The 2017 parliament was characterised by intra-party splits and factions within the two main political parties over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In contrast, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru were both remarkably united on the issue.
Both parties were clear in their 2017 election manifestos that they needed to give their countries a stronger voice at Westminster; to ‘protect’ Scotland’ and ‘defend’ Wales from the Brexit fallout.
The SNP not only reaffirmed this as its flagship policy pledge in the 2019 manifesto, but also outlined its ambitions to ensure that Scotland could ‘escape from Brexit’. The party’s strategy now has two main thrusts: a push for a second Scottish independence referendum and preventing the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal by the end of 2020.
Plaid Cymru has, by contrast, taken a much less combative approach, with party leader Adam Price stating that the party will now be seeking to make the best of Brexit rather than actively blocking it.
This divergence in the two parties’ approaches reflects their national political contexts. Holding the majority of Scottish seats the SNP, with its 47 MPs, is an anti-Brexit party representing an anti-Brexit country (62% of Scottish voters chose to remain in 2016). By contrast, Plaid Cymru’s four MPs represent a country which narrowly voted to leave.
The parties’ different approaches also reflect their very different parliamentary positions within the House of Commons. The SNP’s ‘third party’ status affords its MPs a whole set of parliamentary rights which their Plaid Cymru counterparts do not possess.
SNP MPs can be much more proactive in the Commons, be it through parliamentary questions and a guaranteed set of questions to the Prime Minister, opposition day debates, or guaranteed select committee places – including committee chairs.
This is not to say that SNP MPs are always successful: Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle failed to select any of their amendments on the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, for instance. But their visibility is guaranteed and they have used PMQs in particular to raise key post-Brexit concerns.
In the last such exchange before exit day the party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked the EU to ‘leave a light on’ for Scotland and to push for the devolution of powers over immigration rights so as to mitigate the impact of Brexit. He later focused on trade deals with the US – an issue which will no doubt feature prominently in SNP contributions over the coming months.
By contrast, Plaid Cymru MPs may find themselves excluded from discussion altogether. No Plaid MP was called for instance during the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement on ‘Global Britain’. At PMQs they rely on informal arrangements with the Speaker to ensure they are called to speak semi-regularly.
At PMQs on 29 January, they asked the Prime Minister for a meeting to discuss how ‘to forge a better future’ for Wales. So, while Plaid will occasionally join the SNP in opposition manoeuvres, its strategy in the new parliament is likely to be less combative and to feature more subtle, positive questioning.
In the previous parliament both the SNP and Plaid demonstrated that they could utilise parliamentary procedure to hold the government to account and try to force its hand. Working together, alongside other opposition parties, was key to their success.
But this activity was carried out under a minority government which lacked a firm hold over its MPs. The majority government context of the 2019 parliament presents a far greater challenge.
BBC presenter Gordon Brewer highlighted this when he asked Ian Blackford to explain precisely how the SNP would push the government into allowing a second independence referendum. Blackford’s failure to give any substantial suggestions was telling.
Taken together, the size of the two parties is not insignificant, accounting for 13% of MPs in the Commons. But this is unlikely to be sufficient to cause any real headaches for the government as it pushes forwards with its post-Brexit transition legislation. The Agriculture Bill represented one early test.
The SNP’s reasoned amendment objecting to the bill made no progress and the bill passed its second reading comfortably with the support of Conservative and DUP MPs.
Plaid also highlighted concerns about the bill, stressing that it could be ‘damaging to Welsh agriculture’. They pressed for changes at the bill’s committee stage, but found themselves with no representation on the resulting public bill committee; a contrast to the SNP’s two places.
Both parties will, of course, have hoped for places on influential select committees. Here once again, the SNP has the advantage.
Angus MacNeil was recently re-elected as chair of the International Trade Select Committee and his colleague Pete Wishart continues to Chair the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Plaid Cymru have no entitlement to chairs here; the Welsh Affairs Committee is chaired by Conservative MP Stephen Crabb.
The new EU Scrutiny committee, however, would be a valuable weapon for both Plaid and the SNP to ensure they have a front seat in post-Brexit scrutiny during the transition period.
Going forward, the committee is likely to have a say in determining how the Commons will scrutinise EU legislation and its effects on the UK. Again though, only the SNP have a place here.
Certainly, the use of multiple parliamentary forums and mechanisms to press the same key messages will help to improve visibility.
And we can see the SNP doing this already: Patricia Gibson’s recent adjournment debate on the claim of right for Scotland, for instance, re-emphasised an argument about Brexit laying waste to the devolution settlement which had been made by her leader during a previous session of PMQs.
With the rejection of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill by both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in January, we can also expect to see SNP and Plaid MPs working more consistently with their counterparts in the devolved legislatures.
In the context of the majority Johnson government, such methods may help to ensure a stronger parliamentary voice. There is no guarantee, however, that the government will necessarily pay it any heed.
By Dr Louise Thompson, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. This piece forms part of our Parliament and Brexit report and was originally published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs.