Angus Robertson Interview: SNP Westminster Leader On Devolution, Independence, Greece...and Metallica


Angus Robertson is a self-confessed headbanger. But before his Tory or Labour critics get over-excited, the description applies to his music, not his politics. Unbeknownst to much of the House of Commons, the SNP’s Westminster leader is a huge heavy metal fan.

“I saw Metallica last year,” he says, referring to their Glastonbury appearance, where they “totally nailed” the festival. The Moray MP adds that he likes nothing better than to bang out a few tunes on his electric guitar. “I bought myself a present, a Fender P bass, not long ago, to play along to stuff.”

Having grown from just six MPs to 56 MPs after their stunning election success, the SNP looks more like a big band than a rock group these days. Now in his eighth year as head of his party at Westminster, Robertson is encouraging solos from his backbench performers, while remaining leader of the pack.

From Robertson’s weekly interventions in Prime Minister’s Question Time to their membership of key select committees, the SNP is getting itself heard in the Commons in a way it never has before.

The leader and his team are still settling into the large suite formerly held by Nick Clegg, thought the large Saltires make clear that this is no longer Lib Dem territory. Sitting proudly on the window sill is a framed picture of Robertson meeting Sean Connery in the US Senate, while a huge poster from the SNP’s 2007 Holyrood campaign adorns a table with the slogan “It’s Time”.

The Scottish Nationalists certainly think it’s time for the Cameron government to deliver on more powers promised for Scotland in the election campaign. And with the Scotland Bill progressing through Parliament, their main focus has been on improving the legislation. David Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) plans are also being fought in the trenches, with a significant retreat from the Government this week.

The SNP Westminster Leader In His New Office

On the Scotland Bill, Robertson warns ministers that ‘the party that wanted to strengthen it won’ the election north of the border. He’s unimpressed by rumours of amendments being accepted in the House of Lords, the unelected chamber where the SNP refuses to take up seats. “It’s a poke in the eye for the Scottish electorate...that they think it’s acceptable for changes to take place in the House of Lords,” he says.

“It underlines the difficulties for this Tory government - that has one MP in Scotland - and while it’s spending much of its time talking about English votes for English laws, it’s using English MPs to vote down Scottish laws.”

On EVEL, he points to the Tory Government’s decision this week to avoid confrontation over changing Commons standing orders to give English MPs more of a say on English-only matters. At the last minute, Tory whips ordered abstentions to avoid defeat as both the DUP and Conservatives wanted more time for consultation. Commons Leader Chris Grayling then announced he was putting it all off until the autumn.

“It tells you that they were concerned about losing, it reminds us that they only have a small majority,” Robertson says. Grayling suffers from ‘tone deafness’ on the issue, and his plans to make the Speaker decide which matters are English-only and UK-wide raises wider problems.

“The Speaker is in a totally invidious position, I think his position is being politicised by the Government who haven’t thought through the consequences of the proposals that they have made.

“The Speaker is a servant of the House. The current Speaker has a well won reputation of ensuring fairness impartiality guaranteeing minority voices across the House and it’s an appalling situation for this Speaker or any future Speaker.

“We are extremely sympathetic to matters which are strictly English being determined by English Parliamentarians, that’s always been the SNP position. However the proposals that have been made to exclude Scottish MPs from proceedings which do relate to Scotland [because of the Barnett formula] show a total lack of understanding.”

Holyrood In Action

One controversial area of policy that is so far not devolved is abortion. This week, pro-life Catholic MPs from England - Liberal Democrat John Pugh, Tory Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Robert Flello - tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill to hand the issue to Holyrood.

During the frantic negotiations over the Smith Commission last year Labour threatened to pull out of the deal over Lib Dem and Green Party plans to include abortion.

An alliance of women’s rights groups has warned that Northern Ireland, which has tighter restrictions, proved the danger that the law could be changed in Scotland too under pressure from the Catholic church and others.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell refused to take the amendment this week. But in a little-noticed move he did signal that there was ‘no reason’ in principle why the Scottish Parliament should not be able to decide ‘on an issue of this significance’ at some point in the future.

Does Robertson now think that Scots should be allowed to take control of the policy? “Yes,” he replies, firmly. “The strong consensus view in Scotland is to retain the rights of women to be able to make decisions for themselves.

“But the issue about policy decisions for us is we believe the appropriate place to make decisions about all issues relating to the people in Scotland is in the Scottish Parliament.

I don’t foresee any changes in legislation on these questions. It’s an issue of where do we make important decisions? We are in favour of devolving everything from Westminster.”

Tony Blair, 1997 vintage. Not quite the SNP role model

After last year’s independence referendum, Robertson was the man put in charge of the SNP’s general election campaign. He led the fieldwork and streetwork as the party routed Labour from seats it had held for generations.

Is it true he read Philip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution, the New Labour playbook for its 1997 landslide?

“I have it, I have a copy of it. It’s an interesting insight into how New Labour came about and succeeded.” But there’s a difference, he says. “The most important recent development in terms of the SNP was the independence referendum and referendum politics don’t play a role in the analysis of Gould or the Unfinished Revolution.

