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9 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:10am

Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Why I was sacked, coming out as gay in the Aids pandemic, and turmoil in the SNP

A small but vocal cohort of my SNP colleagues has engaged in performative histrionics redolent of the Salem witch trials.

By Joanna Cherry

I don’t imagine any politician much enjoys being sacked from the front bench but it pays to be forewarned, and fortunately I was. So when I took a terse call from my group leader a mere 30 minutes before he intended to announce his reshuffle it was not the nasty surprise that was presumably planned. 

The reasons for my sacking were not made clear but I was not surprised. For some time a small but vocal cohort of my SNP colleagues has engaged in performative histrionics redolent of the Salem witch trials. The question – do you believe or have you ever believed that women are adult human females? – is one I must answer in the affirmative, but it’s not a response that is popular with some who have the ear of the leadership.

It’s frustrating because advocating for women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act, expressing concerns about self-identification of gender and opposing curtailment of free speech, are not evidence of transphobia. In our 2016 SNP Manifesto we committed to reform gender recognition law but not specifically to introduce self-identification. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects free speech, and the SNP is committed to expanding human rights not diminishing them.

It’s LGBT+ history month but these days the L is very much an afterthought and many people have forgotten the contribution made by lesbian feminists of my generation to fighting homophobia and discrimination. At a time when the SNP was still undecided about Section 28, I was out on the streets campaigning against it. A large part of my career as a lawyer was spent standing up for women’s rights and prosecuting sex crimes against women and children. So it is particularly galling to be misrepresented by those who have come late to the field of the battle for equality.

[See also: By sacking Joanna Cherry, Nicola Sturgeon has made her nemesis more dangerous

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A cruel campaign

That night I received a series of sinister and threatening messages on my phone, culminating in a threat of rape. I informed the police and decided to stay away from my home. The next day I learned that the man charged with threatening me is a member of the SNP. Police Scotland came to take a statement and I filled them in on the background to these threats: an 18-month campaign of 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.

Rights under review 

After the reshuffle, one of Scotland’s leading newspaper columnists, Iain Macwhirter, posed the question: “Was Joanna Cherry sacked for thinking women are female?”

It was a relief that my cross-party colleagues on Westminster’s Joint Committee on Human Rights could see through the McCarthyism and expressed sympathy when we met to take evidence from Baroness Hale about the Human Rights Act Review. I was chuffed to be asked by Harriet Harman to be her deputy chair and to receive my fellow committee members’ unanimous support. It was the first time Hale and I had seen each other in person (albeit the meeting was on Zoom) since the day she read out her famous judgement in the prorogation case in September 2019, which seems a lifetime ago.

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Remembering the Eighties 

A large part of my time has been taken up by dealing with emails and calls from SNP activists furious about my dismissal and colleagues worried about the associated resignations from their party branches.

On 4 February I joined a webinar, organised by Queer Britain, about It’s a Sin, the Russell T Davies Channel 4 series about the impact of the Aids pandemic in 1980s London. I binge-watched all five episodes and I was profoundly moved by the journey back to the Eighties, the decade when I came out and witnessed university friends die of this terrible plague. I picked up the phone to a friend who survived but lost the love of his life to see whether he has watched it and whether he is OK.

A party divided 

In the days after my sacking, my partner and I took deliveries of several bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates and some rather fine wine. One of my well-wishers was Iseult White, a descendent of Maud Gonne and Seán MacBride, and a renowned campaigner for women’s rights in Ireland. As an Irish citizen, I am honoured.

After a busy Friday dealing with the impact of the pandemic on constituents – many small businesses are on their knees and taking a further kicking from bureaucracy – we planned to spend the weekend enjoying these gifts in peace. Instead I found myself fending off press bids to comment on the planned appearances of Peter Murrell and Alex Salmond at the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of complaints against Alex. I declined. Alex is well able to look after himself, and the truth has a habit of coming out eventually.

The turmoil in the SNP is unprecedented, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that the party is bigger than any individual, and we are strong enough to withstand this. Besides, support for independence has consistently been above 50 per cent in the past 20 polls and the independence movement is broader than the SNP. On 5 February a new grassroots, non-party organisation called Now Scotland launched with the aim of achieving independence as soon as possible. I am confident the cause will prevail.

Joanna Cherry is the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and the party’s former home affairs spokesperson

This piece appears in a forthcoming special issue of the New Statesman magazine on Scotland, subscribe now to receive it 

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair