with the Scottish Greens and the practical implications of dealing with governance on non-independence issues, SNP MPs down in Westminster who have no vote on such policies in Holyrood can easily split ranks with their party leadership in Edinburgh and fracture their message. 

Font size: +

Contact us

Director : Robert Oulds
Tel: 020 7287 4414
Chairman: Barry Legg
The Bruges Group
246 Linen Hall, 162-168 Regent Street
London W1B 5TB
United Kingdom
Founder President :
The Rt Hon. the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG, OM, FRS 
Vice-President : The Rt Hon. the Lord Lamont of Lerwick,
Chairman: Barry Legg
Director : Robert Oulds MA, FRSA
Washington D.C. Representative : John O'Sullivan CBE
Founder Chairman : Lord Harris of High Cross
Head of Media: Jack Soames