The EU in the Independence Referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Just starting off back in 2014, looking at the independence referendum, how important was the message from the No campaign that membership of the European Union for an independent Scotland was in doubt? Do you think that swung many votes in the independence referendum?
Joanna Cherry (JC): I think it did. I know that Professor John Curtice would argue that it didn’t, and obviously one has to be respectful of his research. But, as a member of the chattering classes in Edinburgh, I think it was a really big issue. It was one of the issues that got me involved actively in the referendum, because although I have been a member of the SNP for 12 years, I wasn’t terribly active. I was still in practice at the bar and didn’t really have a political profile at all.
But, in the last six months of the referendum everything became very frenetic in Scotland. I set up, with a colleague, a group called Lawyers for Yes, which was a group of advocates and solicitors who supported a Yes vote. We brought out a declaration, and one of the things that we focused on was how would Scotland continue to be a member of the European Union. There was a lot of debate about that. I wrote some op-eds for newspapers.
David Edwards’ interventions were very helpful to us. I don’t know if you know David Edwards, a lovely man, who used to be a judge in the European Court of Justice. He was my professor when I was at university. He wrote some really interesting stuff about how Scotland could stay in via Article 48. There was quite a lively debate about it.
Of course, there was a big stooshie up here, because the Scottish Government had legal advice about it, or did they? Alex Salmond refused to reveal it. There was this whole running party political battle about whether or not the SNP had legal advice on whether or not we could remain in the European Union if we became independent.
Of course, David Cameron had done a very good job of going round Europe persuading everyone that we were a bunch of what we call in Edinburgh ‘bams’, sort of mad people who were very difficult, or we were nasty, right-wing nationalists or something like that. Of course, he had plenty of people recruited not just in Europe, but across the world to say what a bad thing Scottish independence would be. You had (Jose Manuel) Barroso’s comments, (Mariano) Rajoy came out and made unhelpful comments. It was a big issue, I think perhaps, for middle-class Scottish voters.
UKICE: If you look at it the other way round, do you think that Yes could have done more to draw attention to the fact that the UK might leave the EU?
JC: Well we did. I remember speaking about this. I remember a debate in Edinburgh at the Faculty of Advocates, which is like the Inns of Court. It was lawyers for Yes versus Lawyers for No. During my speech for Yes, I brought up the possibility that Britain would leave the European Union and Britain would seek to repeal the Human Rights Act and leave the Convention. People on the No side treated me like I was a lunatic. It was sort of said to be our version of Project Fear, if you like, saying that Britain might leave the European Union, that Britain might do a lot of things that have turned out to be true.
It was on the horizon that there was a possibility of there being an EU referendum if the Tories won the next election. But it was something that was very much rubbished by the Better Together camp. Ruth Davidson famously put out some tweets saying, ‘Here is the way to guarantee your European Union citizenship. Guarantee it by voting No.’
It was certainly an issue for EU citizens in Scotland. Remember, of course, they had the vote, because Alex (Salmond) had extended the franchise to them. They had a vote, and they were very worried about it. Next time round, if they have a vote, I’d say they will be voting for Yes pretty much to a man and a woman.
One of the things that people like me were trying to do was try to get more middle-class people to consider voting Yes. This was a big deal, certainly for the legal profession in Scotland. It was something that came up on the doorsteps, came up in debates. From my experience, it was an issue, and an issue that I was really personally anxious about.
I think you can see now, if you look at some of the stats about the people who have moved to Yes and the way it has gone across the class system, particularly in all classes and up to age 65 – partly as a result of Brexit, I know John (Curtice) and Mark Diffley both think it was as a result of Brexit up until January of this year. It has gone higher over the last few months because Nicola (Sturgeon) is perceived to have handled the coronavirus crisis better than Boris (Johnson). Mind you, that wouldn’t be difficult. I do think she has handled it better, incidentally.
From my perspective it was an issue, and it was one of the issues that got me exercised and got me involved in the campaign. I know I have a lot of friends and contemporaries who felt the same way. Certainly, doing media, it came up again and again, and it came up in debates. People asked you about it at the hustings and at debates.
The EU Referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Then you decide to become an MP and stand for Parliament in 2015. When you fought that campaign, did you expect the EU referendum to be a big issue in Scotland? Did the expect the EU referendum to dominate the Parliament you were about to be elected to?
Joanna Cherry (JC): I don’t think I did, no. It didn’t initially. From my point of view, the biggest issue after I got elected was the Human Rights Act, that Parliament was to repeal the Human Rights Act. That is how I first got to know people like Dominic Grieve. A lot of people who were involved in the cross-party campaign on that then moved across into the cross-party campaign against Brexit.
UKICE: Just coming onto the 2016 referendum campaign, you had been through the experience of the 2014 referendum campaign. Did you think that the Remain campaign had learnt the right lessons from the independence referendum? That Project Fear, and emphasising the economy, would win Remain for them?
JC: I suppose it depends what you mean by the right lessons. On the one hand, in the short-term Project Fear worked – because I think issues about the economy played really big. Pensioners were terrified in Scotland that they would lose their pension, particularly as Labour Party campaigners went round telling them that. I think scaring people and making promises that couldn’t be kept worked in the short-term.
But I suppose now – looking at it from the perspective of 2020 – it certainly hasn’t worked in the long-term. You see that support for independence yesterday in a poll was again on 58%, and there is very much a movement that I sense on the ground towards it.
I think maybe a lot of the people who were in the Remain campaign were the same people that were in the Better Together campaign, certainly in Labour Party terms. I mean let’s face it, (Jeremy) Corbyn was missing in action so it was more the New Labour types, and of course (David) Cameron himself.
But Project Fear didn’t work in England about leaving the EU in the way it had in Scotland about leaving the union with England. Perhaps the two aren’t comparable – maybe people felt leaving the EU was a looser relationship than No voting Scots felt about the union of the UK. Some people would argue that the English are a bit more gung ho than the Scots not as easily put off perhaps. Sometimes we Scots are a bit, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’ whereas I think the English are more like, ‘How dare you tell me that I can’t manage on my own?’ In many ways I respect, I admire that attitude.
The Remain campaign failed to make a positive case. So many of the things that have been said by the People’s Vote campaign and by campaigners since just weren’t said by the Remain campaign. It was a bit pathetic.
UKICE: You had just been through the 2014 campaign. How did it compare in terms of the intensity of the campaign to 2016?
JC: It wasn’t comparable, because there wasn’t really ever any doubt in Scotland that Remain would win. I think people who spent most of their time in Scotland didn’t really realise how dicey things were in England, and I’ll come to that in a minute. There was really no comparison between the two campaigns, because if you remember, UKIP were nowhere in Scotland.
In the Scottish Parliament, despite having an additional member system, a proportional system which allows smaller parties to break through, UKIP have never had an MSP and not ever come close to having an MSP. There are no UKIP councillors in Scotland. There was one MEP, but you know, he was an eccentric maverick and subsequently fell out with UKIP and I think ended up in the Brexit Party.
I remember being in a room the night of the count with some people who were my sworn enemies in 2014. We were all on the same side in 2016 in Scotland. Whereas in the independence referendum the country really was split down the middle – it wasn’t split this time.
You know, what happened across the UK or in England, the ‘split down the middle’ thing was what had already happened up here on the issue of independence. On the European Union, we weren’t split down the middle. The campaign didn’t have the same immediacy or freneticism, because we were really confident of victory in Scotland. It was only because I was an MP and had spent a lot of time in Westminster, and also was taking part in things like Question Time and Any Questions and debates in England, not just in the south but in the north and the midlands, I had a sense that things were very, very different on the ground in England.
