Rookie Scots flood into British Parliament amid excitement and concern

Rookie Scots flood into British Parliament amid excitement and concern
First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon is joined by the newly elected members of Britain's Parliament in front of the Forth Rail Bridge in South Queensferry, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

The Stand comedy club is not an obvious place for a revolution.

On weekend nights, people pack the charmingly grungy venue to tilt back drinks and take in the expected observations about work and relationship foibles. Signs promote upcoming gigs like the "Meat Tour." A message above the exit reads "Reality lurks beyond this door."


The Stand is owned by Edinburgh resident Tommy Sheppard, who over the last 20 years has built it and two satellite locations into enjoyable nightlife spots.

But as of Friday morning, the Stand and Sheppard can claim another banner: playing a pivotal role in Scotland's nationalist movement.

The club owner has just been elected to the British Parliament as a member of the surging Scottish National Party. He routed the incumbent by nearly 20 percentage points to earn the seat, which before last week had been held by a Labor candidate since 1935.

Sheppard is part of one of the more intriguing groups of Western lawmakers in recent memory. Fifty rookie candidates from the SNP won their races (only three lost) at Thursday's British elections. When Britain's new Parliament kicks off business Monday, it will contain the kind of large nationalist bloc rare in a modern democracy.

Sheppard, at least, did have a modest career as a city representative decades ago. Many of the other new lawmakers are far from political or activist veterans, and complicate the popular image of the strident nationalist.

Many will learn quickly whether their skills comport with their new jobs.

"Well, I certainly have some experience managing egos," Sheppard deadpanned. Turning serious, he said, "Operating a comedy club does teach you how to work with people and run a business and make sure money is spent in the right places. So I think some of the skills are transferable."

Eight months ago, Scotland voted down a referendum to secede from Britain. It seemed to be the end of the road. But a strange turn followed: The nationalist SNP, under new leader Nicola Sturgeon, saw its membership quadruple.

Mobilized by the grass-roots campaign, many Scots — including a number of those elected Thursday — took a serious interest in politics for the first time. Far from dying down, talk of autonomy heated up. On Thursday the SNP's rocket ride reached its next destination.

The emergence of leaders with few proper credentials shows, in one sense, the influence of vote-the-ticket electioneering; analysts chalked up many wins to strong pro-SNP (and even stronger anti-Labor) sentiment more than to individual candidate strengths. But supporters also believe the wins highlight the power of the grass roots.

Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old from the University of Glasgow, caught party leaders' attention with her activism. She is Britain's youngest member of Parliament in centuries after defeating a well-known Labor politician, and is held up as both the bright future of Scottish nationalism and, to critics, a symbol of the movement's unruliness. (This last part was the result of some indelicate moments during her campaign — tweets about a love of drinking and a desire to castrate a Labor politician reportedly prompted Sturgeon to consider de-selecting her.)

Black is nearly one-upped by Stuart Donaldson, the 23-year-old son of the Scottish health minister, who says her son had never shown much interest in volunteering for her campaign, let alone running his own.

Philippa Whitford, meanwhile, is a breast cancer surgeon who had never held elected office. She does have a loyal medical following in her Scottish town, which during the election was torn between choosing her as a representative or voting against her so she could remain their doctor. (Most of the new members of Parliament are leaving their jobs.)

Whitford said she had no desire to run for public office, but after embarking on a campaign against the Conservatives' healthcare plan — she and her husband drove 5,000 miles across Scotland on an educational barnstorming tour — she decided she felt an obligation.


"It's not a job I'm overwhelmingly attracted to, but it has to be done," Whitford said.

And Pete Wishart is a member of the popular Scottish band Runrig who once played with Big Country, perhaps epitomizing a little too unsubtly the idea of SNP members as the new rock stars.

Critics from other parties have derided the group's lack of experience. The idea of fresh perspectives might sound good, they say, but good governance requires a familiarity with the system. Political scientists have also expressed concerns about how dozens of people who have never held elected office will do in the hurly-burly of British national politics.

But the legislators say their diverse backgrounds is a virtue. "I feel like any issue that comes up we'll be prepared to handle because we have someone who is very familiar with it from their careers," Whitford said.

Her colleagues add they believe it's exactly the professionalization of politics that's hurt Scotland.

"We need people with life experience," said newly elected SNP lawmaker Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. "Real experience, not just experience at Westminster," she added, referring to the seat of Parliament. Ahmed-Sheikh, whose father is a Pakistani immigrant to Britain, has her own unusual resume. Until six years ago she was acting in movies and TV series, even developing a YouTube following in Asia.

To much of the outside world, nationalism can sound like an unexpectedly aggressive response to a union that has seemed relatively benign and beneficial. Certainly many English remain flummoxed; some also nurse a grudge because they say their tax pounds go to support a more economically disadvantaged place.

Political scientists have also sought to understand the roots of Scottish nationalism, which has a different character than many separatist movements. It is a nationalism driven less by cultural or identity factors as by policy concerns, and the feeling that politicians hundreds of miles away don't understand or vote for Scotland's best interests. Independence may be the end game, but hardly the only goal. (Some in northern England even say they sympathize with the SNP and would vote for it if given the chance.)

That may partly explain why Scots voted against the referendum but still swept in to office nationalist politicians. Although the SNP and Labor are electoral antagonists in Scotland, their left-leaning agendas are largely similar. The main differences lie in nuclear disarmament (the SNP supports it fully) and austerity measures (Labor is more open to them).

At the Stand, amid all the traditional comedy acts, these issues rear their head; sets on Saturday featured jokes about the SNP and the failure of Labor. During the heat of the independence campaign, Sheppard also staged a monthly satirical show that brought out comics with a separatist bent. There is no humor like anti-unionist humor.

That doesn't mean comedy is necessarily found in Sheppard's repertoire. "Is Tommy funny?" the Stand's operations manager Kenny O'Brien asked as he stood outside the club Sunday, a smile playing on his lips. "Inadvertently."


The nationalist movement as incarnated by the SNP is something of an anomaly. Under last week's victories, rather than separate into its own nation, Scotland will now operate within the British system, but represented almost entirely by a Scotland-exclusive party.

Whether that will lead to greater understanding or a further breach remains to be seen.

"I think a number of things can happen with so many SNP members in Parliament," said Michael Keating, a politics professor at the University of Aberdeen. "But it's conceivable we will see a little bit of what happened in Quebec, which after the independence vote failed 20 years ago stayed part of Canada but removed itself to a great extent from the country's politics."

At the Stand on Sunday, a group of regulars and staff members were digesting a more immediate shift.

"I guess Tommy is off to start a revolution," one said.

"Not a revolution. An evolution," another said.

"I'm trying to imagine Tommy keeping his opinions to himself at Westminster."

"Well, at least he's used to heckles."