The SNP's former leader at Westminster speaks to Left Foot Forward about his time in parliament
Ian Blackford has spent eight years in parliament. First elected in 2015, the former banker turned firebrand SNP MP was a major fixture of Westminster throughout some of the most torrid years of British politics. He led the SNP’s parliamentary group through four Tory prime ministers, the endless Commons wranglings over Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. Having announced he is standing down at the next general election, Left Foot Forward spoke to him as part of our new series of interviews with retiring MPs.
Blackford is perhaps most recognisable to the public for the five years he spent clashing with Tory leaders at Prime Minister’s Questions – first Theresa May, then Boris Johnson and briefly Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. These clashes were notoriously fiery, with Blackford twice being ejected from the Commons, once for refusing to take his seat to allow May to answer a question on the EU Withdrawal Bill, and then – infamously – for stating that Johnson had misled parliament about Partygate.
When discussing the latter of these incidents, Blackford allows himself to smile briefly with more than a modicum of pride. Reflecting on his head to heads with Boris Johnson, Blackford tells Left Foot Forward: “I’m so glad that he is gone and he’s been exposed. Myself and Dawn Butler got into trouble for calling him a liar in the House of Commons chamber – we’ve been vindicated for doing that.” His broader assessment of Johnson – unsurprisingly – is damning. He says: “From a personal point of view I just hate the fact that we had somebody like Boris Johnson as prime minister and the damage that he’s done.”
Liz Truss, the penultimate of the prime ministers he faced off against is equally damned by Blackford, although he is substantially more succinct in his criticism of her than less charitable characterisations of his speaking style would have you believe. After naming her, he pauses briefly in disbelief, before settling on “Let’s just say ‘dear God’ and move on”.
As for Rishi Sunak? Blackford suggests that we shouldn’t operate under the misapprehension that he represents an ideological shift from the Johnson/Truss eras, branding the current prime minister’s policies and rhetoric “chilling”. He told Left Foot Forward: “Nobody should doubt that this is a man that’s actually quite a right wing politician. And the way he’s behaving and the virtue signalling that we’re seeing – this whole charade over the small boats and Rwanda and everything that goes with that, it’s actually just quite chilling.”
By contrast, he is at least somewhat complementary about Theresa May. “You couldn’t get anyone whose politics are so different to mine in many regards,” he says, then going on to add: “She was actually a decent human being, and when she was prime minister she was always very respectful to myself and Jeremy Corbyn.”
It has become a cliché in writing on politics that these kind of positive working relationships exist between politicians of different parties outside of the theatre of parliament and when the cameras aren’t rolling. Blackford lives up to that cliché in describing several of these types of relationships when reflecting on his years in Westminster.
Some of them are predictable, like his collaboration with Green MP Caroline Lucas, then Lib Dem leader Vince Cable and Plaidy Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts in their battles against a hard Brexit. Some are less so. Despite the political challenges of working with Labour, given the party has historically been the SNP’s major competitor in Scotland, Blackford says he “actually had a decent working relationship both with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonell. We actually got on well. Again, of course, there were political differences, but we were able to work together when it was possible to do that.”
Perhaps most surprisingly though, it is a Tory MP who Blackford says he most enjoyed working with while in parliament. He names Richard Harrington, a former MP who held junior ministerial positions under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and now sits in the House of Lords. Blackford recalls that he was the SNP’s pensions spokesperson at the time that Harrington was a pensions minister. He reflects: “I actually found, to my surprise, in some areas […] he actually was prepared to listen – particularly with some of the bonkers legislation that they were bringing forward.”
While he is cautiously complementary about some political opponents, Blackford is also similarly cautiously critical of some of his one-time political allies. The SNP was, and remains, strongly opposed to Brexit. But thinking back to the parliamentary dramas surrounding Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, Blackford also expresses regret at developments on the Remain side that he argues partly enabled the hard Brexit we ended up with.
“I actually did believe there was a majority in the House of Commons to stay in the single market and the customs union, but we weren’t able really to throw together a coalition,” he tells Left Foot Forward, adding, “One of the things that I discussed with Alastair Campbell, for example, is that I felt that the move towards the People’s Vote blunted our ability to take that argument for single market and customs union forward. There was at that time a degree of momentum with the People’s Vote, but it was going to be very difficult to deliver success in arguing for a People’s Vote. And obviously ultimately it wasn’t successful.” He concludes: “I regret that. Because if we had been able to do that all of us would be in a different position today and the outcome for economic growth would be different as a consequence of that.”
Of course, Brexit is just one of the big constitutional debates the SNP has been at the heart of in recent years. The other one is the question of Scottish independence. Probed as to whether Scotland is closer or further away from achieving independence now than when Blackford first entered parliament in 2015, he avoids making a firm assessment. Instead, he makes his case for how he believes independence will be won.
“Much of the debate over the last few years […] has been about process. I’m not sure that people are necessarily going to change their mind on whether Scotland should become independent on a debate about process. I think it’s much more important that we have a discussion about what kind of country,” he argues, going on to say, “I think the SNP, and I suppose, more broadly, the Yes movement, can get across that vision of what kind of Scotland we can have – how we can make sure that we can be a dynamic, fast growing economy, playing to our strengths, then Scotland will become independent. Now, when that will be is more difficult to tell. We’re going into an election next year. The election is going to be about change. And I suspect in one way or the other, the SNP will be putting the case for independence, so let’s wait and see what happens.”
Just as he won’t be drawn on assessing how close or not Scotland is to gaining independence, he is characteristically on message when it comes to discussing the situation currently facing the SNP. Blackford’s party is currently facing a fair degree of turmoil. Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation earlier this year sparked a bitter leadership contest which Humza Yousaf ultimately triumphed in. That contest exposed some of the divisions bubbling under the surface of the party, not least around trans rights, and has since been overshadowed by the investigation into the party’s finances.
“You can’t deny it’s been a challenging time. There’s a degree of turbulence to say the least,” he says euphemistically, before going on to praise Yousaf’s initial period as first minister. He tells Left Foot Forward: “I think he’s determined to show that he can deliver across the domestic agenda that the government has responsibility for. I’ve always said that people need to judge Humza on what he does.” Acknowledging the recent drop in support for the SNP in the polls, Blackford says: “Is there a challenge that we face from Labour? Let’s just be honest, yes there is. You can see that reflected in the polls today. I think it’s up to us to make sure that we’ve got a clarity of message and vision, and show that we’re worthy of the trust of the people of Scotland when that election comes.”
These big picture political issues were, however, a small part of our discussions. We initially opened by talking about what Blackford deemed his biggest achievement in his eight years in parliament. Responding, he didn’t speak at length about the flagship political battles in Westminster. Instead, it is examples of handling day to day casework in his Highland constituency that bring energy to his voice, particularly helping people with visa and migration issues.
Tellingly then, as we wrap up the conversation by looking at what advice he would give to his successor in parliament, Blackford has a straight forward suggestion: “Make sure you put your constituents first.”
Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward
Image credit: UK Parliament – Creative Commons
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