I remember being particularly impacted by speaking at a debate. I can’t remember whether it was the Inner Temple or the Middle Temple, but it was me and Dominic Grieve against Michael Howard and Martin Howe. We had to debate the two of them, me and Dominic (Grieve) against Michael Howard and Martin Howe.
Then the audience voted. It was packed out, and the audience was two-thirds Remain and one-third Leave. That alarmed me because, in a gathering of lawyers in Scotland, you’d only get a handful of mavericks who were Leave. Everybody else would be Remain. I thought, ‘Oh my God, a third of barristers and solicitors at this meeting in London are Leavers. If a third of the legal profession are Leavers, how much more of the general populous must be?’ But the results still came as a shock.
UKICE: You have said ‘We were clearly going to win in Scotland’, but turnout and sheer numbers mattered too. Did you get the sense that enough was going on in Scotland to make sure lots of Scots voted in the referendum? I think the turnout was quite a lot lower than it was in the independence referendum.
JC: Yes. I mean certainly in Edinburgh there was quite a lively campaign. I took part in lots of hustings and events and was out knocking doors and leafleting and doing street stalls. We had leaflets done in Polish and stuff to inform people about what was going on Edinburgh. The SNP, my local party, did that just so people knew what was happening.
I mean it was nothing like the independence referendum, the intensity. I think people were a bit worn out in Scotland. We’d had the Indy Ref, and then we had that massive, exciting election in 2015. Don’t forget, we also had just had a Scottish parliamentary election just the month before you will remember the complaints the FMs of Wales and Scotland made about the timing. The SNP was a bit cash poor at the time, and everybody was a bit exhausted from knocking doors.
But I think to suggest that there wasn’t a campaign would be wrong. I’ve heard that suggested. Certainly, in a city like Edinburgh there was a lot of activity, and I actually found it quite enjoyable, because for me it was a moment of rapprochement politically in Scotland. There had been a big divide between people who voted Yes and people who voted No, and it was a way of coming back together and getting to know politicians in the other parties. I was a very new MP. It was useful for me, because as a result of the campaign and what happened afterwards, I’ve got to know people in other parties much better and made some really good alliances that didn’t exist during the independence referendum, because people were very much in divided camps here.
UKICE: Immediately after the referendum result came in, Nicola Sturgeon said that an independence referendum was back on the table. Did you think that Scottish voters expected that during the EU referendum? Were you surprised that Nicola Sturgeon did that?
JC: Not really, because she had always said that for there to be another independence referendum, there would have to be a material change in circumstances. That’s what was in the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections. She’d actually given an example of Scotland being taken out of the European Union against its will. It had been, for those of us who care about the EU, a promise that had been made during the independence referendum. As I said earlier, the way to keep your EU citizenship was to vote to stay part of the UK.
I wasn’t really surprised. I have a very strong memory of the night of the result, because I had been at the count in Edinburgh, which was at Meadowbank Stadium. Everybody was in the same room, apart from UKIP who were in a different room. But I was in a room with Tories, Lib Dems, Labour, and we were all getting on well. The result came out, and Edinburgh massively voted, 75%, Remain. Everybody went home.
But I wasn’t going home, because I was on a rota to do media for the SNP. I went to the SNP HQ, I parked my car, and this was at four in the morning, and I was knocking on the door and ringing the bell for ages. I knew that there were about 30 people there and nobody was answering the door. Eventually Nicola came to the door in jeans and bare feet and answered the door, and just said to me, ‘Oh my God.’ Her mouth was hanging open with shock. I think she was probably a bit more shocked than I was, because I had spent more time in London than her. She said, ‘Dimbleby is now saying it is definitely Leave.’
We went in and we immediately started talking about what we were going to say about another referendum. She immediately went into a room and started talking with Spads and advisors, and the rest of us were all outside talking about it. Then I have a very strong memory of going off and doing an interview at sunrise on the roof of a hotel in the Grassmarket with CNN. I remember the guy was really tall, so I had to stand on a box. It was raining, so they were holding a big umbrella over my head. It was very atmospheric. The guy from CNN was asking me, ‘Will there be another referendum?’
I wasn’t really surprised. I think with the benefit of hindsight, and I’m absolutely not criticising the First Minister on this, I think she moved too quickly. It is funny. In a sense, that moving too quickly has perhaps coloured everything that has happened since, because of course there are some of us that might say she is not moving quickly enough now.
UKICE: Why do you think she moved too quickly? What do you think happened as a result?
JC: I don’t really know, because I am not part of the Nicola Sturgeon inner circle. I don’t really know exactly what the thinking was. But I think there was a general palpable feeling of shock in Scotland about the result, and a horror, outrage and fury that, sorry, no disrespect, the English could be so stupid. ‘Look what is being done to us against our will? These people are mad.’ There was a real feeling of that.
I think with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been much better to wait and see how things played out. Of course, we didn’t know that Theresa May was going to come in, hold an election, have a hung Parliament, all these things. We didn’t know how long it was going to take. None of those things that are so much part of what happened now were foreseeable necessarily at that point.
We had a mandate. Okay, we hadn’t won the election in the sense of having an outright majority, but the system at Holyrood is designed not to give an outright majority. But the pro-independence parties had a majority at Holyrood if you take into account the six Greens. Also, we had a huge majority at that point of the MPs. It wasn’t really that much of an out there thing to do, bearing in mind that she had just won a re-election on a manifesto in Scotland that said that there could be another referendum with a material change of circumstances.
First stages of Brexit, 2016 – 2017
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Why wasn’t there a rise in support for independence to 2020 levels by September of 2016? Do you think it was the fatigue about the constitutional question?
Joanna Cherry (JC): Let’s be honest, having another referendum two years after you have just lost one. You can see. I know we are going to come on and talk about the 2017 General Election and how well the Conservatives did in Scotland and all the seats that we lost.
I think that was very much not about ultra-unionism. It was about antipathy to having another referendum. There was a strong antipathy in Scotland. ‘Not another blinking referendum.’ We’d just had two, and the Tories really capitalised on that. It was basically, ‘Vote for the Ruth Davidson party and there won’t be another referendum.’ That’s what that was all about, and it was a very successful campaign by the Conservatives in Scotland.
Equally, the SNP ran a dreadful campaign. We announced a policy, then we didn’t have the gumption to own our own policy, we ran away from our own policy. It was incredibly badly organised. Everybody was left to their own devices. It was like we had 59 by-elections. The result was a bit of a disaster for us. We lost our Westminster leader Angus Robertson, who was the campaign director. We lost some really good MPs. Alex Salmond lost his seat. That was a really badly handled campaign.
UKICE: When Theresa May became leader and came up to see Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh, did you have any expectations about how the UK Government would handle the negotiations? Or about what the formulation of Brexit would be, given that both Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain and only England and Wales had voted to leave?
JC: Well, I suppose my hopes were not high. Having said that, I had dealt with Theresa May when I first got elected, because we unexpectedly became the third party and we had to appoint a frontbench spokesperson – so I was Shadow Home Affairs when Theresa May was Home Secretary. I used to meet with her fairly regularly. I always quite respected her. I didn’t agree with her about a lot of stuff, but I respected her.
I have very strong memories of her asking me to come and meet her to discuss making sure the SNP were on side with joining Prüm when she was Home Secretary, because of course she had real difficulties with the Tories. Having a very civilised discussion about it with her and realising that we did have some common ground.
There are two stages really. Before she lost the majority, when she first came up to see Nicola, I suppose I had a little bit of hope that there might be a more civilised approach. I felt she was someone that we possibly could do business with. She had a big reasonable streak to her. Then again, after she lost her majority I thought, ‘She really will have to reach out now.’
