Pete Wishart: “There is an inbuilt almost cultural misogyny that reverberates out of the very fabric of parliament”

Posted On: 
19th May 2019

An 18-year veteran of the House of Commons, Pete Wishart is the longest-serving SNP MP. The former musician turned politician is eyeing up a new gig as Speaker of the House of Commons. But can he win over his audience? He talks to Sebastian Whale

Pete Wishart is the SNP's shadow leader of the Commons
Credit: 
UK Parliament

Pete Wishart carries a heavy burden. He is the first and only MP to have been on Top of the Pops. “The responsibility it places on my shoulders you can never imagine,” the SNP MP confides to me. “Now the show has been abandoned, it’s an accolade that I’ll be able to hold onto for the rest of my parliamentary career.”

There is a disappointing lack of bona fide rock stars in the House of Commons. Wishart though is an exception. The 57-year-old played keyboard for two iconic Scottish bands of the 80s and 90s in the shape of Big Country and Runrig. In total, he has 1.5 million record sales to his name.

“It was great fun. You played a gig, everybody loved you, you went away and had a fantastic night out and you start it all over again. Compare and contrast that with this place, instead of everybody clapping along they’re jeering at you and trying to shout you down aggressively,” he says.

Growing up in West Fife, Wishart joined Big Country at the age of 18. The band was supporting American rock artist Alice Cooper, only to be booted off after a couple of gigs due to clashing styles. He then joined Runrig, where he was a member for 15 years. It was on tours to “small, successful” countries such as Denmark, Norway and Austria that his belief in Scottish independence became entrenched. “I came to the conclusion that we were very much being held back because of the democratic deficit in Scotland and the fact we couldn’t determine our own future and we weren’t able to express ourselves as a nation properly,” he says.

Politics was a prominent feature of discussion on the road. “For most bands when they were on tour, the chat at the back of the bus would be sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. With Runrig it was Scotland’s constitutional question,” he jokes.

Wishart was a member of the Labour party until he felt the “chill wind” of Tony Blair blow up from Westminster. He was elected as SNP MP for North Tayside in 2001, and for Perth and North Perthshire in 2005.  

Wishart laments the lack of representation from the entertainment world on the green benches and tells me in his parliamentary office that he treats his interventions in the Commons like a performance. He still indulges his love of music with the in-house parliamentary band MP4, comprised of Labour’s Kevin Brennan, former MP Ian Cawsey and Tory backbencher Sir Greg Knight.

Much has changed during Wishart’s 18-year parliamentary career. He entered Westminster with four colleagues and despite not knowing what it entailed, was swiftly made chief whip. The SNP now has 35 MPs, of whom he is the longest serving. He is chair of the Scottish Affairs committee and the SNP’s shadow leader of the Commons.

He is known for his “combative stroke humorous” interventions in the Chamber, as he refers to them. Despite his forceful speaking style, he is unfailingly good company behind the scenes. His approach was harnessed during his early years in parliament, when the SNP MPs had to “learn to stand tall and make sure that we projected”. As those who know him will attest, he says there is a “great deal of tongue in cheek” in his weekly Thursday speeches.

In 2009, he was approached by John Bercow to sponsor his bid to replace Michael Martin as Speaker. “He’s made the Speakership his own. The way that he’s been fearless about how he’s chaired the proceedings of the House and ensured that the executive gets away with nothing when it comes to the business of the House and ensuring the House will always have its say,” he says of his friend.

Earlier in May, Wishart announced his intention to run when Speaker Bercow departs the Chair and published a manifesto. He notes that there has always been a candidate from the third party in the Commons.

As Speaker, Wishart would introduce electronic voting and expand proxy voting, allow clapping (he argues that it is “nonsensical” to have MPs “bray like perfidious donkeys on speed” rather than applause), relax clothing restrictions, allow the use of names in the Chamber and create an Executive of the House to include staff members and the wider parliamentary community. He would also introduce a ballot system to select speakers during debates and call for parliament to move permanently out of the Palace of Westminster into a “proper, modern 21st” century building that is “fit for purpose”.

Many of his ideas are modelled on the processes in place in Holyrood. For example, he would do away with an adversarial chamber in favour of a horse-shoe layout. “Going to a new parliament and doing things differently gives us the opportunity to reassess the type of politics we want in this country,” he argues.

“There is something about this building that creates this adversarial style… There is an inbuilt almost cultural misogyny that reverberates out of the very fabric of this place, which I don’t think creates the best type of environment for the politics that we need as we’re going forward.”

But why is Wishart running to become Speaker of an institution he would like to leave behind? Part of his answer relates to believing that a Chair should only serve for one term. “Regardless what happens with Scotland’s independence question, we are certainly going to be here for a number of years yet. It’s just an opportunity to get things done,” he says.

Wishart says his decision to run has caused “bewilderment” to some SNP supporters. “I don’t think they’re clearly understanding what I’m intending to do here. For some reason, they believe I’m starting as some sort of hot favourite. I’m having to disappoint them by saying that I’m not amongst the clear favourites for this job – Ladbrokes has given me odds of 50/1 – but it is an opportunity to raise issues that we constantly have had about how the House of Commons works,” he argues.

Jeremy Corbyn was 200/1 to get the Labour leadership, I point out. “Long shots come in. If you put yourself forward you’re in the race to win, which I am. I’m hoping to convince people of my agenda and hope they’ll think that what I’m suggesting is sensible and a way forward.”

But given his near two decades in the Palace of Westminster, wouldn’t a part of him miss this place? He laughs. “No. There’s lots about the House of Commons I really, really enjoy. It’s been a fantastic experience. I’ve never worked so hard in my life to try and get myself out of this place than during the independence referendum. My whole political core is about securing our own democracy in Scotland where we make all the decisions based on our own interests as a nation,” he replies.

Wishart is under no illusion about his chances of becoming Speaker – but isn’t going to go down easy. His says his main aim is to “treat people like proper human beings”. By doing away with some of parliament’s idiosyncrasies, he feels he can achieve that.

“If I’m made the Speaker, I’ll get things done and I’ve got an agenda that I want to pursue. It’s up to all the other racers now to tell us exactly what they intend to do.”