IT’S just over six months since Scotland’s dramatic general election result left all but one of Lothian’s Westminster seats in new hands.
It has been an eventful time with the biggest ever SNP group in the Commons, a new majority Conservative Government, a newly-elected Labour leader and plenty of big issues on the agenda, not least the Scotland Bill transferring more powers to Holyrood.
Experiencing the ‘Westminster bubble’ has made me acutely aware of how detached the establishment is from the realities of people who live in Edinburgh West.Michelle Thomson
Labour’s Ian Murray found himself the party’s only MP north of the border and shouldered the job of Shadow Scottish Secretary.
Meanwhile, the new MPs have had a chance to settle in, appoint staff, open their constituency offices, find somewhere to stay in London and get used to their new role.
So what do they all think of it so far?
East Lothian SNP MP George Kerevan says the SNP has quickly learned to be effective at Westminster – but he clearly still has mixed feelings about the place. “Westminster is like Hogwarts – a big public school with vast numbers of hidden corridors, stairs that lead into dark chambers, and the occasional political monster lying in wait.
“But after seven months I’ve learned my way around. The worst thing one has to get used to is the weekly commute from Scotland to London and back.
“The most rewarding thing about being an MP has nothing to do with Westminster. Since May I’ve had the opportunity to meet literally thousands of folk in my constituency in East Lothian and share their stories and issues. It’s absolutely fascinating for an ex-journalist like myself.”
Midlothian SNP MP Owen Thompson finds it hard to believe it’s just over six months since the election.
“We’ve got a better understanding of how things works now,” he says. “I’m not going to say it makes sense.
“But it’s now very much a case of knowing there is a big job to do and getting stuck in.”
Mr Thompson’s role as one of the whips puts him at the heart of the party’s work at Westminster, helping to support the SNP teams looking after all the different subject areas.
But the remarkable unity of the group on every issue, means the traditional job of the whip – keeping everyone in line – is virtually redundant. “Some people seem to find it surprising that people in the same party have similar views,” he says.
Livingston SNP MP Hannah Bardell has no hesitation in summing up her feelings after six months in the job: “Tired and inspired in equal measure,” she says.
“It’s definitely a test of stamina and sometimes sleep deprivation, but it’s so interesting and fascinating. I really enjoy the constituency work but we don’t have enough time there because of the heavy legislative programme – you’re restricted to Friday, Saturday, Sunday and a bit of Monday if you’re lucky. And if you want time to yourself, it’s half a day at the most – but that’s what we signed up to.” Ms Bardell has also had to get to grips with two big portfolios – she was handed a big job right at the start as Fair Work and Employment spokeswoman. And in October she had to switch to Business Innovation and Skills.
She suspects politicians in the other parties had wildly wrong perceptions of the SNP contingent before they arrived. “I think they thought we were a bunch of hillbillies. But I think what we have brought is a real level of professionalism. The Speaker himself has remarked on the fact we turn up to support each other and we take it seriously.”
Ms Bardell says she and her colleagues were conscious of a huge responsibility.
“People are expecting a lot, there was a lot of hype about us coming down, and we have to deliver. It is challenging because the pure maths of it means even when we do vote with Labour and other parties, the Conservatives do have a majority. But it is slim and we have managed to achieve things – making sure the EU referendum won’t be held on the same day as the Scottish elections; fox hunting; and the Human Rights Act kicked into the long grass for now.”
She says welfare cuts are the biggest issue for constituents coming to her for help. “About 25 per cent of my caseload is benefit sanctions,” she said. “But we’ve had quite a lot of success, winning a majority of the cases.”
She raised a case in the Commons chamber of a man with Parkinson’s Disease who had been sanctioned and taken to a tribunal, against the DWP’s own guidelines which say cases where people have degenerative conditions should be reviewed without forcing them to attend a hearing.
Ms Bardell raised the case with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and got his payments backdated. “Things like that make the job worthwhile, knowing you can step in and get things done.”
Linlithgow SNP MP Martyn Day says one of the first things that struck him at Westminster was the need for the place to be modernised – not least by electronic voting.
The age-old system of MPs trooping through Aye and No lobbies to record their votes does not impress him.
“It takes you 15-20 minutes to go through the lobbies,” he says. “If Labour and the Tories are voting together that’s 500 going through one lobby and it takes half-an-hour. If we had electronic voting we could vote on hundreds of items an hour, but at the moment it’s a maximum of four.