But of course, she didn’t. I think that’s partly because she doesn’t understand Scotland at all. She doesn’t really know about Scotland or understand it. It is a very different country, politically and socially, from the south of England. Scotland has big similarities with the north of England, I think. I don’t think she really understood us at all. Also, she was in a very difficult position, especially after she lost her majority.
But there was a strong argument that she should have really reached out to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I remember John Bruton speaking about this at an event in London a couple of years ago. He said, ‘If the European Union was making a decision as massive as Brexit, one small member state could veto it. But in the United Kingdom, two constituent parts of the United Kingdom vote very strongly against it, and that is just completely ignored and railroaded. The reason Northern Ireland has special measures or a special deal is not because it voted Remain. It’s because of the border issue.’
This is largely one of the reasons why support for independence is growing in Scotland, because if it is a choice between two unions, which union do you want to be in? The union where you are treated as an equal, or the union where you are just ignored, ridiculed and dragged where you don’t want to go? That’s a widely held view now, particularly amongst the voters that we really need to win over to win next time. She could have reached out. She could have tried to unite the four nations of the UK and reach some sort of compromise, but she didn’t.
UKICE: Did you get any positive reaction, or any reaction at all, from the UK Government to the blueprint for Brexit that the SNP released back in December 2016?
JC: Yes, Scotland’s Place in Europe. No. I mean we got a better reaction from (Michel) Barnier who read it and said some nice things about it than we got from the British Government. They just weren’t interested. Dead on arrival.
But not a pointless exercise from our point of view, because we didn’t necessarily know it was going to be dead on arrival. We can genuinely say, looking right back to the beginning of the whole exercise, that we tried really hard to reach an accommodation and compromise without selling ourselves down the river. I know you are going to come later and say, ‘Why didn’t we vote for customs union only?’ – because it is of very limited use to Scotland without also membership of the Single Market.
The most important thing for Scotland is staying in the Single Market to retain freedom of movement. It is massively important for our economy and our demographics. Also, for all the fuss the Tories were making about fish, for our food and drink industry, including the shellfish that is caught on the west coast, we need to sell it into Europe. We need to sell it into that market. The customs union on its own was really no use to Scotland.
UKICE: Do you understand why the British Government won’t give migration powers to Holyrood, given devolving migration looks perfectly feasible, and to Northern Ireland as well?
JC: Yes, and (Michael) Gove talked about that during the Brexit campaign. He thought we would get migration powers. I mean if you look at the Canadian system, migration is not a centralised power, it is a federal power. The provinces are allowed to run their own programmes, and you get vastly different programmes. Obviously, there are special reasons for Québec, because of the language and the culture and everything, but you get hugely different programmes across Canada.
Then, equally, when the CETA negotiations were going on, the Canadian provinces were in the room for the particular parts they were interested in. If you think back to some of the promises that were made during the independence referendum, ‘Don’t leave the UK. Stay and lead the UK. You are an equal partner.’ Gordon Brown telling us we’d have the closest thing to federalism you could imagine. Well, none of that was in any way represented the way that Brexit was handled in relation to Scotland.
UKICE: Did you think you could actually make a plan with Scotland in the Single Market work?
JC: I think it would be really difficult in the UK that exists. In order for that to work you would really have had to have a very significant rebalancing of the constitution. The kind of thing that Gordon Brown is still banging on about, but there is absolutely no hope of happening. A sort of federalisation, a more Canadian style approach. I think it could have worked in that context. Of course, a slightly watered-down version of it could have worked, because apparently it is going to work for Northern Ireland. Well, let’s see.
UKICE: They do have a sea border, which does make some of it much easier administratively than having a land border.
JC: True. But, putting something on any border in the north is very politically explosive. Whereas having checks on the small number of crossings that there are in the English/Scottish border, undesirable as that is, it is not as politically explosive as it is in Ireland.
UKICE: Was there always a unity of approach between the SNP down in Westminster and the approach that the Government in Holyrood wanted to take? Was that very well coordinated?
JC: Yes. I mean I think so. I mean such divisions as we have had, some of which have been hidden behind-the-scenes really until recently, have not really been about Brexit. Obviously, there were outspoken people in the SNP, Jim Sillars and Alex Neil, who were pro-Leave. But all of the front bench, everyone at Westminster and all of the front bench at Holyrood were Remainers.
When it came to the People’s Vote there were a couple of my colleagues in the Westminster party you probably will be aware were pretty vocal about not being happy about the People’s Vote, not happy about us supporting it. I think they may have rebelled on a couple of occasions about it. There was some uneasiness. It was a bit of a minefield for us, confirmatory votes and the like. A lot of the time, myself and Philippa Whitford did most of the liaising.
Philippa (Whitford) and I got involved in this cross-party group that met nearly every day. We had representatives of Labour backbenchers, people like Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw, and then Tories like Dominic (Grieve) and Anna (Soubry), Tom Brake, Liz (Saville-Roberts) from Plaid, or somebody from Plaid always. Caroline Lucas. We spent a huge amount of time discussing tactics, discussing motions.
Philippa and I would also say on questions of a second vote, ‘You have to get this worded right so the SNP group can live with it.’ One of the nice things about that cross-party working was a hell of a lot of effort went into wording things so that you could get as broad a coalition as possible. I felt that our concerns were genuinely listened to, which was good.
I know one of the questions is, did I find it hard working with other parties as a nationalist? The answer is absolutely not. In fact, in many ways for me it was really a privilege and very helpful to me, because I got to work with people who were seasoned parliamentarians, like Dominic Grieve and Chris Bryant in a way that I wasn’t and am not. I learnt a lot from them. I saw how business was done at quite a high level between different parties. I got to understand better some of the issues inside the Conservative Party and inside the Labour Party.
I also think, personally, if you want to achieve significant constitutional change then you always need to work cross party. Devolution wouldn’t have come about in Scotland if there hadn’t been cross-party working in the constitutional convention, which the SNP opted out of, and then latterly the SNP coming on board for the devolution referendum campaign in 1997. Donald Dewar and Alex (Salmond) and Jim Wallace worked closely together on that.
I think cross-party working is a good thing, and I actually really enjoyed it. I miss the last Parliament. I miss some of the people, and I count them as friends. I’ve kept in touch with them. There are very strong feelings of respect on my part, and I think on theirs also. I really enjoyed the cross-party work although, ultimately, we were unsuccessful.
UKICE: You have mentioned why you thought the Conservatives did well in the 2017 election. Some people in the Conservative Party certainly interpreted this as an appeal to the west coast fishermen doing badly, those north-eastern fishing constituencies, and people who did want out of the CFP.
JC: I think that was significant. I think if you think about it, Angus Robertson lost his seat to Douglas Ross, who still holds the seat. In the EU referendum, I think the constituency of Moray was pretty much 50/50 Leave and Remain, most unusual in Scotland. I think the fishing did play a part. We lost a lot of those North East seats.
I hung onto my seat in 2017 in Remain Edinburgh but my majority was slashed to just over a thousand. That wasn’t about Leave and Remain. That was about people not wanting a second referendum. When I won that seat in 2015 it had been Alistair Darling’s seat and had been Tory before that. I only won it by 8,500 votes in 2015. I hung on by 1,000 votes in 2017, and now I’ve got a 12,000 majority. I hung on. The Tories absolutely thought they’d won my seat – it was a top target for them.
I’ll never forget the joy of hanging on. Ruth Davidson was there all ready to speak to the cameras, and it was announced. By the time my result came in at four in the morning people like Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond, Tasmina (Ahmed-Sheikh) and John Nicolson, they had all lost their seats. The Tories in Edinburgh were like, ‘Oh yes, we are going to get Joanna Cherry.’ They didn’t. It was massively satisfying.
But it nearly happened, and one of the reasons it didn’t was because I had such a fantastic campaign team and a really great get out the vote operation. I suppose one other thing I should say is, research shows that a lot of SNP votes stayed at home in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of them didn’t bother to come out. They were complacent or angry with the SNP for not putting independence front and centre and running scared.
There were a number of different factors at play, but I do think no to a second independence referendum played well for the Tories. But you are absolutely right, in the northeast in particular there were Brexit type issues.
Brexit, the constitution and the courts
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You implied that morning after the election, or in the couple of days afterwards, you were expecting there to be a movement towards a cross-party approach to Brexit. Did it get to the point of having an internal discussion of what you would accept as a price for SNP support on Brexit? Or did it never get to the point of thinking what you would support?
Joanna Cherry (JC): We had our position from Scotland’s Place in Europe. I think it is fair to say that in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 General Election, everybody in the SNP was flat and a bit shocked, and bruised by losing so many colleagues, and bruised by losing Alex and Angus. Also, within the party, there was a lot of anger about how poor the campaign had been. A lot of us were really angry with the SNP HQ. That was very much the initial focus.
Then there was a sort of sense of regrouping, and obviously we had Scotland’s Place in Europe. We hoped we might be able to recycle that and get more out of it again, because Theresa May, we felt, needed to compromise because she had lost her majority. But it just didn’t work out that way. It was made pretty clear from the outset that Scotland wasn’t getting any sweeties. Despite the fact that you had Ruth Davidson’s however many, 11 or 12 Tories, do this and do that. But it never really came to pass
UKICE: Were you surprised to see the Conservatives courting the DUP in the way that they did at that point? Or did you think they were the obvious go-to allies for them in those circumstances?
JC: Well, yes. They were the obvious, because she was desperate. She couldn’t turn to anyone else, could she? She wasn’t going to get the Lib Dems on board for Brexit, and there were hardly any of them. She wasn’t going to get us unless she offered us a second independence referendum, and even then we couldn’t have said we’d help deliver Brexit for that. That would have been just wrong. Where else was she going to go?
I do think it was wrong, sort of morally if you like, because Northern Ireland had voted Remain. Those DUP MPs did not represent the majority view in Northern Ireland, and they dominated and held so much power in the last Parliament. In the end they were screwed over by the Tories, which I find quite amusing at one level. Now of course we’ve had another election and we have, for the first time ever, a majority of nationalist MPs. Obviously, Sinn Féin don’t come to Parliament, but it is great to hear the two SDLP MPs and also Stephen Farry. It’s great to have them there and hear the authentic voice of the majority view in Northern Ireland represented in the British Parliament. I think at the time there was a sense of outrage that she was doing it, but in fairness to her, where else was she going to go?
UKICE: She had the option of just going for a minority government in the same way as you governed as a minority in the Scottish Government without a formal agreement, you could argue.
JC: I think it’s more difficult though, when you have just lost a majority, to govern as a minority government. When we governed as a minority government in 2007 there was a real sense of Labour being tired and boring in Scotland. Alex’s government came in and were very fresh and very new and full of ideas, and initially everyone was like, ‘This won’t last six months.’ It lasted four years.
But they really hit the ground running and they had a bounce, because it was so exciting for the SNP to be in power properly at last, and to be able to do things, like stop calling it the Scottish Executive and start calling it the Scottish Government. Things like that that seemed revolutionary in 2007 and now nobody thinks twice about.
She had lost, limping on as a minority government, and as we all know, also, she probably had a sense as a Tory of the hell that lay ahead of her, with all the difficult so-and-sos on her backbenches on both sides. She probably felt she needed a cushion to cope with them.
UKICE: The Government then proceeds to bring in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Were you surprised at their willingness to press ahead with all this legislation without legislative consent? Or did you think that was inevitable on Brexit, that actually the Scottish Parliament was never going to assent to any of this Brexit legislation, and therefore they would just have to ride roughshod over the convention?
JC: Yes. I mean the Sewel Convention had been put on the statutory footing in the Scotland Act of 2016, and there had been not very much debate in the Commons, but quite a bit in the House of Lords on what that meant. I think people like Lord Hope had pointed out that putting it on a statutory footing wasn’t necessarily as conclusive as was being suggested by some. The word ‘normally’ was there of course, and what did that mean?
Although I do think, and it’s a widely held view by lawyers in Scotland – at least the academic lawyers – that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller 1 was very disappointing on the convention, very conservative with a small ‘c’. If you look at the approach the Supreme Court took in the prorogation cases, that was a much more expansive constitutional approach, and much more conscious of the importance of the constitutional approach across the UK than the Miller 1 was. It’s like the Supreme Court have never really been terribly interested in defending devolution.
That’s just not my view. I think Professor Aileen McHarg has pointed that out. I guess I wasn’t really surprised because rationally, as you say, Scottish Parliament was never going to grant consent to this stuff with the way it was made up. Except perhaps unless a very significant concession was made along the lines of what was being suggested in Scotland’s Place in Europe. That wasn’t going to happen. They had a strangely worded convention, which they knew they could probably get round, so they took short-term gain for long-term pain. The short-term gain was to get Brexit. The long-term pain was Scotland will go as a result of this. I’ve very little doubt of that really.
UKICE: Along all this time, there is allegedly machinery established for some consultation with the devolved governments. Did you have any thoughts on how that was working?
JC: I think the problem was that the meetings took place, but they were very much a box ticking exercise. Mike (Russell) said he’d go in and various British government ministers would just talk at him. Quite often he learnt nothing new that he hadn’t read in the papers already. If something important was about to happen they didn’t tell him about it and he read about it in the papers a couple of days later, he got sight of a bill or a white paper when everyone else did.
This is very much what they say to us; ‘We always talk to the devolveds.’ Yes, but you don’t actually listen or do anything about it or ever make any concessions. I think it was conducted with an arrogance and an insouciance that was really infuriating for us. One consequence of that was to bring the SNP Government in Edinburgh and the Labour Government in Cardiff very close together. Jeremy Miles and Mike Russell have worked really well together. I have to say that in my encounters with Jeremy Miles and Mark Drakeford, I’ve been hugely impressed by them.
UKICE: Do you get the sense that those are long-term institutional changes, the increased links between Cardiff and Edinburgh, that are going to have a long-term effect beyond the Brexit issue?
JC: If you look at the announcement Jeremy Miles made a couple of days ago about the litigation and his judicial review on the Internal Market Act, as it will be, that’s a very ambitious, exciting legal development and I’m really excited about it. I mean, I know the Scottish Government are keeping their cards a bit close to their chest while they consider what they are going to do. But I am not sighted on these matters.
But if the Welsh bring litigation in the Administrative Court and if we bring similar litigation in the Court of Session here, they will end up together in the Supreme Court. That will throw up some really interesting questions that have never really been properly litigated about fundamental Acts. There are certain fundamental constitutional Acts that you cannot change lightly, and so it actually could have quite important consequences for the debate about how we get a second independence referendum, and a more expansive approach to the British constitution, which was really lacking in Miller 1, though I think it was more there in the prorogation cases.
I’m going off on a tangent, but I think there are really good lines of communication between Cardiff and Edinburgh ongoing, and will be for as long as we are all in the same union. I think afterwards as well, because let’s be honest, when Scotland becomes independent, there will have to be important and significant channels of cooperation across these islands, including the whole of Ireland, not just the North but including the Republic. I think that’s a very significant development, the relationships that have grown up between the SNP in Scotland and Labour in Wales.
UKICE: You were just talking about court cases. You were one of the big names behind the Wightman case, looking at the unilateral right to revoke. What was your motivation behind backing that? Did you ever think it was a realistic possibility?
