The SNP, UK Space Policy and the Politics of Parliamentary Debate

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra here.

This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures blog.

On 14 January 2016, a debate was held on UK space policy in the House of Commons, timed to coincide with a spacewalk undertaken by British astronaut Major Tim Peake as part of his mission to the International Space Station (ISS). UK participation in ISS activities marked the culmination of a significant reorientation of government space policy in recent years, and so it is unsurprising that MPs might have something to say about it, and want to take the opportunity to applaud a significant ‘national moment’. The debate attracted media attention, partly due to its coinciding with the Peake spacewalk, and also because of the message of goodwill sent to MPs by William Shatner, who expressed the hope that MPs would, in debating space, ‘take the tenets of Star Trek’s prime directive to universally and peacefully share in the exploration of it’. An MP performing a Vulcan salute during her contribution also helped on the publicity front. It was clearly a novel policy issue for MPs, and one that the Commons hadn’t properly debated in a decade or so. What was most surprising, however, and which drew me to research this issue, was that the debate was moved by an MP from the Scottish National Party (SNP). What, I wondered, were the SNP doing using up their precious parliamentary time for a debate on a topic as unlikely as UK space policy? In my recent paper in the journal Space Policy, I analyse the parliamentary debate in order to solve this puzzle. The paper identifies a number of themes underpinning the debate, but here I focus only on the question that sparked my interest in the first place: why were the SNP getting involved in this incredibly narrow policy issue, which seemed like an unlikely vehicle through which to advance their political objectives?

The parliamentary motion was tabled by the SNP MP Philippa Whitford, and was the result of time made available through an application to the Backbench Business Committee. Although the tabled motion concerned UK space policy generally, much of the discussion was dominated by what turned out to be highly strategic contributions from the SNP, whose MPs used much of their time to delineate the merits of locating the UK’s first ever spaceport in Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland. Some research soon helped illuminate their motivations. The Space Growth Action Plan 2014-2030 specified the need for a UK commercial spaceport, operational by 2018, in order to grow existing and new space businesses in the UK, particularly the highly successful satellite industry. Access to space is a key commercial barrier in the space industry, as UK companies face increasing costs in accessing overseas launch sites, and the speedy creation of UK commercial space flight capability was deemed crucial to implementing the growth strategy. The shortlist of possible spaceport locations was published in spring 2015, with Prestwick viewed as particularly competitive, given how closely it met the criteria laid out by the Department of Transport, in terms of a clear flight path north over the sea and a coastal location with low population density.

It is in this context that the SNP contributions can be understood, for two reasons. First, the SNP represent the vast majority of Scottish Westminster seats (56 out of 59), and their 2015 UK general election campaign strategy had its heart the argument that, so long as Scotland remained a part of the UK, the SNP was the best party to represent Scottish interests at Westminster. Second, the regulation of activities in outer space, as defined by the Outer Space Act 1986, is reserved to the UK Parliament, and the SNP’s decision to allocate precious backbench time at Westminster to the issue of UK space policy therefore makes sense in terms of the SNP demonstrating its ability to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard’ in the UK on UK matters. Consequently, debate analysis illustrates the concerted effort of SNP MPs to advocate for locating the spaceport in Prestwick, and, more generally, to emphasise the value of the space industry to Scotland. Prestwick is located in the constituency of the debate mover, Philippa Whitford MP, who spoke at length about its spaceport suitability, as well its proximity to the technology catapults at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. Many central Scotland MPs spoke effusively about the benefits that would accrue should the spaceport be located in Prestwick, and there was much name-dropping of affected interests in the area: the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications at the Strathclyde University Space Institute, the University of Glasgow’s laser interferometer developments which contributed to the European Space Agency’s Pathfinder spacecraft, and the commercially successful Glasgow-based company Clyde Space were all commended.

Thus, while the ostensible subject of the motion was ‘UK space policy’, it in fact served the purpose of enabling the SNP to champion the Scottish commercial space industry, and argue that the interests of that industry would be advanced if the UK government opted for a spaceport in Prestwick. While the MPs from the other shortlisted locations also contributed to the debate, they were largely drowned out by the SNP’s concerted action and strategic advocacy. In short, the SNP cleverly utilised parliamentary deliberation in order to align Scotland explicitly with the broader goals of UK space policy. They ensured that the responsible government minister ‘heard Scotland’s voice’ (as he was there for the debate and responded to it), while also championing a Scottish commercial sector that arguably has a competitive advantage in the UK.

What does this tell us? For one thing, it provides an illustration of how the SNP are functioning at Westminster in terms of their promise to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard loud and clear’. The dominant position of the SNP inside the UK Parliament, in terms of Scottish seat share, offers a rich opportunity to study how they use that position inside the House of Commons to demonstrate their advocacy of Scotland and their commitment to protecting its interests. What at first appeared to be little more than a backbench debate on an esoteric policy issue turned out to be richly imbued with opportunities for advancing our understanding of how the SNP are operating inside Westminster, and thus also for analysing how Parliament is used by political actors.