What if Nicola doesn’t know best?

It’s not very often I find myself in agreement with Joanna Cherry. The occasion was an interview she gave to a newspaper in which she spoke candidly about how thoroughly the leadership has come to dominate the SNP, a party with a tradition of independent-mindedness.

As Cherry put it, the SNP ‘shouldn’t be about the cult of leader, whether it’s Alex or Nicola, or anyone else’. Alex is, of course, Alex Salmond, of whom she is a firm political ally, something that has brought her a good deal of grief.

‘I was brought up to stand by my friends by my parents,’ she said. ‘That’s the sort of family I come from. That’s why I’ve stood by him. It’s rather a comment on modern life that so few did.’

That is a remark so pointed it would be classed as an offensive weapon under the 1995 Criminal Law (Scotland) Act. 

But Cherry’s comments were more than factional scuttlebutt, and that is what makes them important. She addressed a suffocating intolerance within the SNP towards anyone who dissents from the Sturgeonista line and the satellites of wokeness that swoop around her.

The Edinburgh South West MP explained: ‘This no-debate mentality is really unhealthy. It’s an unfortunate tendency in modern political discourse… It typifies a small minority in my party and has bled through from the debate about reform of the gender recognition act, to include alternative plans for an independence referendum.’

Cherry will be slated as bitter over the rule-change shenanigans that all but prevented her seeking selection for Edinburgh Central ahead of May’s Holyrood election. Frankly, she has every right to feel bitter about the least subtle stitch-up since Dr Frankenstein last took up a needle and thread.

Alternatively, she will be accused of pursuing her doubts about gender self-identification by another means. Again, who could blame her when pursuing those doubts by stating them in measured and respectful language has brought her nothing but social media bile from her own side?

Finally, she will be dismissed as a mouthpiece for Salmond, an ironic charge since some of its levellers seem to have had their last independent thought on or before November 14, 2014.

Cherry is as crafty a political operator as the best of them but that doesn’t mean she isn’t onto something. Nicola Sturgeon is an electoral powerhouse who has taken the SNP to previously unimaginable heights, yet as she has broadened its electoral coalition she has severely narrowed the scope for internal debate. Power in the SNP does not rest in branches or conference resolutions or even the National Executive Committee, but between two people in one townhouse in Edinburgh.

A party that once had a near-fetish for democracy, so much so that annual conference could be shaped by total cranks, has been transformed into an absolute monarchy. The old way of doing things helped keep the party out of power but the new way of doing things is preventing it from using the power it has.

Nationalism may still be the ideology but the prevailing practice is Nicola Knows Best. This has led the SNP down policy dead-ends without bringing independence any closer.

The Scottish government wasted time and political capital trying to ram through the most radical redefinition of gender proposed anywhere in the UK. In doing so, it took sides in a complex and sensitive dispute within the SNP membership, a section of whom are concerned about the potential for compromising women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act.

Despite these protests, ministers and civil servants ploughed ahead until the backlash became too great and the government was forced to beat a retreat. How did this shambles advance the cause of independence? It didn’t and was never going to, but Nicola Knows Best.

The First Minister threw the government’s support behind a smacking ban that parents were assured would not see them criminalised, even as lobby groups were told smacking would be treated the same as an assault on an adult. Legal experts sympathetic to the SNP, and not unsympathetic to the principle of a ban, warned ministers that the legislation would indeed treat parents as criminals.

The law came into force earlier this month and if it does see high-profile cases of loving parents arrested and separated from their children, independence advocates might wonder what such a polarising policy will do to their newly minted Yes majority. Nothing good could be the answer, but Nicola Knows Best.

Sturgeon’s hand was not difficult to detect in the SNP’s submission to the UK Government defence review. Urging Boris Johnson to ‘commit wholeheartedly to multilateral nuclear disarmament’ hints at a future watering down of the party’s unilateral position.

Shifting stances would give the Scottish government more leeway to negotiate Trident’s future (perhaps in exchange for a currency or customs union) in the event of independence, but it is anathema to most of the membership. No matter, though, because Nicola Knows Best.

It has long been speculated that Cherry seeks the crown for her own head, though she denies it. That’s a pity because I increasingly find myself wishing Cherry or someone like her would take over the leadership of the SNP.

Not because I cynically calculate that she would struggle to recreate Sturgeon’s electoral magic but because you can have an argument with Cherry. She believes in something, states her case and joins battle. You can’t have an argument with Sturgeon. She believes in something, yes, but it’s a melange of personal power, political celebrity, modish policy and independence, seemingly in that order.

Our endless constitutional impasse is tedious and drains political energy that could be put to better use. If the SNP wants another referendum, it should make one happen. If the Tories oppose one, they should prevent it from happening. Instead, we are in a curious checkmate between a Tory prime minister who is weak on the Union and an SNP leader who refuses to make a move against him.

This is why more debate is needed in the SNP. Maybe Nicola does know best – but maybe she doesn’t.


Exit stage (centre-) left, Jenny Marra. The Labour MSP will stand down at May’s election to spend more time with her two young children. The Scottish parliament talks a good game about being family-friendly but it is as outmoded as Westminster.

If Scottish Labour had any sense, it would have made Marra leader years ago. She speaks directly, has convictions and wants to get things done. Her first thought upon encountering a new idea is: how will this policy affect the people – poor, vulnerable, disabled – least likely to have had any input in shaping it? Her second thought is generally: why are my opponents against this and do they have a point?

Although a regional MSP, she is Dundee’s voice when others go quiet out of party loyalty. As convener, she is the teeth of the public audit committee and asks the questions the ordinary punter would. Holyrood has precious little talent as it is, without losing someone of Marra’s calibre and character. Haste ye back, Jenny.


Mail Online has an encouraging story from Eton, where boys are fighting the dismissal of a popular master. Will Knowland was allegedly sacked amid the fallout from a video lecture which reportedly encouraged the questioning of feminist orthodoxy on ‘toxic masculinity’. The boys have circulated a petition demanding his reinstatement on free speech grounds. The kids are all right.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

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