This Is What The SNP's Twentysomething MPs Think Of Parliament
Three of the SNP’s youngest MPs tell us why the House of Lords is a goth’s paradise, parliament is just like Hogwarts, and PMQs is full of idiots.
The SNP’s landslide in the general election saw it elect 56 MPs to parliament, eight of whom are under the age of 30. We spoke to three of the party’s youngest MPs – Stuart Donaldson, 23, Kirsty Blackman, 29, and Angela Crawley, 28 – to see what they make of the strange world of Westminster.
Donaldson was an aide in the Scottish parliament before becoming MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. Blackman had been an SNP councillor from the age of 21 before sweeping to power in Aberdeen North. Crawley also served as a councillor and was studying law before being elected in Lanark and Hamilton East.
What do your mates think about you being an MP?
Stuart Donaldson: They’re not particularly political. But I was out with them the other night and they just treated me exactly the same as before, which is great because it keeps you grounded. They slag me off for being the smallest in the group. I didn’t get called for my maiden speech last week, and they said: "That’ll just be because the Speaker didn’t see you."
Kirsty Blackman: I’ve been a councillor since I was 21, so most of the people I associate with are involved in the SNP or they’re my family.
Angela Crawley: I still very much try and do the normal things twentysomethings do. We go to gigs – we were away last weekend at a festival.
Have you had that conversation yet when someone asks you what you do?
SD: I had that last weekend. Someone asked about my new job and how I’m enjoying parliament, and another person said, “Oh do you work for an MP?” “No, I am an MP.” And she had to ask a number of people to actually confirm that I was an MP. It was pretty funny.
KB: I wear SNP stuff all the time: I’ve always got a badge on, I’ve always got a wristband on. So on the plane back to Aberdeen last week there were two guys and they said, “Oh I like your badge.” And they suddenly realised “Oh, you’re Kirsty! You’re Aberdeen North!”
What has most surprised you about working in parliament?
AC: Slightly less efficient.
AC: That’s a diplomatic way of saying it. Just simple things like in the Scottish parliament, they’ve got voting buttons and you could have voted in five minutes, whereas here it takes 15 mins to traipse through the lobby and back. You think we could be doing better things with our time.
SD: There is a lot of time wasted. I suppose people like the tradition of it, but I think they need a balance – it’s the 21st century.
KB: When you come through the lobby [during a vote] you have to bow to the person counting at the end. That’s apparently because people used to send somebody else to pretend to be them and if you bowed you had to take your hat off so they could see it was definitely you. It’s like when the Speaker comes on and they [the Serjeant at Arms] bring in the mace and then they do a funny walk. None of this stuff actually helps anything.
AC: You’re obviously not allowed to clap in the chamber, but you are allowed to put your feet on the chair and on the despatch box.
SD: Are you are allowed to do that?
AC: Yeah, you see members on both sides putting their feet up and lying across the benches.
SD: I didn’t know you could do that, I’ll do that next time.
AC: You see people lounging about, but we’re here to listen, and I think it’s just a courtesy to listen to other people’s debates.
How did you feel when SNP MPs were told off for clapping in the chamber?
KB: It doesn’t say anything in the standing orders about not to clap. The Scottish parliament, they clap there, so we thought, Well, we’ll clap and see what happens. That is the natural way to say well done to somebody. As soon as we were told not to, we stopped.
AC: Is saying "hear hear" really the best way of conveying your expression of how well someone did?
SD: Some people have really perfected their "hear hears" and how many they do and at what pitch. Some are quite growly and some are quite high-pitched.
How did it feel to enter the Commons chamber for the first time?
AC: Smaller. It’s a lot smaller in reality than you think. In some ways that’s quite charming, because it’s actually quite intimate.
KB: The debating is quite good. The fact that you can have interventions actually makes the debate better. People here need to be more nimble and ready to answer questions you don’t get up the road. I think that’s one of the only things Westminster has over the Scottish parliament. I’m pleasantly surprised at the level of debate, actually.
How terrifying is it to make a speech in the chamber?
KB: I wasn’t too nervous about it beforehand. I did go into the chamber the night before to practise, once everybody had gone home. Because you don’t know how the sound will work in a place like that. So I think that helped. When I was actually standing up I was a bit shaky.
SD: I’ve not done mine yet and I was sat in there for eight hours trying to do it and they kept telling me I was about to do it so by the end of it I was just a bit annoyed and ready to get it over and done with.
AC: Your maiden speech day is probably the longest day in the world because you’ve never spoken in the chamber before. I think the nerves never really go completely. But it’s part of what makes you good as well, because if you were such a seasoned pro then you would lose the impact. I think when I stop being nervous and become such a professional it’s time to give up.
Have you ever faced any barracking from benches opposite, and is it hard to handle?
KB: There’s barracking from everybody towards everybody. The Labour party was shouting at the Tories about something the other day, and it can be about the most random of things. So there was a guy stood up the other day talking about a wall falling down beside a railway line and when it was going to be fixed, and everyone started going on about The Thick of It. People were shouting and laughing but it was good-natured. Some of the heckling is quite amusing.
SD: In PMQs you’re just faced with a wall of Tory noise. Obviously some people get really into it and obviously love having that boisterous fight with the opposition. But you can see some people looking really uncomfortable, and obviously I do think it does give the public a bad impression of the place. Some of the debates are very consensual and well-measured. But what most people see is PMQs, where a lot of people are acting like complete idiots.
Should PMQs be scrapped?
SD: Oh, I don’t know about that.