JC: Basically, my thinking was that there is no point in planning for a People’s Vote if you can’t unilaterally revoke Article 50. I’d had discussions with Aidan O’Neill, our QC in the prorogation and Wightman case. Aidan was very exercised and annoyed about David Pannick’s bullet analogy in Miller 1, because he thought it was wrong. He has actually turned out to be right that it was wrong. I heard a very interesting discussion about this recently. You can see why everyone sort of agreed to that for the purpose of that case.
UKICE: Another interviewee has said that they thought the Supreme Court got Miller 1 wrong exactly because of that – because both sides agreed, the Court should have actually looked at it rather than just accepting quite a disappointing agreement for both sides?
JC: I think that’s right. But I think when David Pannick is presenting an argumentar he is so hugely respected that they are probably unlikely to challenge him. I think Aidan is a bit of an agent provocateur. To say David Pannick is wrong is a bit like saying God is wrong in the Church. He is very well respected up here as well, not just at the English bar. But I think he probably was wrong about that.
But, because of that analogy, then there was a very strong argument that Article 50 couldn’t be unilaterally revoked. The idea behind the case was we will get a ruling from Luxembourg, and then we will establish it. I know that there was a lot of angst behind the scenes that we shouldn’t do this. Other people had thought about doing it initially and decided not to do it in London. Of course along comes Jolyon (Maugham), who does his own thing, and decides he’ll get some Scottish politicians and do it in Edinburgh, which I think was a great idea, to set the ball rolling here.
But, I had to be strongly persuaded to join the action, because I felt it was a bit hopeless at the beginning, because I felt it was too hypothetical. But what happened during the course of the action, and what kept me on board, was that during the course of the action Dominic Grieve’s amendment resulted in the fact that it was going to be a meaningful vote, and therefore it was no longer theoretical. The British Parliament had to know the answer to the question if it was going to vote on one of its options to have a second vote.
If you look at the judgement of the Scottish Court, on the issue of standing, they found that really important, because the British Government had tried to argue it was too hypothetical. Of course, the parties were Andy Wightman, and Ross Greer, two Green MSPs. Then there was Alyn Smith, my colleague who was then an MEP, and there was David Martin. There was me, an MP, and initially Christine Jardine was in, but she dropped out of it, and so I was the only MP left in. I seriously thought about dropping out, because I thought it was a bit of a car crash at the beginning. But when the meaningful vote came in I thought, “Oh yes, I can stay in this.”
Also, Jolyon and Aidan (O’Neill) were saying to me, “You have to stay in it because we need an MP to get over the standing hurdle. If you come out it will be more dicey”, although, they thought they could maybe get over it without it. Once the meaningful vote came in I felt a lot more optimistic about the case.
UKICE: Was there ever any prospect you’d have got Dominic Grieve or anyone like that to join the revocation case?
JC: I know I spoke to Dominic about prorogation, but I don’t know if I should really say too much about that. What I would say in general terms is, the Tories who were trying to stop Brexit or have a second vote had to play a very careful game. Maybe being involved in that case, or indeed the prorogation case, wasn’t the best thing for a Conservative MP to do. I can see why they might not have done, although we would have loved to have had a Tory on board.
Once it got to Luxembourg I went over for the hearing and I was fairly confident we had won at that stage, because the British Government was in this ludicrous position where they wouldn’t actually deal with the merits of the case. They just kept arguing admissibility. It’s almost unprecedented. You know, you know yourselves, if you go into a big constitutional case you’ll have your admissibility argument, but you will always deal with the substance as well in case you don’t win the admissibility. They refused to deal with the substance. That really irritated the Court.
Aidan had one of his best days I’ve ever seen him have in court. Aidan and I don’t always see eye-to-eye about how one might present a case, but I thought he presented the case brilliantly in Luxembourg. By that time Chris Leslie and one of the Lib Dems had come in as intervener, so they had instructed counsel as well, Gerry Facenna. He was really good. Aidan was really good, and Richard Keen had a bad day. In fairness to Richard, you are always going to have a bad day if you only argue admissibility and refuse to argue the substance, particularly in front of a Supreme Court. It is really going to annoy them. I thought we had probably won at that point. We did win, so that was really exciting. Really exciting.
Brexit in Parliament, 2019
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You said you needed proof of concept for unilateral revocation to be able to vote on a People’s Vote in Parliament, knowing all the facts. Why did you put down revocation as part of the indicative vote?
Joanna Cherry (JC): Through all the cross-party discussion, there was huge anxiety about not putting the question of a second vote to a vote in Parliament until we thought we could properly win it. There would be these very anxious and lengthy discussions in the cross-party group about what kind of votes we should support. Then quite frequently the Lib Dems would really annoy everyone by going off and putting a People’s Vote amendment down, and we thought we had agreed that we wouldn’t put it down at this point. They just ignored it because that’s what the Lib Dems do. I’m not offending anyone, but they do have a bit of a reputation for uniting Labour and Tories and the SNP in annoyance with them.
When we came to the indicative votes, the idea of revocation as a backstop came I think from Jo Maugham. He certainly helped me draft it, but I think others had been talking about it. He did a lot of work on getting the wording right legally, but also to try and get as many people on board as possible.
Then, I did a lot of work talking to people in other parties trying to persuade them to support it, particularly the Labour Party. If you remember, Keir Starmer and I always got on very well in the background, but we did have that really waspish exchange in the Chamber when I was really angry with Labour for not whipping to support it. He was really angry with me, and actually apologised to me afterwards, because he is a gentleman. But I was furious with Labour, and there is actually footage of me sitting in Parliament turning to Philippa going, ‘Fucking Labour.’ You can completely read my lips. It has actually become a famous meme in Scottish politics of me saying, ‘Fucking Labour.’
Although they didn’t whip for it, quite a lot of them supported it in fairness. They were a bit all over the place then. That was the thinking there. I think I was very much trying to not upset the apple cart and not just do an SNP thing, but do a thing that could command cross party support and move things forward a bit and protect us from a no deal.
There was an anxiety about, ‘Don’t push a second vote to a vote until you think we can win it.’ I was very much conscious of not doing that.
UKICE: On Ken Clarke’s customs union amendment, he often says, ‘Oh, yes, if the nationalists had voted for it, it would have got 320.’ Do you think that was the right tactic at the time, and do you still think that was the right tactic?
JC: Yes, because as I said earlier, access to the Single Market and Single Market benefits such as freedom of movement were absolutely central to SNP policy, and central to Scotland’s economic wellbeing. We didn’t think it was an option that we could support, because it would have been damaging, very damaging, for Scotland. There were indicative votes at that point. It wasn’t, ‘This is the only chance to save us from a no deal.’ There was a fair bit of discussion in the SNP Westminster group behind-the-scenes about that. But, we came to a view that was I think the right one for us and everyone was more or less happy with.
UKICE: Did the Theresa May government ever make any overtures to you about what might get you into their lobby to support her Withdrawal Agreement?
JC: Not that I am aware of. Whether that happened between the whips, or whether it happened to Ian Blackford, you’d really have to ask them. But certainly not that I am aware of. There is a view that perhaps we should have made overtures to get something. But of course the thing we really wanted they wouldn’t have given us; a Section 30 order or another Edinburgh agreement, the right to hold a second independence referendum at a time of our choosing with a franchise of our choosing.
UKICE: I assume the SNP would have been wary of having indicative votes that would have definitely produced an outcome like a customs union. Would you have withdrawn your support if you thought that was going to be the mechanism for the indicative vote?
JC: Gosh, it’s hard to remember. I know there was a lot of discussion about the mechanism, and certainly Philippa (Whitford) and I were very involved in the cross-party discussions, and then Ian Blackford was involved in discussions at leadership level. The chief whip Patrick Grady was involved at whip level. There was a lot of anxiety about how things were going to be done. But the way it panned out, you know, we could live with that.
