Joanna Cherry, Andy Wightman and the importance of dissent
Scottish Review, February 3rd 2021
These past few weeks have not been quiet ones for the SNP and Scottish Greens, the two pro-independence parties in the country. First of all, respected Green MSP Andy Wightman announced he was leaving the party, and this week, Joanna Cherry was sacked from her position on the SNP Westminster frontbench: Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West commented: ‘Despite hard work, results and a strong reputation I’ve been sacked today from the SNP front bench’.
Running through both events are how political parties debate, make decisions and arrive at collective positions, the role of leadership and internal discipline, the right of dissent and recognising the role of and limits of different and minority positions in a party. Informing all this is a minefield of conflicting opinions, charge and counter-charge. Besides this, the repugnant language of sexism, misogyny, and violence has been used against Cherry who again this week has received ‘a vicious threat’.
As well as this there is the explosive question for some of trans rights and the Gender Recognition Act advanced by Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government (alongside the Scottish Greens). This has been the subject of combustible exchanges both from those who are the most passionately pro-trans rights and those who are pro-women’s rights – the latter position one that Cherry and Wightman have advanced. All of the above are serious and important issues about how we do our politics, what public life is about, and how it is represented and understood. This is too critical to reduce (as it often is) to whose side you are on as an individual and who you are close to personally – which as we will see below frames too much of the commentary.
Cherry, Wightman and the role of the politician
There are significant differences between the Cherry and Wightman cases. Wightman resigned from the Greens after continued frustration with an internal party set of processes which he regarded as fatally flawed; Wightman said on the trans issue post-resignation: ‘Within our party there are people who have very, very fixed views on this and do not tolerate dissent’. Cherry has been sacked from a leadership role on the frontbench after taking a series of public stances at odds with that of the official party – not just on trans rights, but the Salmond case and its aftermath, and how to advance independence.
This is only part of the picture. Unlike most modern politicians both Wightman and Cherry are not career politicians made by and beholden to the party. Both had established public reputations before being elected to Parliament: Cherry in 2015 to Westminster, and Wightman in 2016 to Holyrood. Before and after their election both have shown a welcome independence of mind. Despite this Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater said on Monday of Wightman: ‘Most people have no idea who he is’- not exactly grown-up politics, and could be said in spades about Slater.
Wightman had become the leading exponent in Scotland on land ownership and reform, authored the definitive account of land and power The Poor Had No Lawyers (full disclosure: I encouraged him to write this important book), and incurred the wrath of powerful vested interests who felt threatened by him. Cherry was pre-MP and remains a respected QC who emerged as an authoritative voice in the indyref. Come Brexit, Cherry was a leading part of the case and team which took the UK Government to the Supreme Court and defeated it on the issue of prorogation of the UK Parliament. This was a significant victory in terms of Brexit – which it could not stop – putting down a marker on the limits of executive power and the rights of Parliament.
Cherry and Wightman are inarguably politicians with talent, principle, and insight – who you do not have to agree with to value. This, combined with not being career politicians and having proven expertise, has led them to be less team players as politicians and instead to work as individuals. This has produced significant tension in Wightman’s case – aided by the Greens convoluted internal processes and small size of party in and out of Parliament; whereas in Cherry’s case, there has been substantial briefing for and against her about her style of working, with rumours of a major divide between herself and most of her SNP Westminster colleagues.
These questions of how we do politics have to be answered in the fraught environment post-Brexit, the run-up to the 2021 Scottish elections with the independence question in the foreground, the Salmond-Sturgeon controversy – all against the backdrop of COVID-19. The SNP are riding high in the polls, as is Sturgeon – as is independence, with 20 polls in a row putting independence in the majority. Some in the SNP think this means people should keep quiet for the bigger prize, while others think this necessitates issues around the leadership and tactics on independence being openly discussed.
How do we talk about the big stuff
Yet in too much media commentary in Scotland, substantive challenges are often passed over and ignored and the superficial invoked. Often this falls into a rather one-dimensional, partial take which seems to be motivated by who people know and trust, who they want to do down, and presents important politics in a way which does not aid understanding but instead strengthens politics as an insider elite game.
The aftermath of the Cherry sacking had examples of this in spades. Alex Massie in The Times declared that: ‘Sacking Cherry is both a reminder of Sturgeon’s grip on the party but also, for the first time, a public acknowledgement that hold is neither as tight, nor so secure, as it was.’ He concluded asking: ‘lurking behind is a question … what happens if something happens to Nicola?’ What was missing was a subtler understanding of the party, how leadership operates, and the shifting power balances in the party; instead it was viewed from the perspective that while Sturgeon might have some shortcomings, Cherry was the problem here to be managed and contained.
Then there was the instant take of Chris Deerin in the New Statesman who uncritically regurgitated the SNP leadership’s line stating: ‘In any other party, Joanna Cherry would probably have lost her position on the SNP’s Westminster front bench some time ago.’ He then stated: ‘It is also asking a bit much for Nicola Sturgeon to keep you on the payroll when you are seen as – and even suspected of luxuriating in – leading the internal opposition …’
Some of this is fair comment, but germane to the above is that Deerin is an ex-lobbyist who worked for Charlotte Street Partners; Massie’s often acute take on Scottish politics is in a different league from Deerin’s but he does write for Charlotte Street (who were recently involved in a major controversy about their public affairs work). Moreover both are close to Andrew Wilson, head of said lobbyists, and hence both incline towards an insider world of SNP politics favourable to the leadership and critical of rebels like Cherry. One SNP insider said of their prospectus: ‘They have bought spin hook line and sinker. One with no understanding of SNP internal politics or culture.’ A seasoned SNP observer noted that ‘the role of ethos and informal culture is pivotal to understanding the SNP. Too much commentary talks with no real nuance of the importance of loyalty to the leader and the role of debate and dissent.’