AC: I don’t think you can scrap it, but I think people play into the theatre of PMQs and know it’s the prime time so you see people acting up to it. It does give a really negative impression to the world of what we are down here to do. Sometimes you kind of wish they could see the chamber at 9pm when we’re traipsing through the lobby to vote, because that’s far more realistic.
Have you ever got lost in the houses of parliament?
KB: It’s like Hogwarts. I was thinking I could get a map like Harry Potter’s got, I could do with one of them.
AC: There’s a “Lady Members' Room” in the cashpoint corridor. It’s the best name for a room. I remember someone showed me it in my first week. I said, “Oh, where’s the men’s room?”, and they looked at me as if to say, “The rest are men’s rooms.” You start to learn that as long as you stick to certain main corridors, you’re never going to get lost. But there’s always a new corner, a new place that you find.
What has the reaction been like from MPs in other parties – have any stopped you in the corridor to congratulate you?
KB: Not that many from the Labour party – I think they’re still feeling a bit sore, understandably. A lot of their colleagues aren’t here. Generally there have been a lot of people being quite nice to us. But we are in the process of picking select committee chairs.
SD: I got stuck just on the way down here, someone talking to me very nicely. I just thought, “What do you want? Which chair are you going for?”
You mentioned inefficiency – how has it been to get your office and IT set-up?
SD: Getting your IT was brilliant in the first week, they were so helpful. Then it was a bit longer with the offices, because obviously they have to do the deals and see who gets what. We were hot-desking for about three weeks, which was quite frustrating, but now we’ve got offices, it does make it a lot easier.
Do all the SNP MPs get on well with each other?
AC: I think it’s a really good team; there are so many different age groups, so many different experiences, but I can’t think of a single person I don’t get on with.
KB: If you go into the canteen and there’s anybody there from the SNP, then you’ll go and sit with them. It’s really nice – we’re all still getting to know each other.
SD: At least we know each other’s names now. It was a bit of an issue at the start.
What do you do in the evening – do you go to the Commons bars or relax outside Westminster?
KB: Last night we didn’t finish until after 11pm so it was just go home to bed. On a Thursday we finish at 5pm but we all just want to go home. Tuesdays, Wednesdays are really the only nights you have time, but it just depends what’s on – if we’re working really late then everybody just wants to get out of here.
SD: I don’t think I’ve explored any of London, but that’s not really what we’re here to do. You are really busy until really late at night. Even going for a drink – I’ve not really done that, I’ve just gone home.
AC: I had my birthday here a few weeks ago, and it was quite strange because my partner and family were down. I was in the chamber until at least 8.30pm and then I came out for like, 10 minutes, got my presents, and went back into the chamber. So socialising isn’t really an option.
KB: It’s hard work learning lots of things. Especially in this interim period – we’re all knackered. We’re working really hard and learning so much that you need to sleep a lot.
Are you finding it tough to leave your families behind during the week?
KB: I’ve got a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old so that’s not easy. But they seem to be coping really well – the house is a lot tidier than it was when I was in charge. They’re coming down this week for the first time. I’m sure they’ll run riot, it’ll be fantastic. My husband is wonderful, he’s doing a fantastic job.
SD: I actually stay with my girlfriend, who lives down here.
AC: My partner’s up the road [Scotland], and my family. But my Fridays when I get home are always jam-packed in the diary – that’s your one day of the week to meet community organisations or schools or constituents. It’s trying to get that balance between seeing your family and friends but also doing your job. Being in the community is what I miss about being in London. You were a councillor, you had that front-facing role, you could be ever-present. Being in London is not the easiest way to be ever-present.
KB: Trying to keep on top of the casework and trying to be as accessible as possible is really tough when you’re in London. It’s good to do things like Facebook: I pick up a fair bit of casework from there.
SD: I think with social media, a lot of us post what we’re doing all the time so people can see we’re down here and we’re not just in the pub. We’re actually doing work.
Have you been to London a lot before?
SD: Since my girlfriend moved down I’ve been here a fair bit, so it’s not totally overwhelming. Parliament itself is overwhelming, especially when you go into the House of Lords and there’s just gold everywhere, which is absolutely mad. Somebody was saying, “I think goths would like this place because it’s red and it’s gold and there’s dark places.” But I’ve not seen any goth lords.
AC: I used to work for an education travel company so I was based in Brighton and spent a lot of time travelling through London. So you get used to the pace of London – everyone walks faster, everyone’s got to get somewhere, there’s more of an urgency. Whereas you get back to Glasgow and everyone’s glacially walking down Buchanan Street like they’ve not got a care in the world.
How does it feel to be much more high-profile?
AC: My face is on a billboard so I sometimes get weird looks. The billboard was outside a supermarket where I had my job when I was 16, so everyone in the supermarket who I worked with said, “Oh, it’s you!”
SD: I think the weirdest thing for me was when I was visiting a school the other day and one of the teachers said, "We’re going to hear from Mr Donaldson," and I thought, “Oh, that’s weird, the teacher’s called Mr Donaldson as well.” But no, it was me they were calling Mr Donaldson. I’m not used to that.
Are there any other things that baffle you about parliament?
SD: The sword hooks [in the cloakroom] are pretty strange. I like how some people have lightsabers on theirs. I thought I was going to be really original and take one in but like three people had already.
KB: You need to think of something even more original for a sword hook.
AC: My campaign team have got me a Thundercats sword. I haven’t put it up yet. I can just see me going through security with it and being asked, “What is this?”