Best of enemies: Sturgeon and Salmond
Columns Portcullis

Sealed with a Glasgow kiss

From trans rights to its independence strategy, a bitter war divides one of the most popular parties in Europe

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Its critics allege that the Scottish National Party is really motivated by instinctive loathing of the English. But at a time when their cause has never enjoyed such sustained popularity, the nationalists seem most energised by hatred of one another.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the recent sacking of Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, as the Westminster spokesperson on home affairs by Ian Blackford, the man who in 2017 defeated her by one vote to be the SNP’s leader in the House of Commons. 

That night she received successive abusive phone calls including what she says was a threat to rape her. A male SNP member has been charged. On learning of Cherry’s ordeal, Kirsty Blackman, the Aberdeen North MP who was until last July the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, tweeted that she condemned all abuse of this kind. Cherry slapped back, “Thank you for your concern but this is what can happen when you rile up your base with lies & smears. Actions have consequences so please think hard again before you attack a colleague on social media.”

The clash between the rights of women and of transgender people is what divides Cherry from Blackman and, more importantly, from her party leadership at both Westminster and Holyrood. A lesbian and a feminist, Cherry is a doughty and tireless critic of the Scottish government’s determination to make gender self-defining and easy to change. 

Second only to independence, this gender war has become the greatest and bitterest policy issue dividing the SNP

Such is the slanging match between both traditionalists and feminists on one side and those who accuse them of transphobia on the other that the debate can lose sight of the reality that changing gender has been enshrined in statute law since 2004. What the Scottish government’s draft legislation would repeal is the 2004 Gender Recognition Act’s precondition of a medical evaluation for gender dysphoria. The proposed reforms would also reduce the period necessary to live in the assumed gender identity from the current two years to a mere three months. The age limit for switching gender would fall from 18 to 16.

Other measures to make the process as seamless as possible include putting the Registrar General for Scotland rather than the current Gender Recognition Panel in charge of approving applications. All relevant documentation is changed, from passports and driving licences to birth certificates. 

Second only to independence and how to secure it, this gender war has become the greatest and bitterest policy issue dividing the SNP (whose riven personal animosities the issue reinforces rather than subsumes). 

Old-timers inspired by the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, the memory of Winnie Ewing and the (not very European-minded) charge of “it’s Scotland’s oil,” may wonder why all this gender talk is relevant to the great ambition. It is, though, perhaps fitting that a party obsessed with asserting the imperative of identity (Scottishness against Britishness) should also stride so confidently into other theatres of identity politics. 

Ousted: Joanna Cherry with supporter Kenny MacAskill

Whilst Sir Keir Starmer attempts to manage the threat of transgender identity issues by not talking about the subject, Nicola Sturgeon has embraced it. She leads a party which has particularly strong appeal both to Scotland’s creative and performing arts communities and to young people — strata of society where interest in such issues is keenest. 

Scottish separatism advances under the creeping barrage that it is progressive. This self-perception thrives on the depiction of England — or “London” and “down south” as it is dismissively styled — as a place of narrow-minded bigotry. This goes some way towards explaining why younger Scots combine predominantly left-liberal attitudes with nationalism. Polling last year by YouGov suggests that almost 80 per cent of 18-24-year-old Scots back independence. 

Polling in February by Savanta ComRes for the Scotsman indicated that although well over a third of surveyed Scots had not properly formed a view on the SNP’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act — Covid trumps all — of those that did take an interest, supporters outnumbered opponents by 37 per cent to 26 per cent. The change was backed by 59 per cent of 16-24- year-olds. 

For Sturgeonistas and Salmondites, the gender war is a proxy for an all-out struggle to control the party

Given these findings, the SNP can be forgiven for embracing expectantly the banality about young people being the future. While Joanna Cherry was being sacked from her role in Westminster, panic swept the party high command in Holyrood. The flip-flop by the justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, on whether transgender identity would be covered in his controversial Hate Crime Bill was upsetting the SNP’s trans activists. 

Sturgeon rushed to record a seemingly unscripted video message “from my heart” to young people who she had heard were “in significant numbers leaving the SNP” because they considered it insufficiently safe for trans people. Respectful debate should be heard but “no debate can be a cover for transphobia” she sought to reassure them, without explaining where a different opinion constituted transphobia, a crime that “must be treated with the zero tolerance we treat racism or homophobia”. She concluded: “Others will accuse me of being woke. I don’t care.”

