The SNP doesn’t much like the House of Lords. It has never – unlike Plaid Cymru – sent members to the Upper House, nor will it following a resolution at the 2005 party conference. Its reasoning is simple enough: the Lords is undemocratic and unnecessary. Indeed, one of Alex Salmond’s suggested economies last year was to abolish it (along with the Scotland Office). Nationalist tweeters, meanwhile, regularly take pot shots at their lordships online, particularly their expenses.
This is all well and good, if a little inconsistent. The SNP has patronised unelected bodies in the past (Winnie Ewing, for example, was an appointed MEP from 1975-79), while this boycott also puts the party at a disadvantage in legislative terms: whatever the argument about the Upper House’s democratic mandate, it still deals with legislation affecting Scotland. And here’s the rub: following a lengthy delay, the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill is scheduled to begin on 26 January.
With no SNP peers, this leaves the party – and therefore the Scottish Parliament/Government – with no easy way to influence the passage of the Bill. Indeed, ministers have indicated that the Scottish Parliament’s support in the form of a Legislative Consent Motion is contingent upon a number of amendments being made to the Bill as per its Scotland Bill Committee’s report, including the devolution of corporation tax, control of the Crown Estate and stronger representation for Scottish ministers in the EU.
Not everyone agrees with the party line. I understand that at least one adviser has urged Alex Salmond to nominate peers, while the SNP MP Pete Wishart has also called for his party’s policy to be reviewed. But Salmond – the main proponent of the anti-House of Lords motion seven years ago – shows no sign of changing tack. Looking beyond the Scotland Bill, this means Nationalists will have no way of influencing future legislation on the West Lothian Commission and, indeed, a possible referendum Bill, although that’s a moot point.
I think this is important (from an SNP point of view) because the Upper House is even more ‘Unionist’ than the House of Commons. In the absence of SNP peers, the Scotland Bill will be subject to persistent assaults from a number of pro-Union Scots, including former Conservative Scottish Secretaries, the Lords Lang and Forsyth, as well as Labour’s Lord Foulkes and Lord McConnell. Forsyth has already tabled an amendment to delay the Committee Stage until the UK Government has deliberated on its consultation on Scotland’s constitutional future, although he's unlikely to push for a division.
While the Lords is unlikely to reject the Bill, any wrangling during a congested legislative timetable could ultimately delay it, allowing no time for the Commons to reconsider it, including any Lords amendments, with the result that it might ‘fall’ at the end of the Session in late April/early May. So who will present the SNP’s case? The pro-independence Liberal Democrat, the Earl of Mar and Kellie, is a possibility but far from ideal. Plaid Cymru peers such as Lord Wigley, meanwhile, may choose to table the Scottish Parliament’s favoured amendments, many of which are, in any event, unlikely to be endorsed by the Upper House.
Curiously, the SNP also appears to have no view on what a reformed House of Lords might look like. Given that abolition is unlikely and Nick Clegg’s forthcoming Bill might be forced through a recalcitrant Upper House via the Parliament Act, the first ‘Senators’ from a Scottish electoral district could be returned at the next general election in 2015. These ought to increase to around 25 by the time the phased introduction of the reformed House of Lords is completed a decade later. Would the SNP contest elections? One suspects that optimistic Nationalists regard that as academic, for they hope Scotland will be independent, not only of the House of Lords, but Westminster in general.