“Where there’s a substantial difference is the politicised backdrop of the electorate in Scotland - the referendum as a national debate- and the massive surge in membership of the SNP, which is unprecedented in British politics and an energy which came from both of those experiences.

“Taking a more professionalised approach to campaigning in the SNP goes back some time and involves a lot of people. As part of the SNP becoming the most effective campaigning political organisation in the UK, we have learned from many places.

“There’s no single source, there’s no holy grail, it’s in many consultants interests to suggest that there’s some very complicated, complex secret formula for making this work. There isn’t. It’s a combination of preparation, organisation, talented people, a will to win, a professional approach, humility and it’s not something that happens overnight.”

The Saltire flying over Westminster

The election campaign wasn’t just about depicting Labour as ‘red Tories’, it was about the changing psychology of a nation, he suggests. “There’s a very powerful force that’s been unleashed by the independence referendum, which was people believing another future was possible, a better future, if we take responsibility,” he says

“For many decades Scottish public life was determined by ‘keep the Tories out, vote Labour’. People kept on voting Labour and getting Tory governments. And people were pointing out why should you vote Labour in this election, we might end up with a Tory government. That’s what Labour said in this election and we did end up with a Tory government.”

Almost as an aside, Robertson adds an intriguing line. “If the Labour party had not done so badly in England, it would have been possible potentially for there to have been a progressive alliance.”

“The independence referendum experience spoke to a lot of people and they wanted to make sure that Scotland was not disenfranchised because the first thing the Prime Minister did after the referendum was talk about ‘English votes for English laws, move on, nothing to see here in terms of Scottish politics’. and we are not prepared to be promised better governance, better powers, a family of nations, a respect agenda and then none of that to be delivered.”

The continuing popularity of SNP MPs back home is testimony to the party’s new bullishness at Westminster, he says. “People were sick of being represented by Labour MPs who would come down to London and never raise these points. A lot of people felt that Labour MPs had represented them as absentee landlords for a long time and they’d had enough.”

'The 56' arrive

In an irony that’s not lost on nationalists or their opponents, the very presence of ‘the 56’ means that Westminster is now talked about more than ever before north of the border.

“People say ‘I go home to watch the Parliament programme because the Scotland Bill was on television’..and they are following what’s happening here. People are saying we are so proud of this SNP MP or that MP. And they are hearing themselves being reflected by these new Parliamentarians in a way that was not the case before.”

The 56 have been allocated into different policy groups, each based on their expertise, which meet weekly to discuss strategy. “The change for the SNP at Westminster is massive, we are able to take part in debates we couldn’t before.”

And it’s not just Scots who are noticing. Robertson says that he gets emails and letters regularly from English voters backing the party. “I’ve got a lovely email from a couple in Devon,” he says, pausing to retrieve the message. “It was so nice and I thought you don’t hear this often enough.”

The message, from a couple in Chagford, includes the line “We are writing to say thank you because the SNP seems to be the only party truly representing us even though we cannot vote for you...Please never stop.”

As for the SNP’s new-found strength, does he think that it’s irreversible now, or does he worry that the tide will go back out again?

“I think Scottish politics has changed irrevocably. I think the problems for the three UK parties are profound. So the SNP’s future lies in the SNP’s hands and the hands of voters. And political parties will only remain successful and popular if they never lose sight of what they’re there to do, which is to represent the people and their interests.

“Because our politics involves a north star, an aim we all share, a direction of travel that we are all signed up to, we are unlike the UK parties who seem to be a slightly different flavour of vanilla.

“And there’s no guarantee for any political party that they will have a successful future for ever and ever. And as we know the tide goes in and the tide goes out for democracies, for all political forces. But Scottish politics has changed profoundly and it is in my view moving irrevocably moving towards greater responsibility, self government and I believe, eventually, independence.”

That qualifier, ‘eventually’, is very deliberate. Robertson is not keen on setting any timetables for the next referendum. But Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that it would require a ‘material change’ for another poll to be held on Scotland leaving the UK. Does he think that a ‘material change’ could include, say, a consistent 60% Yes vote in opinion polls?

“The most important thing to say in this context is we respect the result of the referendum of 2014,” he says. “We did not secure a majority and we have invested our efforts in delivering what was promised to the Scottish people in terms of further devolution. That is what we are focused on delivering.”

The 'Ayes' didn't have it in 2014. But will they in coming years?

But he clearly hasn’t given up on the journey to the ‘north star’ of independence. “What will come in future years, I don’t have a crystal ball, you don’t have a crystal ball. But the people of Scotland have the right to determine their future and if there is a clear demand for more power or indeed independence we will know about it. And when people want to take that step, that is what will happen in a democracy.”

How will that public demand show itself? “I think it will be clear to everybody when there is a significant demand for further progress,” he replies. “Political parties are successful in democracies when they reflect the wishes of the public and the most recent opinion poll that I’ve seen puts the SNP at 60% of the vote.”

