Joanna Cherry.Ken Jack/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Lady Macbeth joins the SNP

Making sense of the SNP’s internecine conflict

Back in October last year, the SNP looked forward to 2020 with dread. The trial of their former leader, Alex Salmond, on 14 charges of sexual and indecent assault (two of them for rape) was due to start in March. Regardless of his fate, the publicity was sure to be excruciatingly damaging. Beyond the lurid allegations raised in the case, it was feared that Nicola Sturgeon’s role – particularly what she knew and when – in the circumstances that exposed her predecessor to trial might well ensure that she would have to resign as First Minister.

Such fears helped convince the SNP high command (and in particular Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, who in a small world happens to be the SNP’s chief executive) that, to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” So, alongside Jo Swinson’s LibDems, the SNP at Westminster helped Boris Johnson circumvent the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Swinson’s miscalculation was that the resulting general election would see anti-Brexiteers rally to the LibDems. Sturgeon’s miscalculation was that it was better for the SNP to face a general election before rather than after the Salmond trial.

None of what was expected to happen came to pass. Not only was Salmond acquitted in March, his party suffered no discernible collateral damage from the trial, which was overshadowed by the rapid spread of Covid-19. This emergency transformed the fortunes of Nicola Sturgeon, who emerged as a national saviour, working tirelessly to protect Scots from the killer virus. In May, 78 percent of Scots stated to the Ipsos-MORI pollsters their belief that she was doing a great job. So demonstrably had she supposedly shown Scotland’s ability to run itself in a storm that support for independence was tracked up to 54 percent.

But whilst Sturgeon has been seemingly winning over Scottish hearts and votes, there is one part of the kingdom that is a safe space for her critics – her own party. Odd would be the activist who joined the Brexit Party because they thought Nigel Farage could deliver better healthcare outcomes but leaving the EU was no biggie. Similarly, the appeal of getting involved in the SNP is fuelled by the desire for Scottish independence more than the precise detail of framing transport policy. Sturgeon’s strategy of first demonstrating SNP competence in government before then demanding a second independence referendum is too gradual for these “up an’ at ‘em” Nats for whom no IndyRef can come too soon or – if need be – too often.

These gung ho Nats rally to their once and future king, Alex Salmond. For his part, Salmond has stated his intention to publish shortly before next May’s Holyrood election an account of the circumstances that led up to his trial in which he will allege a conspiracy from within the SNP against him.

Will Salmond get involved with one or more of the nascent More-Scot-Nat-than-the SNP groups who are scheming to run candidates in May? The most likely vehicle would be the “Alliance for Independence.” Holyrood involves two ballot papers. One is for constituency MPs who are elected by first-past-the-post. But each voter can then vote a second time on the regional list. This second vote seeks to bring proportional representation to the process. Thus it benefits those parties that generally came second or third but did not win the constituency voting. So, if the SNP do well at the constituency level, with a lot of MSPs returned (as every pundit expects), they will not gain many more MSPs at the regional level. The clever idea of Alliance for Independence and other such groups is to only stand candidates for the regional list so that SNP voters having voted SNP in the constituency list then lend their votes to the Alliance to maximise the number of pro-independence MSPs that result from this dual system.

The appeal of the strategy is obvious. But not to the National Executive Committee of the SNP, for whom maximising the party’s vote comes first, not playing the electoral system to ensure success for Nats who have fallen foul of the SNP. That Salmond is even associated now with the latter malcontents demonstrates how poisoned the well of Nationalist brotherhood has become.

How much longer Sturgeon – who only turned fifty last month – will remain First Minister and SNP leader is unclear. Obviously, it will not be before May if the decision is hers. But the jockeying for who will succeed her is already underway. It was supposed to be decided by a proxy war for whichever candidate secured the Edinburgh Central constituency nomination for Holyrood. This is the super-marginal seat of Ruth Davidson who – not withstanding her resurrection as Regent for the Tory Dauphin, Douglas Ross – will stand down in May. The seat is widely predicated to swing to the SNP.

The Sturgeonite candidate in the Edinburgh Central proxy war is the avuncular Angus Robertson, who was leader of the SNP MPs at Westminster until he lost his seat to the (as it now appears) up-and-coming Douglas Ross. Robertson is not a fan of Alex Salmond.

