Nicola Sturgeon's true character revealed by her failure to support SNP MP Joanna Cherry over abuse by trans activists – Susan Dalgety

On paper, Joanna Cherry and I have very little in common. The SNP MP for Edinburgh South West is a dedicated nationalist. She believes that if Scotland were to leave the UK it would miraculously flourish, unfettered from the yoke of English imperialism.

Joanna Cherry MP is the one of finest female politicians in the UK today, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Joanna Cherry MP is the one of finest female politicians in the UK today, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

I, on the other hand, think breaking up the United Kingdom would be an act of unpardonable folly. I campaigned for devolution, and Holyrood has more than enough powers to govern Scotland well. The challenge is for those in charge to use them for the benefit of the Scottish people.

But despite the dividing line that neither of us is likely ever to cross, I am happy to put on record that I think Cherry is the one of finest female politicians in the UK today.

She’s clever in a political environment that celebrates vacuity. She is courageous amid a glut of political cowards. She took a big risk with her reputation, not only as an MP but as a QC, when in September 2019 she challenged Boris Johnson’s government in court over his advice to the Queen to suspend parliament. Her victory strengthened democratic accountability across the UK. A defeat could have significantly damaged her career.

She is a hard-working, popular constituency MP. Her patch covers my old home of Wester Hailes, and I know from people with no political axe to grind that she is well-liked and respected by all the people she represents, not just those who voted nationalist.

In private she is funny, generous and warm, displaying a personal and political empathy that many leading politicians lack. And she is a feminist to her fingertips.

Yet this strong, highly educated, successful woman politician nearly left politics last year, hounded out by a venomous mix of trans activists who disagree with her stance on gender identity and by SNP members who doubt her loyalty to Nicola Sturgeon.

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In February last year, Cherry was sacked from the SNP’s front bench at Westminster for “disloyalty”, and last autumn she was warned of moves to deselect her.

The online abuse she endures is relentless. Last July, Grant Karte was sentenced to a community payback order for repeatedly sending her “grossly offensive, or… indecent, obscene” messages on Twitter. And earlier this week, another person appeared in court accused of sending Cherry abusive messages over the internet and pleaded not guilty.

This week, Cherry described self-styled trans activists who attack gender critical women like her as “good old-fashioned misogynists and lesbophobes, who are being encouraged and enabled by those who ought to know better. I don’t think enough attention is being paid to this problem. It needs to be called out by those in a position of authority or more women will leave politics as I nearly did last year.”

I wonder if Cherry had her party leader in mind when she called out those who “ought to know better”?

The First Minister is a very vocal supporter of extending rights for those people who want to change their legal sex. Her government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which is currently going through parliament, will, if passed in its current form, give anyone over 16 the right to change their legal sex by simple declaration – self-ID as it is known.

Sturgeon appears to have no patience with the growing number of people, from across the political spectrum and none, who urge caution on this significant change. Infamously, she dismissed the views of feminist activists campaigning against self-ID as “not valid”.

Yet in May, the First Minister told the BBC that politics is not a “safe space” for women, adding that the SNP had found it increasingly difficult to persuade women to stand for election. “It’s a societal problem,” she added, “but there’s no doubt it can be worse in politics and in public life.”

Amen sister, but why, when one of her own was under attack, did the First Minister not stand up for Cherry? Or is her sisterly solidarity reserved only for those who offer her slavish loyalty? I think we know the answer to that, which suggests that Sturgeon’s feminism is, at best, flexible.

Cherry will thrive. She has just been appointed chair of Westminster’s influential human rights committee, and even if she were to leave politics, she would be able to resume her successful career in law.

But what kind of nation do we live in where one of our most able women is pushed to her personal and professional limits simply for telling her truth?

Politics is about the art of being able to disagree without destroying each other. As Rory Stewart, another brilliant but now marginalised political figure, points out in his BBC series The Long History of Argument, disagreements are the foundation of our democracy and the cornerstone of our legal system. But, he argues, we need to be able to “argue well” if democracy is to survive.

As individuals and as a society we need to be able to respect those with views different from our own, no matter how contentious the issue. We should also be willing to change our minds if the argument is persuasive enough. Above all, we should expect our leaders to have the moral and political courage to stand up for the rights of all of us to speak our mind.

Despite making women’s rights a core element of her political persona, Sturgeon has stubbornly refused to offer her colleague Cherry any public – or private – support while she endured online abuse.

A silence that reveals more about the First Minister’s character than perhaps she would want us to know.

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