But Sturgeon does care about threats to the household supremacy that her husband, Peter Murrell (who is the SNP’s chief executive officer), and she retain over their party. Her predecessor as party leader and first minister, Alex Salmond, presents the most immediate danger. His assertion that she broke the ministerial code in order to destroy his reputation is a resigning issue (should she choose to adhere to it). 

Salmond — who is still denied membership of the party he used to lead despite his acquittal on all charges of sexual assault — has never made transgender rights his focus. The manifesto he last fought the Holyrood elections on in 2011 makes no mention of such issues. 

His differences with Sturgeon on the priority given to trans rights are only a part of a wider personal animosity and policy divergence. In particular, he doubts the efficacy of her strategy of bullying an intransigent Boris Johnson into granting a second independence referendum. Salmond and his ally Joanna Cherry belong to the school of thought that holds that other routes to independence need to be explored. For Sturgeonistas and Salmondites, the gender war is a proxy for an all-out struggle to control the party and determine the path to break up Britain.

Salmond doubts the strategy of bullying Boris Johnson into granting a second independence referendum

Cherry is the QC and MP who successfully took Johnson’s prorogation of parliament to the Supreme Court in 2019. In February 2020, she launched her campaign to be selected as the SNP candidate for Edinburgh Central, the retiring Ruth Davidson’s super-marginal Holyrood seat that seems destined to swing to the SNP in May. But to win that prize she would first have to defeat Angus Robertson, the former Westminster leader and Sturgeon loyalist who was also seeking the nomination. 

In July last year, Cherry was stopped in her tracks by the SNP’s National Executive Committee (NEC) which invented new rules that would have forced her to stand down as an MP before she could enter the contest to become an MSP. Rather than risk ending up in neither parliament, Cherry withdrew and Robertson — potentially Sturgeon’s own choice as her successor — was selected. In November, Cherry got her revenge, topping the bill of 11 predominantly left-wing SNP candidates on the “Common Weal” ticket elected to the NEC. Common Weal had support from two other groups, SNP Good Guys and SNP Women’s Pledge, whose founder, Caroline McAllister, duly became women’s convener. 

A friend of Cherry, McAllister had been blocked by the party’s vetting committee from being the SNP’s candidate in Dumbarton (where she is group deputy leader of the council). She had caused an outcry for posing in a T-shirt with the slogan “Woman = adult human female.”

A prominent party activist, Chris McEleny, has put on record his fears that “the leadership will use the controversy around transphobia to placate their base, and selectively sanction or even expel certain internal rivals”. This is about purging the Salmondite wing of the party. Cherry’s sacking from her frontbench role at Westminster has come despite, as her supportive colleague there, Kenny MacAskill says, her remaining “head and shoulders above most others and I for one stand by her”.

Also standing by Cherry is the MP Neale Hanvey. No sooner had Cherry been sacked than Ian Blackford removed Hanvey as the party’s vaccines spokesman for leaving a supportive message on a website raising funds to sue for defamation the party’s Westminster deputy leader, Kirsty Blackman. This follows Hanvey’s previous suspension for sharing antisemitic tropes. He was one of the Common Weal supporters recently elected to the NEC’s conduct committee.

The SNP at its zenith is beginning to resemble Ukip at its nadir

Salmond may have his revenge on Sturgeon. Or Salmond’s supporters may find themselves excommunicated from the party, as happened to the radicals of the 79 Group (among them the young Alex Salmond) in 1982. As a former senior party official pointed out to the National, a pro-independence newspaper, over the leadership’s ousting of Cherry, “I think they have gone mad, quite insane, across a range of fronts.”

The veteran nationalist Jim Sillars — the party’s deputy leader in the 1990s whose late wife, Margo MacDonald, was its deputy leader in the 1970s — has had enough. Independence is inevitable, he believes. But the current SNP should not be allowed to continue polluting the purity of the cause. He has called for the NEC to remove the leadership which has “debased the open, fair, just, democratic principles that the party was established on” and “rammed gender down your throats, sacked the most able MP, attacked free speech, set out to ruin and imprison the former leader”.

“I really do understand why people say ‘sort this out in private, it’s harming the cause’,” Cherry has stated, “but please be aware there is no internal way to properly discuss policy or strategy and there is no functioning link between MPs and the leadership.” Furthermore, “what is now in the public domain is the tip of the iceberg of behaviour which I and others have had to put up with for years.”

The SNP at its zenith is beginning to resemble Ukip at its nadir. Except that the Scottish electorate is poised to reaffirm it as one of the most popular political parties in Europe.

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