Joanna Cherry: SNP activists must not be allowed to stifle open debate


RECENTLY, I received a letter from a fellow party member enclosing my dad’s SNP membership card from the 1970s. He asked if I was the wee girl who used to answer the door when he came to collect my dad’s subscription and wondered if I or my dad had ever envisaged that I would grow up to become an SNP MP. It set me thinking about how far the SNP have come since the highs and lows of the 1970s and the lessons that might be learned for the present day.

Although I was brought up in an SNP-supporting household, when the party moved to the right in the aftermath of the 1979 General Election rout, like a lot of other young people I felt alienated. In 1980, along with John Swinney and Ian Blackford, I had been one of the founding members of the Edinburgh branch of the Young Scottish Nationalists (YSN), but after the ’79 Group were expelled and the party moved to the right, the SNP seemed an inhospitable environment for those of us who thought that left-wing progressive policies were required to combat Thatcherism. I wasn’t the only member of the Edinburgh YSN to leave and join the Labour party.

In the Labour party, we continued to argue for home rule and many of us were active in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. However, in my experience, with a few honourable exceptions such as Dennis Canavan, most Labour parliamentarians only paid lip service to the notion of devolution. In fairness, the party ultimately came good on their promises when elected to power in 1997, although notably it was a cross-party campaign in which the SNP played a leading role which delivered such a resounding vote for devolution in the referendum.

Since then the SNP has gone from strength to strength and replaced the Labour party as the most effective electoral machine in Scotland.

We can always learn lessons from the past. The suppression of debate about policy and strategy that happened when the ’79 Group were expelled certainly did not work to the SNP’s electoral advantage. It was only when members of that group returned to the fold, argued for and introduced the sort of progressive policies that are now the hallmark of the SNP, that the party recovered and achieved electoral success.

Those who would seek to suppress debate about policy and strategy should remember we achieve far more as a party and as a movement when we exchange ideas openly and work to develop the sort of radical policies Scotland needs.

Many party members were appalled at last year’s October conference when a small group of activists tried to shout down and intimidate speakers who wanted to debate a

Plan B on how we might achieve a second independence referendum. Whatever you might have thought of the wisdom of the plan being put forward, or indeed as to whether it should be debated at all, this sort of behaviour is anti-democratic, unhealthy and has no place in the SNP.

Equally, we must be alert to the risk that if the online abuse and misogyny I and other female SNP members have endured of late is allowed to continue, women will be deterred from entering political life. It is incumbent upon all those who are serious about democracy to defend the right to free speech and the right to disagree in a civilised and measured manner. If we do not our democracy will be damaged.

Most of us in the SNP and the Yes movement have worked hard to ensure a civilised debate on the question of independence. These efforts will be undermined if the bile generated by a minority of activists in our party against women with legitimate concerns is allowed to continue unchallenged.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry: SNP need a new strategy so Scotland can thrive

Debating policy and strategy within our party is a good thing. And we should never let those who suggest otherwise bully or cow us into submissive silence.

I know the current leadership of the party, most of whom lived through the fallow years, understand this. They also understand that whilst the SNP Government must maintain its entire focus on the Covid crisis, there is nothing to stop the party machine facilitating debate on policy and strategy, except perhaps that meetings, assemblies and conference are not safe at present.

The National Assemblies which took place in 2018 were a model of the sort of civilised, informed debate about policy and strategy that the SNP needs.

Before the current crisis hit, the plan was to hold more National Assemblies across the country as well as our spring and October conferences. I have written to the National Secretary of the SNP suggesting that the party take these debates online with the necessary formalities to ensure that we facilitate democratic, deliberative assemblies which achieve tangible policy proposals rather than just being mere talking shops.

An indication of how this might be done can be seen in the successful project to take the Climate Assembly UK online during the pandemic crisis, which anyone interested can read about on the website of the Constitution Unit of University College London. 

Finally, the anonymous “senior SNP sources” who brief against those of us who advocate wider democratic debate within the party should be aware that their underhand behaviour does not endear them to the activists whose hard work has put them in the senior positions they hold. I am working towards one goal alone and that is the goal of independence which most of our movement shares. Surely, we should all be working towards it together, by taking the practical steps needed to plan how we achieve our aim and what we do with the prize of an independent Scotland when it is achieved.

Only through respectful, open discussion and collaboration will we achieve our goal. Everything else is just noise.

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