Ian Swanson: Battle lines redrawn as famous 56 go to town

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SELFIES at the dispatch box, commandeering frontbench seats and clapping instead of muttering “hear, hear” – the new contingent of SNP MPs wasted no time in making their ­presence felt.

But despite their controversial behaviour, the famous 56 have also been eager to strike a serious note in their new Westminster workplace.

Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard and Edinburgh South West’s Joanna Cherry have won widespread praise for their maiden speeches.

Mr Sheppard used the occasion to make a powerful, well-argued case against further welfare cuts and a strong appeal for the reinstatement of post-study work visas, which allow international students to stay on and work here for two years after they graduate.

Ms Cherry, now the SNP’s main 
justice and home affairs spokeswoman at Westminster, spoke authoritatively from her legal background about the importance of human rights and her “grave concern” at the Tories’ stance.

These issues are all matters of concern not just in Scotland, but across the UK, and they are all ones where there is at least some common ground with other opposition parties.

The fact the SNP wants to engage in – or even lead – the debate on such territory suggests the party does plan to do as Nicola Sturgeon claimed ­during the election campaign and play a constructive role, working with others in a bid to deliver “progressive change”.

The question of more powers for Scotland is certain still to be at the forefront of their minds. But in the face of a unashamedly right-wing programme of legislation set out in the Queen’s Speech by the Tories, now freed from Lib Dem restraint, the more elected members ready to go into battle over immigration, employment rights, the European Union and benefit cuts, the more chance there is – at least in theory – of some concessions being won.

Much of the talk during the election was about the influence the SNP could exercise over a minority Labour government. Ms Sturgeon spoke about “keeping Labour honest” and Alex Salmond even joked about writing the Labour budget.

But there was little discussion of how a large SNP group could hope to secure anything from a majority Tory government. Yet that is now the challenge it faces.

David Cameron met Ms Sturgeon at Bute House within days of the election and spoke about “respect” and said he was willing to consider more powers for the Scottish Parliament on top of the Smith commission package.

But when the Scotland Bill was unveiled, there were no significant extra powers. Meanwhile, the lack of Scottish Tory MPs means a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher in the poll tax era and an Edinburgh lawyer who was party chairman until last week have been given seats in the House of Lords so they can join David Mundell in the Scotland Office.

It smacks a little too much of the pre-devolution days when Conservative governments with little support in Scotland carried on imposing policies regardless.

The mood across all parties in the wake of the election seems to be that the Smith proposals are no longer enough and there will have to be some further concessions to the SNP.

There may not be any Westminster politician tucked in Ms Sturgeon’s pocket, but she has the strength of all but three of Scotland’s MPs behind her when she talks to Mr Cameron and his Tory colleagues.

The question is how seriously the UK government views that prospect.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com