Ian Blackford: "I have no doubt Scottish independence will happen"
The SNP’s new leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, says his first job is to scrutinise Brexit plans and oppose Tory austerity. But, he tells James Millar, his party is not giving up on the ultimate goal of independence
The phone line between Ian Blackford’s croft on Skye and the island home of his fellow SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil was busy last weekend.
But Blackford, newly installed as the leader of the SNP group in Westminster, was not tapping up his more experienced colleague for advice; neither was MacNeil begging for a plum select committee job.
Blackford’s wife and MacNeil were having a lengthy conversation about livestock. The two MPs farm in the outer reaches of the UK.
“I couldn’t get him off the phone they were discussing sheep for so long,” laughs Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. But there’s more to the story than just complaining that MacNeil was running up his phone bill. “There’s a sense of belonging that people from the islands have, knowing who you are and where you come from, that keeps you grounded.
“That’s the point, you’re part of that community and you must never lose sight of what you are as an MP to represent people.”
Blackford has just stepped up to fill the vacancy left by Angus Robertson after the latter’s shock general election defeat. The walls in his Westminster office are still bare as he settles in to his new surroundings that go with his new role.
It’s a diminished SNP band he leads after the party lost 21 seats compared to their 2015 haul.
But what’s not new is the topic of conversation: Scottish independence.
Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement this week that she was parking plans for a second referendum on the issue until at least next autumn was seen as a direct response to a disappointing result at the snap election.
Sturgeon said she had ‘reset’ the timetable for another referendum and Blackford echoes that position that the issue is on the shelf, not in the bin.
“When will indyref2 be? It will be when the time is right. And that will be driven by what the circumstances are.
“Is independence off the table? No it is not.”
So why the change in position given just three months ago the First Minister made a dramatic statement calling for another vote on separation to be held by spring 2019 at latest, before the UK exits the EU?
“It’s a recognition of the job we have to do in the first instance,” Blackford explains to The House. “I suspect every SNP MP and every member of the SNP believes in independence and of course what I will want to do along with my colleagues whether it’s here or in Holyrood or elsewhere is make sure we do build the case for Scottish independence. For us it’s about that desire for Scotland to have the powers of an independent nation because we want to create a better country, one where we believe there is far greater economic potential that we can deliver. It’s prosperity for a purpose and that’s about delivering a fairer society and we can only do that through independence.
“I’ve got no doubt that that will happen. We can argue about the timing but in the meantime all of us that are here are elected on the manifesto of the SNP and that’s to do a job and it is to focus on protecting Scotland’s interests through the Brexit negotiations and providing an alternative to austerity. That’s the things that we can achieve in the very near term.”
And in the even nearer term he’s been quick to seize the Conservatives deal with the DUP as a stick with which to beat Westminster. “At the end of the day what you’re getting is a significant increase in public spending in Northern Ireland. It is not tenable that you can do that without considering that there should be consequences for public spending elsewhere and certainly we have a responsibility to stand up for the electorate in Scotland in such a situation.”
Conventional wisdom – albeit that’s a concept best approached with caution given recent political upsets – holds that Angus Robertson would’ve remained leader of the Westminster group had Sturgeon not put independence at the centre of the general election campaign with her intervention back in March. Theresa May dismissed the First Minister’s demand telling her, “Now is not the time”. When she followed that up by calling the election enough Scottish voters agreed to turn 21 previously SNP constituencies Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem. Robertson, the party’s deputy leader as well as his Westminster role, was one of the biggest scalps of election night.
Sturgeon’s been blamed by some for a rare mis-step but Blackford dismisses any suggestion of a mistake. “We faced the situation that in 2015 we won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland and we always knew that defending that position would be difficult. I’m saddened that we’ve lost colleagues but what we shouldn’t lose sight of is that the SNP won this election with 35 of 59 seats in Scotland. My goodness the Conservative government in London would love to be in such a position where they had such a majority. We’ve delivered a majority in Scotland and are by far and away the largest party.”
And he’s nothing but praise for the boss. “There’s no spin to any of this, I’m very very proud of Nicola, to have her as a colleague and to class her as a friend.”
Blackford’s full of good words for his predecessor too, but there’s no doubt the election clear out has opened up an opportunity for a new generation of SNP politicians. Of the six MPs who were in the Commons before 2015 three – Robertson, Eilidh Whiteford and Mike Weir – plus former First Minister Alex Salmond were unseated. Of the three MPs remaining with more than two years’ experience Stewart Hosie and Angus Brendan MacNeil were caught up in the same sex scandal a year ago and the other, Pete Wishart, for all his talents, is not seen as leadership material.
Cometh Ian Blackford. “I think Angus was a fantastic leader, I’m a different person with a different style and a different personality,” he says.
“We’ve got people with an awful lot of talent and I want to make sure that the group is fully supported and we will show leadership across a wide range of areas, Stephen Gethins leading in the international sphere, Kirsty Blackman who’s going to be a very able deputy and will lead on the economic sphere, Neil Gray who’s stepped up on social justice. I can keep on going through the list. I will work with and support these colleagues to make sure that across the broad range of portfolios we are very much punching above our weight.”
Blackford ought to know how to handle his team having had a career as a consultant on management and leadership. Before that he was a big beast in the City. He admits he met Fred Goodwin during that time but says he doesn’t know him “particularly well”. Perhaps understandably given public feeling towards investment bankers these days he’s not keen to talk about his previous career in too much detail and he’s yet to announce if he’ll give up two lucrative non-executive directorships he holds – one with a telecoms company, the other managing around £1bn invested by people to pay for their funerals.
“Let’s just go back a wee bit,” he protests. “I’m just a working class loon from Edinburgh, I was brought up in a council house estate in Edinburgh. I started as a bank clerk and developed a career in financial services. That gives me, I hope, an appreciation and understanding of how the financial sector works and I hope I’ve got a broader understanding about how the economy works.
“I’ve always classed myself as someone that’s on the left, fully at home with the political philosophy of the SNP as being a social democratic force.
“I’m still the same person I was when I joined the SNP as a teenager. The burning desire I had to see Scottish independence and the desire I have to see a country that looks after the most vulnerable is something that’s always been with me. The fact I served in the City is irrelevant to that.”
As comfortable around the money men of the City as the crofting folk of the Western Isles it’s no surprise that Blackford’s taken to elected politics. He’ll need that breadth and depth of experience now to keep the slimmed down SNP team relevant as the Commons faces up to the huge issues ahead.