Angus MacNeil: 'There’s no chance of groupthink in the SNP'
The senior SNP politician discusses his new colleagues, another independence referendum and who his party fears the most in Labour's ranks.
With 10 years under his belt as an MP, Angus MacNeil has suddenly become a relative veteran in the SNP’s ranks.
The MP for Na h-Eileanan an Ia was previously one of only six SNP MPs in the Commons. Now he has an additional 50 colleagues who are all learning the ropes - and he is feeling the benefits.
“I think the first thing you notice is that speaking in the Chamber is a lot less intimidating. I didn’t realise it was intimidating in the past because I sort of enjoyed the six versus the 600,” he says.
“100/1 odds is the odds the SNP like. But, personally, it feels like a front room now when you have got your colleagues and friends there.”
MacNeil’s new colleagues include six MPs aged under 30, including Mhairi Black who was just 20 when she unseated Labour’s Douglas Alexander, in one of the most astonishing upsets of the general election.
Black is one of the many new SNP MPs who hadn’t anticipated winning on May 7. There is also 23-year old Stuart Donaldson who been planning to go to China and work for a tour company before the shock of election night. And Tommy Shepard, the owner of the Stand comedy club in Edinburgh who was previously a Labour activist.
“There’s no chance of groupthink in the SNP,” says McNeil of the new intake. “You can see they have got very definite ideas, nobody ever ended up in the House of Commons because they were a shrinking violet, or whatever the phrase is.
“They end up here because they have got something internally that is driving them and pushing them onwards. All these people have got that. So I think we are going to see a flourishing and a flowering over the next year as these people, you know, bed in, and they become their own people in the Commons and find their own voice.”
And his advice for his new colleagues? “You know, don’t try and imitate anybody else’s voice, to yourself be true.”
He also notes that his new colleagues are a “humorous” bunch and says the SNP have “taken over every corner of the Commons” – including its watering holes.
After early reports that party’s MPs had overtaken the Sports and Social bar, frequented by parliamentary researchers, MacNeil suggests the 56 are now moving onto their next conquest. Strangers Bar, traditionally enjoyed by Tory and Labour MPs alike, as well as many lobby journalists, has “become almost a Nationalist bar”, jokes MacNeil.
As he meets TP, MacNeil is hurriedly typing away on his phone while leading the way in Portcullis House.
Sitting down in his office with his phone laid to rest, the MP for Nah-Eileanan manages to segue gracefully from light hearted anecdotes to serious matters of Scottish independence. And he is not afraid to give a straight answer about the issue that is the holy grail for the SNP.
Asked whether he believes Scotland will hold another referendum before 2020, MacNeil replies with an unwavering: “Yes”.
And then he’s off, putting forward a strident case for why a second independence referendum is not a question of if, but when. MacNeil begins his argument by criticising the Government’s proposals to implement so-called English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).
He says the SNP have a “long and noble tradition” of not voting on English matters, and he “can’t really think for the life of me” why the Tories have decided to introduce plans for an English veto this early in Parliament.
Turning to the experiences of the Faroe Islands and Denmark, MacNeil reflects on how the Danish government grants powers to the islands whenever the Faroese parliament, government and representatives in Copenhagen simultaneously request them. This trifecta of devolution qualifiers exists here in the UK, MacNeil claims.
“In Scotland we have those three qualifiers and we can’t get full fiscal autonomy, we can’t get a variety of things that we vote for, because people don’t take part in debate. We have the 56 SNP MPs wanting these powers, but you can have coming in to the Lobby 500 Tory and Labour MPs and telling Scotland ‘you can’t get it’,” he says.
“Now, that will be unsustainable and then to lump in talk of the English ‘veto’, is really rubbing Scotland’s nose in it. The mistake they always make is they give too little too late, too grudgingly.
“So, we want the powers to do x, y and z, if we can’t get that we feel frustrated, and it is then we have been told it’s just a grievance culture. It’s not grievance it’s a genuine frustration at what we can’t do. That then feeds in to more support for us, which they then think is a Scottish chip on the shoulder, because they don’t understand it.”
He adds: “The matter is when, it’s not if. I think polls would say that… I think the pressure will come from society and civic society in Scotland.
“You know, when people realise it’s not a political thing to say ‘I want control of the minimum wage in Scotland’, when they realise it’s a practical thing to get people out of poverty, that’s what’s going to drive this and people’s genuine need for change and if that coincides with the aims of a political party, people will then be less nervous about that as their frustration rises.”
Getting into his stride, MacNeil questions whether David Cameron was “tricking the Scottish people” by saying all forms of devolution were on the table ahead of last year’s referendum.
“In the end the referendum wasn’t between yes and no, it was between yes and loads of things. It was as near to federalism as we could possibly get to. It was all forms of devolution were possible if we wanted to stay in, then suddenly all forms of devolution were definitely not possible,” he says.