UKICE: Watching this entire process in early 2019, of the Government repeatedly trying to bring its deal through, trying to bring over some waverers, whittling down that giant no vote on the first meaningful vote. Did it give you any reflections at that time about the way UK Parliament was working, and its ability to deal with something like Brexit?
JC: It wasn’t working very well. It is designed really for a government with a majority who just do things their way. She didn’t have that. She had very shifting support. Sometimes people would be on side and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes the DUP were on side and sometimes they weren’t. It is clearly a system that is designed for two major parties, one has a majority and just shoves its business through by sheer brute force, as is happening at the moment.
I think because we have so rarely had coalitions. I mean there were minority governments in the 70s and the Lib-Lab pact, but our parliamentary system is not really geared to that, whereas Holyrood is more geared to that. Some people act like Holyrood is perfect. It is far from perfect. But that’s another rabbit hole we could go down. I suppose one might want to look at the Irish Parliament or other parliaments that are used to operating constantly with coalitions. Clearly, the Westminster system isn’t.
It was frustrating that there were only certain people who really, really understood how things worked. It Is not something you can just bone up on overnight. You really need years. In fact, there was no one really in the SNP group, because Alex Salmond had lost his seat. I used to speak to Alex sometimes, because he was one of these people who did know Erskine May inside out, and despite being a nationalist loves Westminster and is very interested in the way it works. There were people in the SNP group who had a better knowledge than I did.
But I was very much drawing on advice from people like Dominic Grieve or Chris Bryant. Of course, there was also the superstructure of the grandees, especially latterly, Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn. There was a special ‘super group’ that the likes of me wasn’t part of. I think I got invited along once. That was going along as well, and they were very much into the Letwin-esque policy manoeuvres, procedural manoeuvres.
UKICE: You mentioned Hilary Benn. You were on the Exiting the EU/Future Relationship Committee through this process. Did that work well? Did you get a sense that that contributed anything useful?
JC: I have a high regard for Hilary. I think he performed miracles as chair of the Brexit committee in managing to get so many interesting reports through. I mean literally there were a couple of unanimous ones and then latterly they kept being majority ones with minority reports. But he managed to bring enough of the Tories on board to get a fairly good majority for reports.
It is hard for me to judge because I’m still a relatively new parliamentarian after five years, but it seemed to me that it was a good example of a select committee doing its job, really carrying out scrutiny and producing reports that were of use to parliamentarians in debates. It has become less significant now, because apart from anything else a lot of the Tories don’t even show up at meetings now. I don’t know if that is a deliberate tactic or not.
They were just about to bring out a report on the progress of the negotiations, or maybe preparations for the end of the transition period, which is a unanimous report. Again, Hilary has managed to steer a path through that is quite critical of the government and managed to get the Tories on board.
I think maybe that is a reflection also of how good the select committee system at Westminster is. It is better than it is at Holyrood. Holyrood could learn a lot from the Westminster select committees, and certainly I would want an independent Scottish Parliament to have select committees with much more teeth than the Holyrood ones have. In fairness though, the Holyrood ones don’t have anything like the clerking that Westminster has.
It was great fun being on that select committee. We had some hilarious trips to Brussels. I remember walking up the street with Philippa behind two Tories who didn’t realise we were right behind them, and of course I’m half Irish and Philippa is Irish, she was born in Ireland. My mum is Irish, thank God for that Irish passport. We’d just been having a talking to from deputy president of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness.
She had just given us a big telling off about how ludicrous Britain was being. Very politely. We were walking up the road and one said to the other, ‘We should never have given them their independence.’, ‘Yes, we should never have bailed them out.’ They were really bitching about the Irish. It was really, really funny. But it was good. I felt really privileged to be part of that. A really interesting thing to be part of.
UKICE: During the Conservatives’ last throw of the dice, which were the talks with Labour and the possibility of a referendum, were you engaged at all with Labour about how they were playing those talks? Whether it might open the door to trying to get a bill through where you could add in a referendum?
JC: I didn’t have much engagement at that stage. It was Ian Blackford who was really engaging with them at that stage to try and find out what was going on in those talks. See, I’d kind of actually forgotten about those talks. I wasn’t part of it.
Prorogation and cross-party co-operation
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, and then goes ahead with prorogation and you are back in the courts with the Cherry case
Joanna Cherry (JC): Well, obviously I already knew Jo Maugham from the Andy Wightman case. I was just looking back at all my WhatsApp messages this morning with Jo. I think I was actually on holiday when I made the decision to be the lead litigant. Because if you remember, the possibility for proroguing Parliament for a lengthy period had been discussed during the Tory leadership campaign.
Jolyon and I had discussed the issue of the legality of the planned lengthy prorogation before I left to go on holiday and we had it in mind to take some pre-emptive action in Scotland. We felt that because the court in Scotland had been prepared to entertain a hypothetical in the Wightman case, that it would be better to bring the action in Scotland because the court would be more willing to consider a hypothetical. Also, he Scottish Courts don’t adjourn over the summer now. They have basically got rid of holidays, much to the annoyance of my former colleagues.
Some would say it is cheaper to litigate in Edinburgh than it is in London. Jo was talking to me about it and getting it off the ground. He was keen to do it up here. I also think he felt there would be less media hostility up here. He felt the Scottish Courts might be more open to it, which turned out to be correct. We also felt that having MPs as litigants was desirable.
We were crowd funding, and also Jo was giving me an indemnity.
I think he gave us an indemnity so we knew we wouldn’t be out of pocket. I think a lot of MPs aren’t necessarily wealthy people. They just have their house and their salary, and you don’t want to lose your house or have to remortgage your house to pay your legal expenses. The action was raised here before the prorogation actually happened.
Then Jo got wind of Jacob Rees-Mogg going to the Privy Council. I think we tried to get an interim interdict, like an injunction, but we didn’t manage to get it. Then it happened. We were slightly ahead of the game. Our litigation was off the ground, but we lost at first instance. But we weren’t in the least surprised, because we thought that might happen but I thought if we got it into the Inner House we would win.
But I didn’t think we would win all three judges in the Inner House with such a trenchant judgement. I mean it is a really, really good judgement. But as a Scottish lawyer I just thought it was a great, great decision. I really loved the judgement in that case. I loved the way that they explained why this is not a political decision.
Having won three-nil there was just so exciting, particularly because the English case had faltered at first instance in front of three judges.
UKICE: Were you surprised by the judgement in the English court, then?
JC: Well, I always thought justiciability was going to be a bit of an issue. My advice was we could get over that hurdle, and of course we did in Scotland, but I could see why it was a hurdle. Of course, it was still argued in the Supreme Court. I wasn’t overly surprised that the case had fallen down there. But I think it was great, both as a Scots lawyer and as a nationalist, that it was the Scottish Court that got the thing off the ground again. It was deeply, there were a lot of political and legal commentators being snooty about the Scottish Courts. It was deeply satisfying when the Supreme Court was also a unanimous decision.
UKICE: Were you surprised when you sat down and watched Lady Hale read out her judgement?
JC: I thought there would be dissenters. I thought we were going to win. I always was quite confident. Not very confident, but reasonably confident we would win. I didn’t think it was a slam-dunk but I had a really strong feeling we were going to win. But I did not think we’d win unanimously. I thought there was bound to be some dissent. I was surprised by that.
Then it was a stampede to get outside to speak to the press, because everybody was just so excited. The atmosphere was insane. It was so exciting. But what I do feel about that is, I feel that we, as in Parliament and the cross party group, we failed to capitalise on that. We really had Johnson on the ropes. He had lost the argument, in a sense. He had lost the court case. He’d lost face. He’d lost his majority.
