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Stephen Flynn: “The Tories and Labour are one and the same”

The SNP’s new man in Westminster on the party’s internal divisions, Scotland’s gender bill and Brexit.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Stephen Flynn, the leader of the SNP’s Westminster faction, confesses that he was “a bit of a troublemaker” at school. The 34-year-old’s recollection of his teenage antics certainly make Theresa May’s disclosure that her naughtiest act was running through fields of wheat look tame. “We used to create wrestling rings with the hay bales, which the farmers absolutely detested,” he said, recalling his early years in Dundee and Brechin. “We’d put [the bales] together and have a big rammy in the middle, re-enacting WWF [World Wrestling Federation].”

Flynn, who has enjoyed a rapid rise since his election as MP for Aberdeen South in 2019, has no intention of avoiding a political “rammy” in the SNP’s quest to achieve independence for Scotland. His early Commons appearances have shown him to be a more direct and confrontational politician than his predecessor, Ian Blackford, whom he replaced in December in what has been described as a coup.

The contest to succeed Blackford, a staunch ally of Nicola Sturgeon, exposed the SNP’s internal divisions and followed repeated attempts to oust Blackford by MPs. The independence movement is increasingly restless and divided, and some believed that Blackford had “gone native”, enjoying the Westminster game too much. But Flynn rejects this characterisation.

How will his approach differ?

“I’m quite an assertive person,” he said, when we met at his office in Westminster one January morning. “I think that must come across in my speeches in the chamber and on broadcast media. I want to be on the front foot. I want to be talking about the future. I want us to be focused entirely on how we get out of this place [Westminster], and talk about democracy and how, on Brexit, the Tories and Labour are one and the same.”

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Polling last year found that 72 per cent of Scottish voters would now vote Remain, and the end of free movement has hurt businesses in the nation.

The other, perhaps riskier, flashpoint for the SNP is trans rights; on 16 January the UK government blocked legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament that would make it easier for transgender people to self-identify. Flynn believes the party has little choice but to “stand firm” on the issue. “I’m pretty saddened by the way the bill has been portrayed. It’s not about the constitution. This is about some of the most marginalised people in society and trying to make life just a little bit better for them. The democratically elected Scottish Parliament legislated to allow that to happen, cross-party – Tory members, SNP members, Labour members, Lib Dem members, Green members all supported this legislation.”

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Flynn says he would not have amended the bill, despite the concerns of gender-critical feminists about women’s safety and women-only spaces.

[See also: Scottish Labour’s gender bill farce shows it’s not ready to lead]

“I don’t think anything in the entire debate wasn’t covered at Holyrood. What was forgotten by a lot of the politicians is that we are talking about people here, our fellow humans. I really hope that these folk don’t end up being a political football. Those who have a culture war agenda to seek are quite keen for that to happen.”

Politics was not a career path Flynn envisioned taking as a teenager. The son of an engineer and a nurse, he describes his upbringing as working class though not deprived. The father-of-two wanted to be a PE teacher but that ambition ended when, aged 14, he discovered he had avascular necrosis, a painful and debilitating condition where bone tissue dies because of a lack of blood supply. “Essentially, the blood stops flowing through the tip of your thigh bone, so when you’re walking your bone can basically break off. I was in secondary school and I jumped down six stairs and collapsed. It changed my perspective on who I was and what I should do with my life, because I was disabled for 18 years.”

It was almost a year before Flynn, who had a “life-changing” hip replacement operation in 2020, received a diagnosis. Fragments of bone were reaching his knee, causing excruciating pain. “I missed a lot of school, I spent a lot of time in bed. Looking back on that time, I was probably pretty depressed because everything I thought I wanted to be was taken away. All my mates were leaving school, going to do apprenticeships or getting jobs and I didn’t have that option because I was carting around on crutches. And I just thought, ‘I need to do something,’ so I picked up a book and read.”

His new-found passion for reading led him to study history and politics, and a postgraduate degree in international relations and security studies, both at Dundee University. He later worked as a shop assistant at Tesco, where he was an Usdaw union shop steward, and was elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2015; he became SNP group leader on the council the following year.

[See also: What would foreign policy look like in a Labour government?]

In another era, one could easily imagine Flynn as a Labour MP, but he says his politics were shaped by the Iraq War and the “huge disconnect” between Tony Blair’s New Labour government and Scotland.

Flynn was 21 when David Cameron and George Osborne entered Downing Street in 2010 and his opposition to the Union grew during the austerity years. “It just plummeted from there and everything I thought just crystallised into reality. I was always going to end up a nationalist but Labour lost me, and a lot of people like me, due to its own mistakes in government – mistakes which I think, with all due respect, Keir Starmer is replicating.”

By this, Flynn means that Labour’s message is “identical to the Conservative Party” on Brexit, trans rights and, he adds, a second independence referendum. But the SNP has problems of its own. The party is increasingly divided over its independence strategy, with some gradualists anxious that using the next UK general election as a “de facto” referendum on independence could backfire. Flynn defends this stance because he believes it will offer Scots a vote on the Union “sooner rather than later”.

During our conversation he denied his ascent to the leadership of the SNP in Westminster was driven by a desire for more freedom from Sturgeon and Edinburgh. “My colleagues in Holyrood – and rightly so – are focused on delivering in government, but our job down here is to ensure the damage being done by the Conservatives is picked up on in the loudest possible way.” Flynn says that Mhairi Black, his youthful and outspoken deputy, shares his drive and restlessness for change. “Mhairi is one of the most engaging people in politics. When she speaks, people stop and listen.”

What next for the Stephen Flynn, this man in a hurry? His ultimate aim, of course, is to “walk arm in arm” with his SNP colleagues out of Westminster after Scotland has voted for independence. But in the meantime, he also has one eye on Holyrood and, presumably, a role in the Scottish government. “Anyone who’s elected for the SNP wants to be in Scotland’s national parliament, which is not in Westminster – it’s in Edinburgh.”

[See also: The story behind Labour’s “Reagan Question”]

This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better