In such situations there is always a role for inadvertent humour and in this Iain Macwhirter provided accidental copy commenting after Cherry was sacked: ‘You’ve probably never heard of him. But Foucault is alive and well and currently tearing the Scottish National Party into ribbons.’ The inspiration behind this comment about French intellectual Michel Foucault was Macwhirter’s take on ‘identity politics’ and the supposed legacy of Foucault (who died in 1984). It seemed a take from someone who had not read much, or any, Foucault, whose main writings were on power and the history of sexuality.
Social media is often blamed by many for the decline of debate. But also relevant is the long decline of mainstream media and the quality of analysis and comment it offers, and this is acutely felt in a small country like Scotland. The world of social media commentary exploded on the afternoon Cherry was sacked and numerous blogs appeared – with Gareth Wardell who goes by the moniker ‘Grousebeater’ worth citing: pro-independence, pro-Salmond and expelled from the SNP a couple of years ago for comments seen by the party as anti-Semitic (which he disputes).
Waddell wrote in defence of Cherry that: ‘She is a clever, perceptive, very likeable and dedicated champion of Scotland’s future … a fine example of diplomacy incarnate ….’ Cherry has many qualities and talents, but being known for her ‘diplomacy incarnate’ is not one of them. This is what happens when participants view politics as entirely tribal and advancing your own side, irrespective of facts and reality.
To add to the merriment some saw the above as a chance to promote pre-prepared theories. Step forward Rory Scothorne, a PhD student at Edinburgh University, on the reaction to Cherry’s sacking: ‘This is also a stress-test of a simmering generational break between old & new ‘civic Scotland’ – most of the veteran opinion-havers seem furious (they’ll know Cherry from Radical Scotland days, she was on editorial cttee), the rootless young upstarts are beaming.’
For a start there is a generational divide in Scottish politics that can be seen on the trans issue and other areas; this is not surprising as it evident across the Western world. But two points flow. Cherry was not a central player in Radical Scotland (a 1980s publication), only involved in a couple of issues at the end, and this magazine of alt-ideas and dissent was not part of ‘civic Scotland’. It is relevant to locate ‘civic Scotland’ as a social and ideological construct – that part of respectable society which opposed the Thatcherite onslaught but which did not want to lose their middle class privileges; it was a very 1980s notion and a generational story of a certain caste of society; and fortunately has withered along with the more problematic hollowing out of civil society.
Two stramashes. No one seriously injured yet. But there is much more going on here than that. These are turbulent times with many previous assumptions and beliefs open to question and under scrutiny, much positive, but producing anxiety and unease in places. Yet in large parts of Scottish public life rather than dig deeper and with all the difficulties it entails confronting the huge issues we and humanity faces, we seem too often to want to do the opposite and embrace the infantile, immature and irrelevant, hunting for the easy hit, the glib dismissal or a big stushie in which we can go into bat for our side and bash those we think our enemies.
The above has undoubtedly been the case in the Cherry and Wightman episodes and related wider controversies. One major factor in this has been the retreat of the reach and quality of mainstream media – and with it of comment and analysis in public life. In the recent controversies, too many perspectives have been from people who do not want to shine light into darkness, but merely advance the interests of the side they support – and in places to advance the privilege of the insider political class. One independence supporter reflected: ‘I don’t want to live in a new Scotland created in darkness.’
There are informing all this concerns about the nature of the Sturgeon leadership, the concentration of power in the party, and limited nature of democracy in party and country. None of this might matter if the state of the country was in a good place; but fourteen years in office and coming up for seven of Sturgeon leadership have taken its toil. This is a government with a patchy record, which has become worn down personally and politically, and which has not remade the case for itself or independence. This is not to put powerful forces into an anti or pro-Sturgeon or anti or pro-Salmond perspective, but that is how the world is seen by many including at the top of the party, restricting debate on the above.
Scotland’s journey of self-government was always going to entail facing up to difficult conversations, choices and truths through which we in the best case end up a better society with better policies and polity as a result. It was always going to be inevitable that this would be a bumpy ride – as all journeys of growing up and maturing are – with resistance and regression along the way – as well as some saying stick with what we know, comfort zones and simplistic slogans.
Too many Scots in public life want to stay with and even reinforce those simplistic stories which can either pose that everything is fine or everything is rotten, deliberately avoiding complexity and depth. What this cumulatively does is belittle and diminish all of us as a people, nation and political community of citizens. Some no doubt do this unintentionally, but others know what the consequences of their actions are.
Either way such voices and forces are damaging the body politic of Scotland and holding us back. They are taking up space and acting whether deliberately or not as roadblocks on the road to debate and change. In so doing, whether they are apologists for the insider class or think they are exponents of radical change, they are making less likely the prospects for real and lasting change in this country beyond the independence question, and in so doing underpinning the present status quo across our land: on poverty, inequality, social justice, the future of Scotland and indeed the planet itself.