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28 February 2023

Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Identity politics, squabbles in the SNP, and my position on the leadership race

I am optimistic about the debates in my party, as a roadtrip reminds me just how far we’ve come.

By Joanna Cherry

In years to come, the children of an independent Scotland will ask their older relatives, “Where were you when Nicola Sturgeon resigned?” My answer will be: at home with a sore throat, a bad cough (not Covid) and no voice – which means I have to cancel a scheduled appearance on Question Time, and cannot do any media for the first three days after the shock announcement.

I busy myself writing my local newspaper column, another on lesbian erasure for the House magazine’s LGBT History Month edition, a foreword to a paper on how gender-identity ideology is forcing lesbians back into the closet, and my weekly column for the National. Suffice to say, Sturgeon and I have not seen eye to eye on either independence strategy or the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, so I see the SNP leadership election as an opportunity for the party to reset on both issues. Time to move our domestic policy agenda off identity politics and back on to the bread-and-butter issues my constituents care about.

[See also: Andrew Murray’s Diary: Back to my old Commons beat, recalling the bellowing-booth and lessons from the Iraq War]

A lack of conscience

I return to Westminster after recess feeling optimistic that the first SNP leadership election in nearly two decades will afford an opportunity for a good debate about policy and strategy. My hopes are dashed as the contest descends into mudslinging over identity politics, and when Kate Forbes is pilloried for her religious beliefs. Her answers were politically naïve, but it was no secret that she is a committed member of the Free Church of Scotland, and everyone knows they are socially very conservative. The former SNP leader Gordon Wilson was of that faith, and so is our former Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

People forget that the SNP was a progressive party before Sturgeon. Same-sex marriage was brought in under Alex Salmond’s leadership; he allowed a conscience vote on the issue, and a small number of SNP MSPs voted against or abstained. Humza Yousaf (also a leadership candidate) was excused from the final vote on religious grounds. It therefore seems odd that Yousaf should seek to put the boot into Forbes, and I am saddened that no senior figure stepped in to defend her right to her private religious beliefs. It’s a curious state of affairs that the same politicians who were happy to impose one particular set of beliefs – that sex is a feeling as opposed to a material reality – in both the gender bill and the not-yet-in-force Hate Crime Act are so willing to attack another politician for hers. Forbes holds beliefs many of us would disagree with, but she has not evinced any intention of imposing them in legislation.

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Taking a view

As the week progresses, I receive emails from constituents and party members disgusted by Forbes’s treatment. A constituent stops me in the street to tell me that while she is an atheist, she thinks Kate is being treated very shabbily.

On Friday I start the day at Ash Regan’s campaign launch. I am supporting Ash because, like me, she is on the left of the party and wants to reset our strategy for independence and bring the wider movement back together. I also think she showed leadership, as well as considerable courage, when she resigned as a minister over the gender reform bill.

The launch takes place at a hotel overlooking the Forth bridges. It’s a gloriously sunny morning and as we look out at the iconic view, including the new Queensferry Crossing, I am reminded that when the SNP governs well it can deliver huge infrastructure projects like this on time and within budget.

The road to independence

After my constituency surgery, I head off on a road trip to Arbroath, Stonehaven and Fraserburgh. SNP and Yes groups in all three towns extended speaking invitations last year and I’ve combined them over a weekend. The meetings are well attended, and I enjoy some downtime with the SNP MP Dave Doogan in Arbroath and local activists in Stonehaven.

There I stay at the Ship Inn, a lovely old pub with rooms overlooking the harbour. A man at the bar asks me why I am not running for SNP leadership and I explain that it’s a practical impossibility since I am not an MSP. The next morning, fortified by a fantastic breakfast, I finish my trip in Fraserburgh. There are some veterans of the rise and fall of the SNP in the 1970s there, and I am reminded of how far we have come. We may have fallen back a bit in the polls but there are now more people in Scotland who support independence than actually vote SNP. And that, of course, is our raison d’etre.

[See also: Rachel Reeves’ Diary: At Davos, there are two challenges – fixing the global economy, and walking in snow boots]

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission