Dani Garavelli: Cherry on the cake for those who oppose independence

Anyone hoping for a rapprochement between the two feuding SNP camps in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections would have been sorely disappointed by events last week.

The NEC ruling effectively exiles the First Minister's big rival, Joanna Cherry, at Westminster. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
The NEC ruling effectively exiles the First Minister's big rival, Joanna Cherry, at Westminster. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

As the party’s NEC ruled against dual mandates – forcing those MPs who want to stand for Holyrood to resign their Westminster seats first – the splits that some figures, who should know better, have been pretending don’t exist widened into open warfare.

Dual mandates – where politicians serve as both MP and MSP – have been a feature of politics north of the border since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The former first minister Alex Salmond remained MSP for Aberdeenshire East after being elected MP for Gordon in 2015, only stepping down at the Holyrood elections the following year.

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No-one would suggest this is ideal. If an MP/MSP is juggling two roles, it is likely their constituents will be short-changed. There is also an argument politicians should commit to one parliament rather than shifting back and forth as they spot new opportunities to advance their careers.

But to force MPs to resign before they have even been selected as a candidate seems harsh. And to do it now – just as the contest for Edinburgh Central was about to kick off – meant it was always going to be seen as an attempt to stop Joanna Cherry in her tracks.

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The battle for Edinburgh Central has long been billed as a proxy for the ongoing battle between the Salmond and Sturgeon camps. After the NEC decision was announced on Friday, Cherry said she wasn’t prepared to make her Westminster office staff redundant, and “would no longer be seeking nomination for Edinburgh Central”. This would have cleared the field for Robertson if it hadn’t been for Marco Biagi – who held the seat from 2011 to 2016 – announcing his intention to stand for selection yesterday evening.

Anyone still wondering if this is personal should ask themselves: “Is it conceivable the new rule would have been introduced had it been Robertson, rather than Cherry, who was seeking a move from Westminster to Holyrood?” They might also ponder why Robertson – who lost his Moray seat in the 2017 general election – did not seek selection in his old stomping ground.

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To be fair, the NEC move was not an unprovoked attack, and there are many who are less than sympathetic towards Cherry’s plight. The MP, who is firmly in the Salmond/Wings Over Scotland camp, no longer bothers to disguise her contempt for the current administration. She believes Sturgeon has been too cautious over a second independence referendum. A Holyrood seat would have made it easier for her to challenge the First Minister, and to promote herself as a leadership contender were Sturgeon to fall foul of the forthcoming parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the Salmond allegations.

Cherry is also vociferously opposed to the Gender Recognition Act – the wedge issue around which the two warring factions have pitched their tents. She opposes self-ID and has made comments which have led to her being labelled “transphobic”. Critics question why a politician so openly at odds with the mainstream party would expect to be supported in her attempts to undermine it.

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“Nicola: 1, Jo: 0” was their response to last week’s developments. But I’m not so sure. Since the Salmond trial ended in his acquittal, the feud has been one-sided. Salmond’s proxies have been active on his behalf, protesting against the GRA, muttering about “dark forces” and lobbying for a Plan B – a course of unilateral action should Boris Johnson continue to refuse to grant a Section 30 order.

Sturgeon, consumed by the pandemic, has refused to rise to the bait. That’s a sensible position to take, especially when your approval ratings are soaring and support for independence is high. It communicates confidence, unassailability.

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As talk of alternative pro-Indy parties has grown it has become more difficult to sustain. The Alliance for Independence is unlikely to pose much of an electoral threat, but polls suggest a party led by Salmond might. Throw Cherry’s ambitions into this mix and, well, you can see why the First Minister might be unnerved.

If Sturgeon believes her enemies are out to destroy her, why shouldn’t she defend herself, her supporters ask. But this NEC ruling plays into her opponents’ hands. It removes Cherry from Holyrood, but it gives her a legitimate grievance to add to her stockpile. It stokes the Salmond camp’s persecution complex.

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It also lends credence to the accusation that the SNP will engage in nefarious tactics to block those it doesn’t like from gaining power. In a few weeks’ time, Salmond’s conspiracy theory will finally be given a public airing. Remember: Salmond’s position is the sexual assault allegations were cooked up to prevent him returning to frontline politics. It is all too easy to join those dots.

Add the decision to insist on an all-woman shortlist in Glasgow Cathcart, and it’s no wonder there have been ructions. It is true the sitting MSP James Dornan announced, then reversed, his decision to retire. But even so, he has represented that constituency for 10 years. Surely some loyalty is owed him? The stramash undermines the fight for sexual equality too. All-women shortlists are controversial enough without them apparently being weaponised against individuals.

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The impact of the NEC rulings was predictable: an almighty backlash, with the SNP accused of #Cherrymandering and of taking away the Edinburgh Central branch’s right to pick its own candidate.

On Friday, Twitter was awash with Yes voters claiming these issues were the last straw; that they were cancelling their party membership; that they would never place their cross in the box marked SNP again.

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You can argue – with some justification – that this is a social media phenomenon with little resonance outside of the bubble. Or that most of those expressing their outrage were already supporters of Salmond.

But the chief criticisms levelled at the current SNP administration are that it is too cliquey, too controlling and unwilling to brook dissent. The NEC move reinforces all those negative perceptions.

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The outlawing of dual mandates will have heightened Cherry’s already considerable anger. Will she leave the SNP and lend her weight to a rival party? Who knows? But – with her leadership ambitions thwarted – it seems more likely than it did a week ago. And, while she is loathed by many in the mainstream party, she has plenty of support on the fringes.

The inevitable fall-out also succeeded in diverting attention away from a story that was to the Yes movement’s advantage: the resignation of Jackson Carlaw as Scottish Tory leader. That should have been a cause for celebration, but both camps appear to be masters of the art of interrupting their enemies while they are in the course of making themselves look foolish.

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It has begun to feel like an idle plea, repeated at nauseam by those who want to see the movement capitalise on the surge of support for independence. But it would be good if those in all factions and none could set aside their petty squabbles and internal power struggles and focus on the greater prize.

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