It’s a proxy battle that could mean the difference between Scotland hitting the gas for independence or the Edinburgh government continuing its current cautious approach.
Last week it emerged that two heavyweight SNP politicians — Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry — will fight it out to become the party’s representative for the crucial Edinburgh Central seat at the next election for Scotland’s devolved parliament in May 2021.
Though nothing will change immediately based on the outcome, the race is crucial because it looks set to become a surrogate fight over how hard the party pursues its signature policy of independence from the United Kingdom.
Robertson and Cherry are both viewed as potential replacements for the sitting SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has recently been forced to deny rumours that she is seeking an escape route from Scottish politics after almost six years running the Scottish government. Critics argue she has been too cautious in pushing for a second national vote — or Indyref2 as it is known.
The race has the potential to be combustive; at its heart, a battle over the long-term leadership of Scotland’s nationalist movement as it seeks to secure permission to hold the vote from Boris Johnson’s Conservative government at Westminster.
Edinburgh Central is also notable because the constituency’s current representative is Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is set to quit the Holyrood parliament next May.
If the SNP can defeat Davidson’s Tory successor, the nationalists will be well placed to extend the existing pro-independence majority inside Scotland’s 129-seat legislature for another five years. The race culminates in July, when around 1200 local branch members select one of the two candidates to be their Holyrood nominee.
Robertson, 50, is running on an establishment ticket.
A former leader of the SNP in the U.K. House of Commons and ex-party defense spokesperson, he has been quick to pledge his loyalty to Sturgeon.
“My record as a team player is absolutely clear,” he told POLITICO. “The Edinburgh Central candidate should do everything that can be done to promote the position of the first minister, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Robertson enjoys a formidable media profile and has been one of the key architects of the SNP’s current gradualist approach to secession.
Like Sturgeon, he believes independence should be achieved through formal channels, preferably following a referendum sanctioned by London and recognized as legitimate by the European Union and other major international actors.
Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West and SNP justice spokesperson at Westminster, has also ruled out backing an illegal or Catalan-style wildcat vote.
But she is close the populist wing of Scotland’s Yes campaign and has consistently urged Sturgeon to adopt a more adversarial stance toward the Johnson government, which has so far shown no inclination to negotiate with the SNP over Indyref2.
In 2019, Cherry launched and won a high-profile legal challenge against Johnson’s decision to suspend the U.K. parliament.
A lawyer by profession, she wants the legality of another independence referendum, held without Westminster’s explicit consent, to be tested in the Scottish and U.K. courts.
“We have reached an impasse,” she told the Herald on Sunday over the weekend. “Opinion polls show support for [independence] is hovering around 50 percent, yet Johnson won’t budge.”
In an interview with Holyrood magazine late last year, the 53-year-old made little effort to disguise her first ministerial ambitions. “I wouldn’t rule myself out” as a future SNP leader, she said.
Cherry may benefit from frustration in some corners of the party about the lack of progress on an independence vote.
“It would be foolish to pretend there isn’t some form of frustration amongst the SNP membership right now,” one prominent party activist, Cameron Archibald, told POLITICO.
“We were all hoping for a referendum this year. It’s discouraging to see that this most likely won’t be the case.”
However, Kirsty Strickland, a columnist for Glasgow-based National newspaper, thinks Robertson would be a safer choice for the SNP grassroots, which has developed a reputation in recent years for near-monastic levels of internal discipline.
“A lot of the media speculation regarding Sturgeon is overblown,” Strickland said. “Robertson has put himself forward as the candidate to support Sturgeon. Contrast that with what many regard as [Cherry’s] naked leadership manoeuvre.”
The stand-off over Edinburgh Central has arrived at a tense moment for the SNP.
On 9 March, the party’s former leader Alex Salmond goes on trial charged with multiple counts of sexual assault dating back to his time as Scottish first minister between 2007 and 2014.
Cherry has remained close to Salmond, whom she describes as a “friend”, even as ties between the ex-SNP leader and Sturgeon, his successor and one-time protegé, have disintegrated.
Cherry has also been a vocal critic of the Scottish government’s efforts to extend the rights of trans people in Scotland through reform of the Gender Recognition Act, placing her at the centre of a bitter culture war raging inside the party and across the Scottish media landscape.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if [trans rights] became a factor,” in the Edinburgh Central race, Strickland said.
Were Cherry to defeat Robertson in July and wrest control of Edinburgh Central from the Tories at Holyrood next year, she could become a flag-bearer for nationalist dissenters anxious for a bolder approach.
For the moment though, there is no immediate threat to Sturgeon. The SNP won 48 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats at the U.K. general election on 12 December and polls suggest the party is on course for its fourth consecutive devolved election victory in 2021.
“Right now, Nicola is unassailable,” Marco Biagi, the ex-SNP politician who held Edinburgh Central from 2011 to 2016, before Ruth Davidson assumed control of the constituency, told POLITICO.
“But nobody can go on forever and, at some point, successors will naturally start circling.”
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