Typical! You wait for one heavyweight to challenge for Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh Holyrood seat and two come along at the same time. In an ideal world both Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry taking their place in Holyrood would be a cause for celebration. Two seasoned campaigners, two intellectually gifted performers, two committed champions of Scottish Independence. But, since the world is far from ideal, two undoubted assets pitching for one vacancy!
Already, with barely disguised glee, the Scottish government’s opponents, not least those in the media, are painting this as Salmondites versus Stugeonistas; Cherry being a long standing pal of Alex, and Angus a vocal supporter of Nicola. Depressed? You will be. Especially if two sets of supporters start unhelpful briefings about the rival candidates. Just. Don’t.
Seen in the best possible light, the tussle could be considered an indication that the SNP is behaving like any other mainstream party with a large and diverse membership; it has fault lines and factionalism. Looked at more dispassionately, you want to scream: “get a bloody grip.” News of the heavyweight challenge for the Edinburgh Central selection comes at the end of a period where the debate over next moves on IndyRef2 – and especially the pace of those - has intensified. We also have a parallel scuffle over how best to maximise the number of pro-Indy MSP on the list vote next May. Add to that, ever louder mutterings over the future of an articulate First Minister who has committed the apparently unpardonable sin of being widely admired on the UK and European stage. (Compared to the blond pretender down the road, she is a class act.)
All of these issues have the potential to be massively destabilising to the Yes movement. (As have upcoming court matters). Conversely some of them can be utilised positively if everyone with a genuine interest in winning independence can keep their eyes firmly on that prize. Securing Scotland’s statehood matters comprehensively more than individual egos, or different shades of game plans. It certainly matters more than personal ambition and plotting.
Being human, we all have our own prejudices. But, hand on heart, I can say that I greatly admire what Alex Salmond did for the cause of independence, and greatly admire Nicola Sturgeon’s manifold talents. I have huge respect for what Cherry has done in using her legal skills to skewer the Westminster government, and what Robertson has done to professionalise Yes campaigning. It’s not a football match – we don’t have to take sides when, ultimately, we’re on the same one.
There are important debates to be had, of course there are. I’m not persuaded that a discrete new Indy party is a smart idea, but am wholly behind inclusive attempts to ensure that we – the wider Yes movement – are able to use our list vote to get as many pro-Indy MSP’s into Holyrood as is possible. I note that some of the political purists are already clutching their pearls at the thought of making common cause with folks less fundamentalist than themselves. Perhaps their manifesto seems more important than their country’s future. It’s not. Whatever the government says, ‘both votes SNP” is not a tactic which has served this cause well. Indeed it has merely inflated opposition numbers, given that parties who do well at constituency level harvest few list seats. We need to be more strategic than this – we need to know in each constituency which second vote will deliver the best chance of a pro-Indy list seat.
This may be heresy in some quarters. Too bad. There is little chance of anybody but the SNP being the largest party by a country mile, and if they have to work in tandem with others to form a majority government then that is the price of a fairer voting system. First past the post has brought us a government of all the talentless in Westminster. The Edinburgh Central situation however raises wider questions about Holyrood and Westminster and the relationship of both to the independence movement.
When the UK government was stumbling about with no majority and only a bribe laden agreement with the unlovely DUP keeping it afloat, the SNP troops in the Commons had a real sense of purpose. And real clout. They were helped in this by the fact that the so called official opposition was, to be charitable, serially underwhelming, whilst the Liberals were going through managers faster than the average Premier League footy team. The SNP was a minority party, but one regularly able to punch well above its weight.
The December 12th election changed all that. Last week I was chairing an event with ex Speaker John Bercow and he observed that the first law of opposition is to make sure you don’t give the government what it most wants. Johnson, then batting zero out of 6 in Commons votes, got the poll he craved. The fact that the unhappy result was largely down to Labour’s poor campaign and utterly confused messaging is little comfort.
So we now have 47 SNP MP’s, one independent, one Labour, 6 Tories, and 4 Lib Dems. Only the SNP and the independent Neale Hanvey support independence. And, frankly, with an 80 seat Tory majority and the Labour Party too busy with a months long leadership battle to raise its eyes above its internal fray, four dozen SNP MP’s are pretty impotent. Worse than that, they, and most especially Westminster leader Ian Blackford are treated like tartan trash. In short we have a large cohort of mostly talented people arguably operating in the wrong forum.
Now the Houses of Parliament have a strange effect on some people. They enter the hallowed portals they have once vowed (metaphorically) to tear down, and they go a bit native. Get a bit comfortable. Get a nice wee conceit of themselves. This is especially true of the Lords where a bit of ermine can de-radicalise all manner of former dissidents. But there is a variant of that strain in the Commons, and I doubt that all of the SNP contingent is immune.
I would urge them all to consider spending much more time in Scotland campaigning and spreading the word, and less in a chamber where self evidently their pleas on behalf of their constituents are falling on deaf ears. Battle has been joined here, and your country needs you.
First published in The National 24.2.2020