Standing on chairs in Parliament’s Sports and Social bar, a band of portly gentlemen are bellowing out Scottish folk songs. A young barmaid, only in her early twenties yet a seasoned veteran when it comes to turfing out unruly Westminster soaks, approaches a new SNP MP and politely asks him to pack it in. Words are exchanged. Multiple witnesses allege a drunken ‘f— you’ is uttered. Defeated, the barmaid retreats behind the bar to mocking male laughter. So upset is she by the incident, she will leave her job a few weeks later. ‘They’re only just getting started,’ sighs a Labour wag as he reaches for his coat. The conquering horde of Scots Nats have come to town and they are making themselves heard.
SW1 certainly expected the worst from the new SNP cohort. As the Glasgow East MP Natalie McGarry puts it, ‘They thought we would come down waving flags, with our faces painted blue and white.’ Yet those preconceptions were not without substance. An extraordinary, never-before-seen document written by disgruntled SNP aides — and passed to me while researching this article — reveals that even the party’s own employees have been horrified by their MPs’ behaviour for a while. In their own staff’s words, the Westminster group are described as ‘complete arseholes’ and Alex Salmond is nicknamed ‘Mr Terror’, while Angus MacNeil is accused of being ‘arrogant, demanding and in general behaving like a five-year-old… [He] has some problems understanding why he is here, although the Sports and Social bar is extremely happy that he is.’
To find out whether the new intake are living up to their reputation, Westminster’s watering holes are the only place to begin. The Sports and Social is traditionally a Labour haunt, earning it the nickname ‘Sports and Socialist’. Just two weeks after polling day, to quote one Blairite boozehound, it had been ‘colonised’ by the Scots. Such are their imperial ambitions, SNP MPs confirm with almost embarrassed smiles their plans to have it officially renamed the ‘Rabbie Burns Bar’.
At kicking-out time, it’s over to the infamous Strangers’ Bar. A taxpayer-subsidised tot of Scotch here is just £2.55, yet despite the SNP’s arrival, the managers have not had cause to double their orders. ‘Most of them only drink champagne,’ claims my man behind the bar, only half-joking. His theory is that the £67,000-a-year MP’s salary is a considerable pay rise for many of his new punters, and that they are enjoying their newfound riches in style. This is an allegation heartily rebuffed by ‘real ale man’ and Midlothian MP Owen Thompson, who is having beer from his local Stewart brewery shipped in and put on tap.
Bubbly or ale in hand, the terrace is a place where MPs forget the adversarial nature of the chamber and, their inhibitions loosened, have a good gossip with politicians from other tribes. Not so the Nats, of whom one rival party hand complains they ‘all stand together in a huddle by themselves, not talking to anyone else’. A case of dour Scots? Natalie McGarry insists she has had ‘a good bit of conversation’ with ‘amenable’ Labour colleagues, but that while ‘some Tory MPs are unfailingly polite, some of them are stuck up their own bahookies.’ I barely have time to ask how one might spell that, before she is telling me what happens when the SNP stick to non-alcoholic beverages. ‘A cabinet minister came up to us,’ McGarry recalls, ‘and said “Fruit juice? I would have thought you Scots would have been on the booze.”’ In an example of Westminster Jockophobia, she claims the minister’s aide then turned to her boss and sneered: ‘Now they’re here we’ll have to start nailing things down.’
There are eight new SNP MPs under 30, and the younger generation have quickly taken over Westminster’s premier 3 a.m. dive: the Players Bar in the Charing Cross Theatre. When 20-year-old Mhairi Black is not wowing the House with her eloquence, she is impressing revellers on the dance floor. ‘A bit reserved early on, but that’s understandable,’ reports a fellow clubber. ‘She was dancing away with the rest of us by the end of the night.’ Black’s colleague Stuart Donaldson, the 23-year old MP for West Aberdeenshire, has meanwhile undergone something of a transformation. ‘He was the most socially awkward person here when he first turned up,’ laughs an admiring colleague. ‘Now you never see him without his harem of attractive blonde girls.’ He would not be the first Honourable Member to find the trappings of power have improved his success with women, but he might be one of the youngest.
