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Interview with Stephen Flynn: ‘Conservatives and Labor are the same thing’

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Stephen Flynn, the leader of the Westminster faction of the SNP, confesses he was “a bit of a troublemaker” at school. The 34-year-old’s recollection of his teenage antics certainly dwarfs Theresa May’s revelation that her meanest act was running through cornfields seems tame. “We used to make wrestling rings out of hay bales, which the farmers absolutely loathed,” she said, recalling her early years in Dundee and Brechin. “We would have put [the bales] together and have a big rammy in between, reenacting the WWF [World Wrestling Federation].”

Flynn, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise since being elected MP for Aberdeen South in 2019, has no plans to shy away from a political ‘rammy’ in the SNP’s quest to win Scotland’s independence. His early appearances in the House of Commons proved 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 internal divisions in the SNP and followed repeated attempts by MPs to oust Blackford. The independence movement is increasingly restless and divided, and it was believed by some that Blackford had ‘gone native’, enjoying the Westminster game too much. But Flynn rejects this characterization.

How will his approach differ?

“I’m quite an assertive person,” he said, when we met in his Westminster office one January morning. “I think it has to show in my speeches in the courtroom and on the television broadcasts. I want to be first in line. I want to talk about the future. I want us to focus entirely on getting out of this place [Westminster]and talk about democracy and how, on Brexit, Conservatives and Labor are one and the same.”

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Polls last year found 72% of Scottish voters would now vote Remain, and the end of free movement has hurt the nation’s businesses.

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The other, perhaps riskier, sticking point for the SNP is trans rights; On January 16, 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 no choice but to “stand firm” on the issue. “I am quite saddened by the way the bill has been presented. It’s not about the constitution. These are some of the most marginalized people in society and trying to make their lives a little better. The democratically elected Scottish Parliament legislated to allow this to happen, cross-party members: Tory members, SNP members, Labor members, Lib Dem members, Green members all supported this legislation.

Flynn says she would not amend the bill, despite concerns from 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 whole debate went untouched at Holyrood. What has been forgotten by many politicians is that we are talking here about people, our fellow human beings. I really hope these people don’t end up being political football. Those with a culture war agenda to pursue are quite eager 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 but not private. The father of two wanted to be a physical education teacher but that ambition ended when, at age 14, he discovered he had avascular necrosis, a painful and debilitating condition in which bone tissue dies due to lack of blood supply. of blood. “Essentially, blood stops flowing through the tip of your femur, so when you walk your bone can basically break. I was in high school and I jumped down six steps and collapsed. It changed my perspective on who I was and what I should do with my life, because I’ve been disabled for 18 years.”

It was nearly a year before Flynn, who underwent a “life-changing” hip replacement operation in 2020, received a diagnosis. Fragments of bone were reaching his knee, causing excruciating pain. “I really missed school, spent a lot of time in bed. Looking back on that time, I was probably quite depressed because everything I thought I wanted to be had been taken away from me. All my classmates dropped out of school, went on an apprenticeship or got a job and I didn’t have that option because I walked around on crutches. And I just thought, ‘I have to do something,’ so I grabbed a book and read.

His newfound passion for reading led him to study history and politics, and a postgraduate degree in international relations and security studies, both from Dundee University. He subsequently worked as a shop clerk at Tesco, where he was managing director of the Usdaw trade union, and was elected to Aberdeen City Council in 2015; he became SNP chairman on the board 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 Labor MP, but he says his politics have been shaped by the war in Iraq and the “huge disconnect” between Tony Blair’s New Labor government and Scotland.

Flynn was 21 when David Cameron and George Osborne moved into Downing Street in 2010 and his opposition to the Union grew during the austerity years. “He just fell from there and everything I thought just crystallized into reality. I was always going to be a nationalist, but Labor has lost me, and many people like me, to its own mistakes in government, mistakes which I think, with all due respect, Keir Starmer is repeating.”

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

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

What will happen to Stephen Flynn, this man in a hurry? His ultimate goal, of course, is to “walk arm in arm” with his SNP colleagues out of Westminster after Scotland votes for independence. But in the meantime he also has an eye on Holyrood and, presumably, a role in the Scottish government. “Whoever is elected to the SNP wants to be in the Scottish national parliament, which is not in Westminster, but in Edinburgh.”

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