And is the ball of referendum in Cameron’s court then? “The UK Government is already showing how badly they understand the debate in Scotland. People will react to how the UK Government governs Scotland given that they only have 1 MP out of 59.

“Much does lie in the hands of the UK Prime Minister and the UK government because if they carry on the way they’ve been governing since the general election that is felt acutely by voters in Scotland and they will reach their own conclusions.”

And what if Cameron simply refuses to agree a new referendum? “I believe the public should get what it votes for. That’s a minimum requirement as a democrat.”

Greece frightening

Speaking of referendums, the decisive Greek ‘No’ vote (60% as it happens) to the EU/IMF reform package proved another plucky nation was asserting itself recently against German-led austerity demands.

Robertson, who is half German, is close to Angela Merkel’s ally David McAllister, who also happens to be half German, half Scots. “There are two members of the German Scottish Politicians Association, of which I have a certificate here,” he says, revealing a framed in-joke they share. “David McAllister who was premier of Lower Saxony and is now a leading CDU MEP, is a friend of mine. Obviously he’s from a slightly different tradition, we are both half-half.”

But Robertson is serious about the need for Merkel and Germany to help Greece. “We need Germany and everybody else involved in the creditor side to be working with the Greeks to try and find a way out,” he says.

“Yeah there are domestic political pressures on parties in Germany to not, from their perspective, pay for everything. But there should be good historic reasons for Germany remembering how their debt was dealt with.

“I’m a strong pro European but it has to be about all of Europe and solidarity is a much used word in Brussels and it should mean something and the people of Greece are in a dire situation and we should be working with them and helping them. It’s not just the economic situation, bit it’s in the front line of the refugee situation, they are taking people in.”

Does he think many SNP supporters have sympathy with the Syriza anti-austerity message? “There a lot of people throughout Europe who have a lot of sympathy with the people of Greece. There has to be a way out, there has to be a future.

“Being sent to the debtor’s jail, that was illogical in the Middle Ages, it’s illogical in the 21st century. People of Greece want to work their way out of their difficulties.”

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has had no qualms in backing Syriza. But Robertson says the leadership race has distracted the party from Tory cuts. “What saddens me is just at a time when the poorest in society are needing strong voices to stand up for their interests and against the austerity drive of the Tories, Labour are going missing.

“There’s been this triangulation between the UK parties which has in effect excluded a lot of people and a lot of issues so now suddenly people are hearing, because the SNP is saying it, what we’re saying on austerity, on Trident and governance.

“And there are voices in the Labour party who say similar things. Jeremy Corbyn shares our views on Trident and on austerity.” He adds, quickly: “But I’m not endorsing, I wouldn’t be seeking to influence the internal Labour party elections.”

Charlie Reid's brother Craig. Looks just like him

Yet although Robertson enjoys mixing it at Westminster, he likes nothing better than actually being in Scotland. “I love being at home. I love being in Morayshire, I can’t get back quickly enough,” he says.

Asked just how he first joined the SNP, he has a self-deprecating story. “I found a leaflet for the Young Scottish Nationalists and I filled in the form. And then this tall chap arrived at the door to sign me up and that was Charlie Reid.” Yes, that’s Charlie Reid, of The Proclaimers, back then on the edge of fame.

“That was in 1985, I was 15. I remember being round in his flat and picked up a guitar in the corner of the room. And I did my best AC-DC chords and said ‘I didn’t know you played guitar?’ And he said ‘I play a wee bit’.” Robertson smiles at the memory. “A few months later they got their break as the supporting act to the Housemartins in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, which was a gig I went to.”

Metallica rock

Music is often on in the Robertson office in the Commons. “I have very eclectic musical tastes. It depends on what moves me. If I’m needing to concentrate I listen to classical music which is what I played as a kid [he was a violinist] My musical taste goes from classical music to heavy metal. I’m a big Spofity fan. I love the moods Spotify playlists.”

So, when he does his ‘prep’ for his two questions at PMQs these days, does he play some Metallica to get in the zone? He laughs, then points out how even he gets nervous ahead of the big Commons confrontations.

“It’s different now compared to previously, I’ve been doing this since 2007. I’ve been on a PMQ rota now for 8 years. Of course you focus on wanting to make sure you are asking the right kinds of questions in the right way.

“No Parliamentarian should ever be so full of themselves that they disregard [nerves]. Anybody who needs to speak in public needs a bit of nervous energy and I have that just as everybody else does.

“Because it’s every week, because I’m called early, you have an opportunity to make an impact in a way that one didn’t previously when I had one shot, right at the end of PMQs, every six weeks.”

Proof that things have changed came recently in one of the least expected places: Robertson’s bathroom, complete with his very own ‘Eureka!’ moment.

“I did have a smile to myself because in previous times I always used to think of PMQs in the shower on a Wednesday morning. So I’d be thinking about what would make good questions. And I knew the world had changed when I was doing that on a Saturday morning...”

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