After a night out, where do the SNP regiment go to lay their weary heads? ‘The last thing you want is folk swanning around Belgravia on the taxpayer,’ warns the highly rated Argyll and Bute MP Brendan O’Hara, adding without a hint of irony: ‘A lot of folk are in Pimlico.’ That would be the highly desirable central location dubbed the ‘second Belgravia’ by estate agents. O’Hara himself is taking advantage of gentrification: ‘I’m down in Elephant and Castle. I lived in London in the 1990s and it had an awful reputation. Someone said to me, “Look at Elephant and Castle,” and I thought, “Oh I don’t think so.” But what a transformation! What you could get in Glasgow for your IPSA [expenses] allowance here, well you could get anything you want. It’s remarkable.’
The ginger-bearded Owen Thompson is a Midlothian man at the weekend, but during the week he lives in Kensington. He tells me of his initial shock at being quoted a price of £350 a week for a high-end property in west London, but was chuffed to haggle £25 off the final price: ‘Doing my bit for the taxpayer.’ Early hopes for flat shares between laddish MPs petered out, leaving much of the new contingent dotted around Vauxhall and Kennington. ‘Almost everyone I know lives within walking distance of Parliament,’ explains O’Hara. A Tory source recounts recently bumping into the SNP deputy leader and relative Westminster veteran Stewart Hosie outside the Scot’s ultra-luxury apartment at Great Minster House, where a flat can fetch up to £6 million. ‘Even I can’t afford to live here,’ exclaimed the envious Tory, to which Hosie protested: ‘It’s a shoebox!’
Other than the cosy living arrangements, what has been the biggest surprise? ‘The food,’ says Paisley and Renfrewshire North MP Gavin Newlands, gushing about the ‘good value’ of the subsidised Commons cafeteria. Outside of the Parliamentary estate, the Nats have been a little more adventurous. Natalie McGarry is outed by colleagues as the organiser of an SNP team dinner at the upmarket Cinnamon Kitchen in the heart of the City. The sister restaurant of Westminster’s opulent Cinnamon Club, the Kitchen’s extensive menu offers spiced red deer for £29 and Pinot Noir at £100 a bottle. Forty-five out of the 56 SNP MPs attended.
‘This isn’t a change of job, it’s a change of life,’ admits O’Hara, and for him the most difficult adjustment has been the Palace of Westminster itself. ‘Labyrinth doesn’t begin to describe it,’ he says. ‘I find myself running up staircases and wandering around for hours thinking, “How do I get back?” I’d love to get into the mind of the architect.’ For McGarry, the change in climate has caused more serious concerns: ‘I woke up one morning and I had massive lumps all over me!’ Had moving 400 miles nearer to the equator left her susceptible to tropical diseases? ‘I went into a tailspin thinking I had bed bugs, so I went to the nurse. She just scoffed at me.’ The Nats were expecting plenty of bite south of the border, but they had not bargained for mosquitoes.
Watching them sip champagne on the Commons terrace and hearing about their fine dining and luxurious flats, one cannot help but feel the SNP’s new intake are already becoming the very metropolitan elite they claim to despise. ‘There is a real danger with that,’ admits Owen Thompson. ‘It is absolutely in your face all the time. I hope we’re not showing we’re all getting caught up in the establishment.’
‘You could get into bad habits,’ cautions McGarry. ‘I think people could get swept into the Westminster state of mind.’ She advises colleagues ‘to get out of that bubble’, warning it is ‘not healthy’ to ‘socialise too much’. O’Hara disagrees, insisting ‘it’s really important that we don’t go around as a tribe and that we get to know a lot of people down here.’
But one man is resolute. ‘I’m not going out,’ scowls Gavin Newlands: ‘I don’t want to be part of the bubble. It’s almost a different planet down here, rather than a different city.’ A different planet indeed, and its gravitational pull is proving hard for the SNP to resist.