The SNP’s leader in Westminster tells PoliticsHome how bank closures have been sidelined as Parliament gets bogged down in Brexit.
If the EU referendum was an attempt to finally lay the issue of Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours to rest, it has spectacularly failed.
While discussion about obscure EU institutions, subsidies and trade rules was, until last year, mercifully consigned to the backbenches, it now dominates the Parliamentary agenda.
But with all this Brexit back-and-forth, it can feel like domestic policy has fallen out of favour and some urgent matters are being left unaddressed.
That is what Ian Blackford is arguing as he attempts to push back against Royal Bank of Scotland plans for country-wide closures of vital community banks.
The firm has announced it will axe 259 branches, with 62 of those in Scotland.
Speaking from his Parliamentary office, the SNP MP says: “I think it’s a matter of significant importance that we should be discussing in Parliament. The fact that we are spending so much time discussing Brexit means, in a sense, that some of these bread and butter issues are not being discussed to the extent that they should be. We need to make sure that we don’t let issues like this slip under the radar.”
While Blackford may be his party’s leader in Westminster, his remote Scottish constituency is a world away from the capital.
Ross, Skye and Lochaber is over 500 miles from London and despite covering the largest area of land of any constituency in Britain it’s population is only in the tens of thousands.
As the MP for such a sparsely populated region Blackford is acutely aware of the importance of local banks to communities, unlike, he suggests, some of his colleagues.
“People representing a metropolitan area will not appreciate how important a bank is,” he says.
As well as attracting people into town centres and supporting local businesses, they also play a wider role, he argues.
“It’s an opportunity to make sure you are sharing in the life of that community – a lot of elderly people, of course, will be going to the bank and having conversations with people that they might not otherwise have. They are part of the fabric of society.”
‘HALT BANK CLOSURES’
That is why Blackford is determined to fight the closures and is calling on the government, which has a 71% stake in RBS as a result of the 2008 bailout, to intervene.
“I am asking the government to ask RBS to call a halt to this… It is not in the interests of our citizens for RBS to behave in the manner that it is doing and it’s incumbent on the Government to make sure that we are protecting the interests of our citizens. They have spectacularly failed to do that to date by hiding under the line that ‘we don’t interfere with the operational decisions of RBS.’”
The SNP chief has requested a meeting with RBS CEO Ross McEwan and is pushing for a Parliamentary debate, but he is also keen to stand directly alongside those affected.
“This is something we intend to campaign on vigorously, we are not going to let this go.It is some months before the branches close and we will fight tooth and nail. We have had some conversations this morning with Unite the trade union, that are heavily involved in this. We will be campaigning in our communities over the coming weeks to make sure we are engaging with our local communities. We will be saying very strongly that we want to stand behind the interests of our constituents and that means branches must stay open and RBS must think again.”