His Salmondite rival was to have been the highly-capable QC and MP for Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry. Cherry it was who alongside Gina Miller was the litigant in their successful Supreme Court case against Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of Parliament last September.

It is fair to say that Scotland’s political journalists and a sizeable body of interested bystanders (both well- and not so well-wishing the SNP) were looking forward to the Robertson-Cherry ding dong. Then, last week, the referee called time before the first jabs were exchanged: the party’s ruling NEC decided that Cherry would have to first quit as a Westminster MP before she could be selected as a candidate for a Holyrood seat. Rather than risk an all or nothing gamble, Cherry withdrew from the contest in order to remain an MP at Westminster.

Sportingly, Robertson announced that he was sorry that the bout had been called off in this manner. But the reality was that the NEC made-up this new rule knowing the consequences for the Edinburgh Central contest – indeed with that contest specifically in mind. It was not a rule clarification, it was a rule creation. In preparing for the next leader of the SNP, the Sturgeonites have fired-off a first strike against the Salmondites whilst they imagined the latter’s missiles were still being wheeled out of their silos.

But to complicate matters further, the Salmondite versus Sturgeonite battle is not just a Bolsheviks versus Mensheviks struggle between revolution now and revolution next week. There is also a split on the toxic issue of trans rights, with the Sturgeonites more often supporting the legal status of sex as self-identifying and the Salmondites generally taking a more biological and feminist view of the matter.

the Salmondite versus Sturgeonite battle is not just a Bolsheviks versus Mensheviks struggle between revolution now and revolution next week

Joanna Cherry’s reward for counselling that changing the existing gender recognition law should not be rushed was to be denounced as a “transphobe.” She faced bulling allegations – of which she was cleared – in what she described as “politically motivated smears” which she said arose from “SNP infighting”. As she told Holyrood magazine last year:

“I believe in trans rights. I believe in gay rights – it would be a bit odd if I didn’t as a lesbian – but I believe in equal rights for everyone and I believe in equal rights for women and girls as well. … I know that there are good reasons to have sex-segregated spaces, but what has disappointed me about the debate around trans rights is that a small minority within the LGBT-plus movement and also, sadly, within the SNP and also the Labour Party here, have tried to shut down debate by calling any feminists who speak up for women as transphobes. And they do it to bully and intimidate. And I won’t be bullied or intimidated”.

With Cherry’s ambitions stymied (a future SNP leader and First Minister would have to sit in Holyrood, not Westminster), has the NEC nipped the Salmondite resurgence in the bud? The problem with clever wheezes is an unfortunate habit of producing unforeseen consequences.

Many party activists in Edinburgh Central are furious about the NEC’s restriction of their choice. So, to fill the void created by Cherry’s exclusion, Marco Biagi will now stand against Robertson. Biagi is a former minister and was the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central between 2011 and 2016 before he lost it to Ruth Davidson. He was popular amongst his activists in the constituency.

Now Biagi is pitching himself as the unity candidate, writing in the SNP loyalist newspaper, The National, “I believe we desperately need a candidate who can bring activists back together. The local members who have encouraged me to come forward include many former supporters of both Joanna Cherry and Angus Robertson. I hope that by entering the process I can reassure all that democracy is indeed alive and well in the party.” Ouch.

However, will the NEC blink? On Saturday it did so on another of its rulings which had originally been that the selection of the Holyrood candidate for the Glasgow Cathcart constituency be from a women-only shortlist. This was a clear attempt to prevent the incumbent MSP, James Dornan, from standing again. But following an outcry, the party’s National Secretary deemed the NEC’s imposition “unconstitutional.”

Might the NEC’s arbitrary decision to change the rules so that sitting Westminster MPs cannot apply for Holyrood constituencies also be retrospectively spotted to be not quite by the book? Pressure is mounting, with the Westminster MPs, Angus MacNeil and Philippa Whitford (MacNeil going so far as to claim there are “rotten apples” in his party’s ruling council), joining others including the MSP Mike Russell in condemning the ruling.

But if, under pressure, the NEC does blink, and rescinds its ruling, Cherry would re-enter the Edinburgh Central race in a much stronger position as the doughty fighter the Establishment tried to muzzle. That would be reason enough for the NEC to stick with its brutal deed, taking heart from Lady Macbeth’s insistence to “screw your courage to the sticking place. And we’ll not fail.”

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