How the battle for the soul of the Scottish National Party erupted

Tensions within the party over its future leadership and direction are at their worst for decades. 

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Last week’s SNP group meeting at Westminster was an unpleasant and raucous affair. “It was both shouty and sweary,” says one who was present. The C-word was heard more than once as Nat turned on Nat.

The reason for the heat, I’m told, was the revelation that Mhairi Black MP, the party’s young, firebrand left-winger, last month appeared alongside a drag artist called FlowJob at Glencoats Primary School, Paisley, to discuss LGBT issues with pupils. 

For most people, the performer’s name might have been enough to suggest caution, although she was introduced to pupils as “Flow”. Sexually explicit images on FlowJob’s social media account confirmed for many the visitor’s unsuitability. Looked at generously, the incident could be dismissed as a misjudgement. But Black’s response to criticism of the school was daft and offensive. “Your homophobia is transparent,” she tweeted. Some of her fellow SNP MPs responded with fury, while others rode to her defence.

Tensions within the party over the transgender rights debate are running high. The SNP is split at senior levels on the issue. Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, who is regularly mentioned as a possible and willing rival for Nicola Sturgeon’s job, told the Herald that “I certainly have my differences with [Sturgeon], not least on her support for the proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act”.

In 25 years covering Scottish politics, I have never seen internal SNP relations in such a brittle, cantankerous state. There have always been personal animosities and disagreements over strategy, but they were usually managed behind closed doors, with a united front presented to the media and the wider world.

That practice seems to have fallen away. Cherry and, critics say, her ally Alex Salmond, are at the heart of the trouble. Cherry is a gifted, if abrasive, politician, and experienced Holyrood-watchers distil in her pattern of manoeuvres the classic determination to climb to the top. There is nothing wrong with ambition, of course, and if Cherry believes Sturgeon and her allies are at fault she is perfectly entitled to propose an alternative and to present herself as a figurehead. 

The issue, say Sturgeon’s supporters, is whether Cherry risks doing more harm than good to the independence cause, and whether she is acting as a frontwoman for Salmond, who is said to have become bitterly disillusioned with his successor as first minister. After Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader and a Sturgeon ally, declared his intention to stand for the Edinburgh Central seat in next year’s Holyrood election, Cherry announced she would challenge him for the nomination. This is being viewed as a proxy war between the Sturgeon and Salmond camps, with claymores drawn. 

In yesterday’s Herald interview, Cherry insisted that “I don’t want to replace Nicola; I want to get to know her better,” which sounds like something a python might say to an antelope shortly before swallowing it whole.

Sturgeon has maintained a dignified front in recent months, but I’m told she has not been immune to the troubles swirling around her. Rows over the timing of a second independence referendum have coincided with a difficult period for her government, as the performance of public services under the SNP has been called into question. Her finance minister Derek Mackay resigned hours before he was due to present the Budget after it emerged he had been sending inappropriate texts to a 16-year-old boy. On top of this, exotic gossip has been circulating about the personal life of the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

“She has been upset by these silly rumours about her personal life, and they have impacted on her wider family,” says a source close to Sturgeon. “It’s fair to say that for a while she was thinking about whether she could be bothered carrying on anymore. But she’s come through that now and wants to stick it out for the next five years.”

Her supporters are determined to keep Sturgeon in place. They say she is essential to securing a second independence referendum in the next devolved parliament, winning it, and then taking Scotland back into the EU. “No SNP leader has ever been more important than she is right now,” says an ally.

In the short term, her government needs to get a grip of the political narrative. While the polls remain healthy for the party – and it recorded an excellent result in December’s general election – prolonged negative headlines and stories of internal division are bound to have an impact at some point. The trial of Salmond on sexual assault charges, which begins this month, promises to be a fraught experience. The SNP is fortunate that the opposition parties remain in a state of relative weakness.

Sturgeon might take the advice of the party’s respected former spin doctor Kevin Pringle, who suggested yesterday that the transgender issue should, in effect, be deferred until after next year’s election. She might also consider a wider refresh of her frontbench, beyond the appointment of the highly rated 29-year-old Kate Forbes as Mackay’s replacement.

It is also crucial for the Sturgeon camp that Robertson beats Cherry to the Edinburgh Central nomination, a matter that will be decided in the next few months. It may seem a small thing, but it will tell us something about where power now lies, and about where the SNP is heading.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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