My week begins with a Sunday night journey on the Caledonian Sleeper from the SNP conference in Aberdeen to London for the Queen’s Speech. Delegates were in good fettle owing to a Panelbase poll saying support for independence is now at 50 per cent. I arrive at a hastily assembled temporary BBC studio in the House of Lords for an MP panel on the Queen’s Speech. The contrast between the scaled-down royal openings at Holyrood with their warmth, song and poetry and this over-the-top and very staid pageantry is striking.
I make a point of not criticising the Queen herself but still enrage royalists and loyal Tories by referring to it all as flummery and quoting Miss Jean Brodie: “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” My view, that it was a pointless and expensive distraction from the broken politics of Brexit Britain, is borne out by the government postponing the Queen’s Speech debate a week later.
A harsh reality check comes with the news from Spain of the convictions and hefty sentencing of Catalan politicians and civic leaders accused of sedition. Fraser, my right-hand man, rushes off to see Catalan friends to get yellow ribbons for SNP MPs, which we wear in the House of Commons chamber to show solidarity. When violent attacks by Spanish police on Catalan demonstrations go unquestioned, my loyalty to the EU is severely tested. Is Brussels really too busy with the game of whiff-whaff initiated by Boris Johnson’s deliberately last-minute Brexit negotiations to condemn flagrant human rights abuses in its backyard?
In Scotland, it’s the traditional October schools’ holiday, historically for tattie houking (potato picking). I am tortured by tantalising photos of Greek beaches and sunsets sent from my girlfriend holidaying in Corfu and my sister holidaying in Crete with her family. It’s hard not to feel envious from a drizzly Westminster. A planned trip to Brussels for the Friends of Europe conference is cancelled when the SNP’s chief whip informs me that Thursday will be a three-line whip as the government brings forward proposals to sit at the weekend to approve a new deal.
Rallying before the rally
I usually spend Fridays in my Edinburgh South West constituency holding surgeries and meeting with local organisations and businesses, but this Friday I’m in London, where the SNP Westminster Group have a visit from Nicola Sturgeon to talk tactics. After that, I head up to King’s Cross to meet friends arriving from Edinburgh for the People’s Vote rally the following day. At St Pancras I bump into lesbian feminist power couple Julie Bindel and Harriet Wistrich and we discuss a new feminist group being set up in the SNP.
“Scotland’s favourite lesbian”
On Saturday morning I’m in at 8am to bag a place in the chamber with a prayer card. I manage to catch the Speaker’s eye during the PM’s statement and make the point that alone of the constituent nations of the UK, the proposed deal gives Scotland neither what it voted for nor a say of any sort in its future in the EU. Boris Johnson seems uninterested and unperturbed by the First Minister’s promise to seek the means to hold a second independence referendum soon. I suspect those advising him about affairs in Scotland are rather ill-informed or have their heads in the sand. They certainly seem to lack judgement
When I get up to make a point of order about the court proceedings in Scotland, Tory MPs stage a petulant walkout. Cameras clearly show this was orchestrated by Scottish Tory MPs and there is a furious backlash on social media and in the Scottish press. The chances of most of the Scottish Tories hanging on to their seats at the impending general election look increasingly slim.
Later, I speak to the million-strong People’s Vote rally outside. I’m on stage with an all-female line up including Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston and Antoinette Sandbach. Someone dubs us the Spice Girls. A Leaver’s tweet describes me as “Scotland’s favourite lesbian”. It’s not meant as a compliment, but I retweet it as such and spark a hilarious and gratifying debate about contenders for the title. Should I go head to head with Val McDermid or Susan Calman?
A brush with history
On Sunday morning I chat down the line with Paddy O’Connell on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House while still in my pyjamas. Paddy wants to discuss the hearing due in Scotland’s highest court the next day in the case colleagues and I have brought to ensure the PM obeys the Benn Act. I explain that while Johnson’s childish antics with unsigned and contradictory letters could be said to be in breach of his undertaking to the court not to frustrate the purpose of the act, the main thing is that the EU appears to be taking the extension request seriously.
The rest of the day is spent in an endless round of phone calls before heading off to do Peston in the evening. Finally home at ten, I get to catch up with some personal calls to my parents and girlfriend. Much as I love London, I am missing being home for the weekend and seeing them all.
And so, another week begins at Westminster. As I walk into parliament, a Leave campaigner repeatedly shouts “You’re a fucking disgrace” in my face. Unlike Tory ministers, SNP MPs are not afforded a police escort in such circumstances. A Remainer, clearly a fan of the SNP’s approach as well as Scottish history, shouts: “You didn’t turn back at Derby after all.” I return to the Commons and raise the standard.
Joanna Cherry QC is the SNP Member for Edinburgh South West
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state