All commentators are asked at some point whether they’ve ever considered going into politics. You spend your life thinking and arguing about this stuff, it’s said, so why not swap the page or the screen for the debating chamber and the life of a legislator? Or, more aggressively: right, smart-arse, if you think you could do the job better then let’s see you try.
I can only speak for myself, but I get the shrieking dib dabs at the thought of being an MP or MSP (a dukedom I could handle). I lack the discipline – like most hacks I am nine-tenths feral, impatient, constitutionally unable to hold to a line I know to be utter nonsense, and have an uneasy relationship with authority. I would find it impossible to take orders from some jumped-up Oxbridge hotshot without replying in ripe Glaswegian. I have also been disgracefully rude about every party and almost everyone in them over the years. I would be in constant trouble, though I note that hasn’t stopped the current Prime Minister.
It’s for this reason that I’ve always had special affection for parliament’s awkward sods – those who refuse to play the game, who stick to their guns even to the point of eccentricity, and who let go of the greasy pole for the sake of their convictions. It must be a lonely existence at times. It certainly takes real moxy.
You don’t get many of these types in the SNP, which places particular emphasis on public unity and the suppression of individuality. This makes Joanna Cherry all the more remarkable. The MP for Edinburgh South West has been a force of nature since she was first elected in 2015. She has, probably irreparably, fallen out with the party leadership and many of her colleagues, been sacked from the front bench, been blocked from standing for Holyrood, and has received constant abuse on social media, including a threat of rape, which required her to take some time away from public duties last year.
She is no angel. Her fellow SNP MPs are often rubbed up the wrong way, and talk privately of an arrogant, argumentative and domineering personality (she is a QC, after all). She has stayed close to Alex Salmond for longer than might be thought advisable. She faced allegations of bullying from former employees, though was exonerated by the parliamentary standards commissioner.
It seems like Cherry has emerged from all this not just battle-hardened, but committed – or at least resigned – to a different type of career. Whatever ambitions she may once have had – perhaps to be SNP leader at Westminster, a government minister in Edinburgh, even first minister – have been parked. She has refused to jump ship to Salmond’s Alba Party, as many expected her to do. Instead she has stayed in the SNP, a free-thinking pest, and engaged with some of the most challenging issues in modern politics.
Most controversially, in SNP terms, Cherry has done the unthinkable and unforgivable, repeatedly challenging Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy for securing independence. In July last year she said that Sturgeon’s government had “gone awfully quiet on the independence front” since that May’s Holyrood election, while describing the small increase in support for independence since the referendum of 2014 as “poor”, given the opportunities provided by Brexit and Boris Johnson. She has challenged Sturgeon’s insistence that a referendum will be held by the end of 2023.
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She has regularly criticised the way the SNP is run, which is through a small clique surrounding Sturgeon and her husband, the party’s chief executive Peter Murrell. Earlier this year she warned Sturgeon that any comparison of the Ukraine situation to the fight for Scottish independence was “crass and insensitive”. Needless to say, this is not standard practice among the party’s elected representatives. For the rest of us, though, it is hugely entertaining.
This week Cherry again turned her guns on the SNP, criticising her party’s handling of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the former chief whip Patrick Grady and how it dispatched its duty of care to his victim. “For some time the SNP has had significant problems in how it handles complaints,” she said. “My party needs to reflect on the contrast between the treatment of different ‘offenders’, and to review our arrangements for the pastoral care of complainers.”
Perhaps bravest of all – certainly the issue that has brought her the greatest level of abuse – has been her stance on reforms to gender recognition, where she has consistently raised concerns about planned changes to self-identification rules. This has again put her at odds with Sturgeon, who is determined to drive the reforms through the Scottish parliament.
After the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that self-identification could pose problems for women’s rights, she said it was time for SNP colleagues to address these “well-founded” worries. “There is nothing ‘transphobic’ about defining what a woman is,” she said. “You cannot defend women’s rights if you cannot define what a woman is. Likewise, you cannot legislate for trans rights if you are not prepared to define what a trans person is.”
Her colleagues were “worried about being branded ‘transphobic’, losing their positions, and receiving violent threats”, she added. “Based on my personal experience, they are right to be worried. However, my personal experience also shows that it’s possible to survive such attacks and to go on arguing for what you believe is right.”
Cherry has hit back at the “social media lies, smears and foul-mouthed abuse directed at me from a number of mainly young men within the party who seem to have a problem with middle-aged lesbians who support women’s sex-based rights”.
It’s often only the stubborn, the difficult and, yes, the arrogant who have the guts to go against the grain. It’s clearly an easier life to stick to the party line and suck up to the bosses, but who remembers the sheep? Joanna Cherry is doing her best to keep the SNP honest, at considerable personal cost. Flaws and all, politics is much the better for her refusal to go quietly.
[See also: Nicola Sturgeon’s record reign is a sign of stasis rather than strength]