SNP's motley crew prepares to take Westminster by storm

SNP's motley crew prepares to take Westminster by storm
A Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon delivers their election manifesto in Edinburgh, Scotland.

LONDON - A comedy club owner, an ex-motorcycle expedition leader and a politics student are just some of the 56 new Scottish nationalist MPs set to be sworn in at Britain's parliament this week.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) increased its lawmakers ninefold in a stunning success at this month's election and is now the third-biggest party in the House of Commons, threatening to cause problems for Prime Minister David Cameron's conservative government.

Although some of them have unconventional backgrounds for politicians, the MPs, who swear their oaths from Tuesday, are united by a common drive to fight for more powers for Scotland and oppose planned new government austerity measures.

"The 56" arrived in London last Monday on a plane rechristened "Gael Force One" for the day and headed straight for Westminster, stopping only to pose for the odd selfie in front of Big Ben.

Their euphoria was obvious as they gathered with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon for a group photo outside parliament later that day, with a giant Scottish flag carried by a supporter flying nearby.

The 36 men and 20 women "come from very diverse backgrounds", said Professor Murray Pittock of Glasgow University, author of "The Road To Independence".

He added that they were "quite strongly linked in many cases" to last year's referendum campaign for Scottish independence which, while defeated, has led to a surge in support for the SNP.

Return of a big beast

Two big names stand out among the group.

The first is Alex Salmond, the 60-year-old former SNP leader and figurehead who was previously a lawmaker at the Commons from 1987 to 2010.

Well known as an old-fashioned political bruiser, he was temporarily thrown out of the Commons in 1988 for describing a Conservative Party budget under Margaret Thatcher as an "obscenity".

While the popular Sturgeon took over as party leader last year, Salmond - her mentor who dominated the party for decades - will still play a major role as foreign affairs spokesman.

But he has already appeared to go off message by saying that the SNP's landslide election success was a "staging post" on the way to independence.

That is despite Sturgeon downplaying the prospects of a second referendum anytime soon.

Twenty-year-old Mhairi Black, by contrast, is the youngest MP since 1667, and a politics student at Glasgow University.

Despite her tender years, she has already shown she will not be intimidated by the "mother of parliaments," even before she has given her maiden speech.

"I'm not nervous, the people who should be nervous are the ones whose policies have put so many people into poverty," she told reporters shortly after arriving at parliament.

As well as a string of former lawyers, journalists and political advisors, the new intake also includes Tommy Sheppard, owner of the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, and Chris Law, a pony-tailed financial advisor who used to run motorcycle expeditions in the Himalayas.

'Highly disciplined party'

As the third-biggest party in the Commons, up against a Conservative Party for whom they harbour a visceral dislike, the SNP will be hard to miss.

They will be entitled to ask Cameron questions at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session, called to speak in every debate and represented on a large number of select committees, which scrutinise legislation.

SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie, who has been an MP since 2005 and is now one of the party's most senior figures, said such a large group could influence the government if its relatively small majority gets chipped away.

"A majority of 12 is very, very thin and I think the UK government will have to be extremely careful in particular how it treats Scotland," he told AFP.

"It's not about causing trouble, but certainly we'll bring the weight of our numbers to bear in key votes." SNP MPs have already breached parliamentary convention by posing for pictures in the prime minister's position and clapping in the Commons chamber during an induction day last week.

But Pittock noted that the SNP had become "a highly disciplined party" which was "very firm with those who did not accept the agreed party position".

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