“I’m a great fan of history – I don’t mind tradition and ceremony, but as a modern working environment, the place leaves a lot to be desired. After the chamber was destroyed by fire, the Victorians redesigned it for their purposes, We should follow that tradition of modernisation and make it fit for our purposes today.”
In the first few weeks after the election, the SNP MPs were keen to assert their right as the third party to front bench positions in the chamber. There would be queues from 7.30am, waiting for the doors to open so they could claim their places for debates later in the morning. But Mr Day says the seating issue has been more or less resolved and the scramble for places only happens when there is business of special significance. “We’re more relaxed about it now,” he says.
Edinburgh East’s SNP MP Tommy Sheppard says life since the election has meant never a dull moment.
“It feels a long time on the one hand and only yesterday in other ways. We’ve found our feet and have been getting down to work. Everyone is on various committees and doing the nitty gritty of the job.”
And he says they take it very seriously – “ironically, since our long-term ambition is not to be here.” Relationships with other politicians have improved, he adds. “Despite the viciousness of the election campaign when Tories tried to demonise the SNP, they are quite well disposed to us because they see us as having taken out their main enemy.
“Labour were very tetchy, bordering on hostile, to start with, but that has thawed a lot. There are working relationships and people have been brought together by being on all-party groups and having a drink after work.
“We’ve got out feet under the table – though, just to reassure SNP voters, I’d stress it would be wrong to suggest we’re developing an affection for the place or considering going native.
“We will do the job while we’re here, but we can’t wait to make ourselves redundant by bringing power back to Holyrood.”
Edinburgh North and Leith SNP MP Deirdre Brock says serving as a city councillor was a good training ground for Westminster. “But you’re really thrown into it – hundreds of emails from day one. You feel very responsible to everyone and you want to answer them all ASAP.”
She says there is a “wary respect” from colleagues in other parties. “They thought we were all going to be Bravehearts and they have been somewhat taken aback by our rather more nuanced approach.
“We said we’d be a voice for Scotland and that voice has been heard louder than ever before. We’ve got the Government to back away from decisions in several areas.
“We’ve got places on most committees and that brings a Scottish perspective to these discussions.”
But she says she hopes she never feels at home at Westminster. “The most irritating thing is the voting system – for us to have to traipse out of the chamber, wait and get our names ticked off. When you contrast it with the Scottish Parliament, electronic voting must make for better legislation.”
Edinburgh South-West SNP MP Joanna Cherry was plunged straight into the deep end at Westminster when she was handed one of the busiest frontbench roles.
Before winning Alistair Darling’s old seat, she had not even spoken at an SNP conference – but her experience as a QC meant she was able to take the Commons in her stride, despite a hectic and demanding agenda from day one. She says: “It’s been an honour to play my part as SNP spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs, delivering a strong voice for Scotland in Westminster; most notably in speaking out against the repeal of the Human Rights Act and speaking up for the rights of refugees.”
Michelle Thomson, MP for Edinburgh West, resigned the SNP whip over her controversial property deals in September, but despite speculation about her possibly quitting the Commons she seems set to carry on as an independent.
“Entering Westminster for the first time was like walking into a different world. It’s an environment which at times seems very insulated from reality. The early days were a baptism of fire as we adjusted to a world where clapping is forbidden but braying like donkeys to indicate approval is encouraged; and where strict rules and inflexible traditions dominate proceedings.
“Experiencing the ‘Westminster bubble’ has made me acutely aware of how detached the establishment is from the realities of people who live in Edinburgh West.
“Resigning the whip was not an easy decision to make. But the people I meet and speak to are a constant reminder that I am here to do a job – to represent the people of Edinburgh West.”
Edinburgh South Labour MP Ian Murray admits it has been a “pretty bruising” time for the Labour Party.
He says: “This time last year we were coming out of the referendum and looking to the general election and the polls looked as if there was everything to play for. Ultimately, it didn’t work out like that and we ended up with a majority Tory Government.”
He acknowledged he had a big job as the only Scottish Labour MP But he said: “It’s incredibly exciting. There is a real drive to get as much as we possibly can. And we’ve had significant success with tax credits and various other things we’ve managed to win.
“With a majority government you have to pick your battles and fight them as hard as you can. The Scotland Bill was obviously won and we were quite successful in getting it into a much mote acceptable state than when it started.”