Alex Salmond said the Scottish lion had roared across the country in the wake of the SNP’s election-defining obliteration of Labour north of the border.
With one solitary Scottish MP, the Labour party are not just back to the drawing board, but assembling it from scratch, as they address how to win back voters from the SNP. MacNeil is more than happy to reflect on what went wrong for Labour in his home country.
Failing to tackle Ukip by arguing the positive case for immigration, “triangulating” austerity by advocating ‘austerity-lite” and “demonising” the SNP rather than confronting them “democratically” were central to Labour’s mauling in Scotland, MacNeil claims.
“They got done over on austerity, done over on immigration and they got done over by the SNP,” he says.
But which of Labour’s crop of potential leadership candidates are giving the SNP sleepless nights over potentially regaining disgruntled Scottish voters?
“The one guy we’d feel has the most to sort that, who has got the courage and the vision is… Jeremy Corbyn. But he’s never going to get it, so we don’t fear any of them, as a result of that,” he says.
“You know, not for the SNP, for people of England to have a genuine choice, I’d like to see Jeremy Corbyn win it.”
MacNeil says a “media friendly” choice of leader would be Andy Burnham, who may lead Labour to a lesser defeat in 2020. However, the SNP MP is resolute in his conclusion that all candidates bar Corbyn will repeat the failure of the previous Labour leadership.
“One thing you can say about Labour is if they can find a way to throw it away, they will,” he says.
Turning to his role as newly elected chair of the Commons energy and climate change committee, MacNeil is quick to lambast the Government.
The end to subsidies for onshore wind farms beyond 2016 is “very rash”, MacNeil says, and it has left it unclear what the Government’s approach to renewables will be.
On the wider question of climate change, he states: “There’s a whole variety of options out there for lowering carbon emissions.
"Will we manage to move to a post-oil world before oil is gone? I think we possibly can. So we will have the benefits of renewable and a more efficient use… the big users of energy are transportation, we’ll probably move to more efficient transportation, more efficient buildings, and then the inputs of energy, proving energy from more renewable sources, carbon free sources as well.
“There are some arguments that we can bring in these changes quite cheaply. Oil itself is free, it’s the getting out of the ground and from areas of the world, then it’s the pollution it causes, these are the costly things about oil. So don’t believe for a minute that oil is a cost free or the fossil world is cost free. So the other solutions that can bring about the changes and some people will argue they will bring about changes at low cost which I think are things we are looking to explore.”
MacNeil’s amiable nature has acquired him friends across the chamber during his 10 years as MP for Na h-Eileanan an Ia.
In an unlikely alliance, MacNeil smiles broadly when reflecting on his friend and Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg, whom he has “got on with for quite a while”.
Labour MPs ‘Stevie’ Hepburn, Stephen Pound and Connor McGinn also make it onto MacNeil’s Christmas card list, along with Tory MP Rehman Chisti, whose office is opposite his own. He is less enamoured with David Cameron and George Osborne.
“Cameron and Osborne are aloof with the Parliament and they are even aloof from their own parliamentarians. One thing I would say about Cameron is he is affable, he will chat to people. Osborne is not as greater people person as Cameron.”
He also enjoys some bonhomie with the mayor of London.
MacNeil says with a broad smile: “I speak to Boris and he has always got a craic, you know, he’ll say ‘you’re not serious about independence are you?’ Deadly serious, Boris!”
Yet there was a clear note of comedy when MacNeil most recently hit the headlines - for reportedly locking himself in a toilet after entering the wrong lobby to vote on the Government’s European Referendum Bill.
With a couple of weeks to reflect, the MP appears to have come up with some fine PR gloss to apply to the incident.
“It was very good for the new guys. I did it as an act of selflessness, so that if they were ever in that situation they could feel good about themselves. I was prepared to put myself on the line,” he jokes.
With a more grudging tone, he adds: “I have also told my colleagues that if they want any quick fame make sure you make a mistake. Because doing things right 999 out of 1,000, nobody pays any attention.”
With MacNeil forthright answers often emerge with a mischievous grin, but beneath the impish smile is a determined will to further the SNP cause and deliver the devolution he believes is rightfully owed to the Scottish people.
“The SNP has many simultaneous aims, and throughout my 10 years here we have probably had that,” he says.
“One of the big feelings that I think would have frustrated the Scottish people during the election was to tell them that the SNP would be wreckers, when they know that the SNP have been very constructive in the Scottish Parliament.
“The SNP have been constructive here in the past. So, we will obviously have an aim of being constructive in the Parliament we are in, delivering what we can with the powers we have got, trying to get whatever powers we can to Scotland because further devolution is the independent control of powers in Scotland.”