UKICE: Do you think the air went out of it because the Benn Act had already been passed a week or so earlier?
JC: Possibly, but it quickly became kind of irrelevant that we had won the prorogation, although I still think it was really pleasing to give Boris Johnson a bloody nose via, ‘Cheers Boris, this is from Scotland. The UK Supreme Court like it too.’ That was quite satisfying at a slightly petty level. But we didn’t really get much out of it. I have discussed this quite a bit with Alex Salmond. I know Alex feels that Parliament and, you could possibly also say the SNP, failed to capitalise on that. But I’m not sure how we would have done it.
In the last Parliament, my party had 35 seats out of 59 in Scotland, but we had more influence than we now have with 48 out of 59. We didn’t get anything to show for the power we held in that Parliament. That’s not a criticism of anyone, because it could be a criticism of myself, really. I’m not sure what it is we could have done differently. It’s just a bit of a shame we didn’t get anything out of it.
UKICE: You could have refused to back a General Election, or supported a Government of National Unity under Jeremy Corbyn. Those were things that people were swinging around to stave off no deal.
JC: Yes. I mean a Government of National Unity, the name itself, is something that is really difficult for the SNP to be part of. If you had called it a Temporary Emergency Government or something, yes. But SNP MPs taking part in a Government of National Unity might have got pelters from their powerbase at home. I think a lot of people in our group felt that. It was not something we really discussed as a group.
Privately, my view was that of course we should take part in a cross-party government, provided we got something out of it. It wasn’t up to me because I wasn’t leader of the group, but had I been I would have said, ‘Yes, we will take part in this, but we want things out of this. We want one of the highest offices of state. We want the Scotland Office so we can get the Tories out of it and they can stop using it to pump unionist propaganda through Scotland .
But I would have gone to them and said, ‘Right. We want this. We want that. Also, if you are holding a second referendum to get the whole of the United Kingdom out of the mess it has been got into, you must recognise our request for a second vote. You must enter into an agreement with us. I’m not saying we want an independence referendum tomorrow. But you must enter into an agreement that gives the principle that is up to the Scottish Parliament when it is held again.’
UKICE: Would that have been conditional on the UK not changing its mind about Brexit?
JC: No. Even if the UK had changed its mind, I would have wanted them to concede the principle that if the Scots elect a majority of MSPs who want to hold a second independence referendum there should be one. Or maybe even have something like as in the Northern Ireland Act, you are allowed to hold one every seven years.
This is not something that was really discussed formally in the SNP to my knowledge, but my private view was, you can’t be in a Government of National Unity because we’ll get slated at home. You’ll be like Michael Collins coming back with the Treaty. Nobody will be very happy with you. But if you take part in an emergency government or something on the understanding you get a couple of the offices and you get this concession, that would be an amazing concession for us to have got out of it.
If they really needed us, I think they would have given us that concession, because the feeling was that England had to be saved from itself from the mess it had got itself into. I don’t mean that patronisingly or in an anti-English way. It was just a narrative. I was really interested in that idea. But I think it’s safe to say that most of my colleagues were pretty nervous of that idea.
Also, there is huge mistrust in Scotland, in my party in particular. You’d really have wanted to got it in writing and signed before you agreed to anything.
UKICE: Did the people in your cross-party group in Parliament, people like Caroline Lucas, say ‘Please don’t support this election. This is going to go really badly in England.’
JC: Yes. There were two different conversations going on. There was the conversation within the SNP about whether we should support a second election, and then there was the cross-party conversation.
I think it is fair to say the decision to support a General Election was taken at a high level in the SNP, and the majority of people in the Westminster group were happy with it. There was one person who voted against it. One person broke the whip, Angus Brendan MacNeil, because he thought it was such a bad idea. There were others like me who thought it was a bad idea but didn’t want to break the whip over it. It had an inevitability by then. The Lib Dems had got the ball rolling, the whole thing snowballed.
I suppose I might have considered rebelling and losing my front bench position if I thought I could really have stopped it, because I thought it was a bad idea. I thought we had, as an SNP group, more chance of getting the sort of concession that I’ve just talked about in the last Parliament. We’ve not got a hope in this Parliament, let’s be honest.
It is fair to say, several people made passionate appeals to me against doing this, against the SNP. But I said, ‘Ultimately the decision has been taken, and the majority of my colleagues are happy with it. There is nothing I can do.’ It had a momentum of its own. But I think, you know, we may well now have 48 MPs, but we have less influence.
UKICE: The SNP were the big winners, apart from the Conservatives, in terms of parties that did well in December 2019. Do people regard the numbers as a good outcome to that General Election process?
JC: Yes. I do as well. I’ve said we have less power, but we weren’t able to achieve anything with holding the balance of power in the last Parliament. It certainly gave us a big bounce, and from my point of view I’m delighted. I’m not saying I’ve got a safe seat, because there is no such thing as a safe seat in Scotland now. We are riding high at the moment but who’s to say what will happen in the future. But it is nice to be sitting on a 12,0000 majority rather than a 1,000 majority. I feel safer.
It was an enjoyable election, because people were lovely to me on the doorstep, much nicer than they have ever been, because they were so pleased about the SNP’s position on Brexit. I think we have won a lot of friends and influence as a result of that. I wouldn’t wish to be overly critical of what we did in supporting it, because I don’t think our decision to support it was pivotal. I think Labour had decided to support it by that time. It had a momentum. But I don’t necessarily think it was the right thing to do. But then I think ‘what would have happened’? The Government would have limped on. A General Election would have come up at some point.
UKICE: Your temporary emergency government might have had to go on for quite a reasonable amount of time.
JC: Well that would have been quite good for us, because if we had the Scotland Office and another ministerial seat and a concession that we could hold a referendum if we wanted to, that would have been great for us. But would they have given us that concession? Was there really a majority to have? Obviously there wasn’t or it would have happened. But it felt very close at one or two points.
UKICE: Some people have said that Jeremy Corbyn was the barrier to that happening, in the sense that people may have supported that sort of arrangement under a different Labour leader.
JC: Yes. I could see that, and I think he was. I always said, ‘Look, you need to really butter Labour up, and you need to butter Corbyn up, and you need to give Corbyn first refusal in a sense. Give him his place. He is the Leader of the Opposition. Do lots of behind-the-scenes stuff and then more upfront have a performance whereby we go to him and ask him to be Prime Minister. But he says, ‘No, no, no. I want to keep myself pure for the fight ahead to be the first socialist Prime Minister”. We get someone else, put them in. It is just a temporary government. It is not a Labour government.
But I thought, ‘Give him his place. Respect the fact, whether you like him or not, or whatever you think about him, he is Leader of the Opposition.’ I felt that could have been finessed.
A lot of my colleagues, you know, it is interesting, a lot of my colleagues have got no time for Corbyn. They really couldn’t be bothered with him, despite the fact that a lot of the politics of many of them and their activists might be quite close to Corbyn. I thought he deserved to be given his place, because he was the Labour leader and the official Leader of the official Opposition.
I’m not sure what I think about him, but I thought he deserved to be given his place, because he was the Labour leader and the official Leader of the Opposition.
Reflections on Brexit
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): To come onto the Johnson Government, do you have any reflections at this stage of the way they have handled Brexit? Obviously, it has been relegated down the news agenda by Covid-19, which has been the dominant story of the year. But do you have any thoughts about the way in which they have gone about it, and how they have handled you or the Government in Holyrood?
Joanna Cherry (JC): Well, they have been even ruder and more dismissive than they were before, if that were possible. But it is possible, because they are. I think Conservatives who are in Parliament must have made a calculation, not necessarily Conservatives who aren’t in Parliament, by Conservatives in Parliament, that it is worth taking the risk of utterly alienating Scotland and losing Scotland to get Brexit. I’m sure that must have been a calculation they’ve made, because this cannot be accidental, the rudeness and the playing into our hands in many ways.
I don’t like the way they have handled it. I think the way that Part 5 of the Internal Market Bill was announced was an absolute disgrace. I think they hugely underestimate the degree of antipathy that has stirred up across Europe and the world. The Biden Administration I think were deeply unimpressed by that. Gove has been appallingly arrogant in the way he has behaved towards the Scottish Government.
You have got people like Kevin Foster who came up to give evidence to Scottish Parliament last week and behaved rudely, arrogantly and ignorantly as he did with me in the Commons last week. He doesn’t have the first clue about Scotland, but yet is rude and dismissive to the parliamentarians elected by people living in Scotland. Whether he likes it or not we are elected representatives. I don’t like the way they have gone about it. I think they are making a mess of it.
I think what they are going to do, my prediction is they will go right up to the wire, they will get a deal and as part of that deal they will negotiate, like they have for the Northern Ireland protocol, something that is a bit like a transition. But they won’t call it a transition. There will be some sort of bedding in period to try and again kick the can of ultimate pain down the road, so that Boris Johnson can at least say, ‘The transition period is over. I’ve got a deal. But because of Covid-19 and because the deal was so last minute and the EU were so difficult we have got this bedding in period.’
That’s what I think they are doing. I think that’s why they are spinning it out to the last minute. I think when Michael Gove said to us yesterday at the FREU Committee that there was less than 50% chance of a deal, I thought he was being disingenuous. Not for the first time.
UKICE: Reflecting back more generally about the political culture, maybe the political culture of the UK and Westminster, or maybe England and English nationalism. Any thoughts about why we have ended up where we appear to be, heading towards a hard Brexit?
JC: I don’t think Brexit is just about English nationalism. Before I became an MP, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time in London because my grandparents lived in Watford. We were up and down a lot. My dad had grown up in London. But since my grandparents died in the ‘80s, apart from going down to London occasionally for the Supreme Court or for the odd weekend, I wasn’t in London that often. But if I did go to England I went to London for the weekend. I went to Brighton or Manchester to see friends. I didn’t really go to what I would call provincial England.
One of the things I noticed when I started travelling around England with the Brexit Select Committee and going to things like ‘Any Questions’ and ‘Question Time’ is how run down parts of provincial England are. All these run down provincial places that look like nobody really cares about them, in a way that you see less in Scotland since devolution, because I think Scotland has had 20 years of social democratic governments that have invested a bit in infrastructure.
Although we have still got huge problems with poverty, and the Labour Party didn’t build any council houses. The SNP have built almost 100,000 affordable homes almost half of which are for social rent.
I think that in provincial England people are more alienated from their government than people are in Scotland. People for a long time in Scotland were very alienated and now are just really angry with Westminster, but they are not alienated from Edinburgh. I’m not saying it is perfect. I think government in Scotland is over centralised. I think local government in Scotland needs an overhaul.
But I think there is a sense of alienation. You know, I sometimes used to go to these places and think, ‘God. The station looks like the station looked in Watford in the ‘70s. It has not been upgraded. The streets are dirty. The houses looks badly maintained. No wonder people feel resentful.’ I think the Brexit vote was a big expression of that resentment. Of course, there is a sort of English nationalism laid across it.
But I actually think, I was listening to an interview on the Today programme this morning, or it might have been on Radio Scotland, but it was one of the Tory ministers banging on about sovereignty. That banging on about sovereignty is something this Government have done. It didn’t happen quite so much in the years immediately after Brexit. Immediately after Brexit people thought it was about immigration.
But now it has just been banging on about sovereignty, which I found really irritating. Do they really think that France and Germany aren’t sovereign nations, despite being in the EU? Scots care quite a lot about sovereignty, but I’m quite happy to give a bit of my sovereignty to the European Union because for me it is an equal union.
I think it is much more complicated than just being about English nationalism. I think it is about alienation of people in provincial England from wealth, and people living in poor housing, with insecure badly paid jobs, schools overcrowded, the NHS, long waiting lists, looking for somebody to blame, not as simplistically as blaming immigrants, but doing that. But also just feeling a real kick against the establishment.
I kind of understand why. I wouldn’t want to be snooty about it or anti-English about it. I have to say, apart from one or two unpleasant experiences of people shouting at me in the street when there were pro-Leave demonstrations in London, by and large, whether I have been in London, or like last Christmas my girlfriend and I rented a cottage in Northumberland, over the summer in the Lake District, people quite often stop me because they recognise me and say nice things to me about Brexit. Or ask me if Nicola will move the border south when Scotland becomes independent. I don’t think it is just about English nationalism. I think it is much more complicated than that.
That’s why I find it so infuriating that the charlatans that are dealing with this now are all massively rich people, like Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mob who don’t actually give a damn about these people that I’m describing. It is tragic, almost.
UKICE: Brexit could act as a catalyst for having another independence referendum. We hear that Michael Gove argues that no deal would make independence more likely, and therefore it might be better avoided. Does that make any difference, or is Brexit of any sort the event that potentially moves the dial on independence?
JC: I think whatever deal is struck it is going to be so thin, or a low deal as Mike Russell calls it, that it is not going to make that much of a difference. I think if there is no deal and disaster and food shortages that will probably push support for independence up a bit, certainly push it beyond 60%, which it is closer to at the moment according to some of the polls.
But I think the die is cast. The damage of the way in which Brexit has been handled has brought support for independence above 50%. Paradoxically, the coronavirus crisis, which some people thought would make people in Scotland panic about independence, John Curtice’s research shows that it has actually added a level of support over and above. John says that anti-Brexit feeling took us to 50% by the 31st January, and the percentage points that have been added since are because the Scottish Government is perceived to have done a better job of handling coronavirus than the British Government.
Also, I think Mark Diffley has said that people have seen that the Scottish Government takes major decisions of great importance about issues that are life and death, and has done it quite well. Therefore, maybe it should be given more power. Some of the polling research shows that for the first time in Scotland, people are more optimistic about the economy of an independent Scotland in Europe than they would be about Scotland and a Brexit Britain.
These are huge changes. I don’t think whatever deal they get now will make a big difference to that. I think a no deal might cause a bigger bounce than the deal that they are going to get, but I don’t think that whatever deal they are going to get now will make support for independence fall back. No.
UKICE: The converse argument is to see a smaller entity trying to negotiate an exit deal with a significantly larger entity, which ends up as a rather difficult task for the smaller entity, however you think that it should go.
JC: We have got a pretty good template of what not to do, you could say, or how not to conduct oneself. It comes back to something I said at the beginning of this interview. What is the United Kingdom? The UK leaving the European Union, the European Union continues. Diminished by the loss of Britain, but still with 27 member states, still looking at expanding, still going on the way the EU does with ups and downs and arguments.
Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, Scotland votes to dissolve the union of Scotland and England, what’s left is very different from what went before. It is basically England, plus Wales, plus a little bit of Ireland that looks like it probably will reunite. The demographics are such now that I would say reunification is inevitable. Maybe not very quickly but that’s the way we are moving. Also, because of the way the south has changed, it would be much easier for Unionists and Protestants. Ireland is no longer a theocracy.
I think we in my party need to give some very serious thought to how we make the transition from a vote to independence. I think that’s something that really needs to be done quite urgently. But I don’t feel overly alarmed, I think, by the mess that the British Government have made of Brexit, because I think it will be different. I think it could be different. We could handle things differently. Also, we are not going to be going off into isolation. We are planning to get out of this and join in a union where we will be an equal.