Scottish National party ‘mavericks’ aim to tap into energy of yes campaign

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A breast cancer surgeon, a feminist blogger and the owner of a Glasgow bar that became an activists’ hub during the referendum campaign are among the “bunch of mavericks” standing for selection as Scottish National party candidates for the general election which, according to recent Guardian polling, promises to radically alter the political landscape in Scotland.

At the party’s annual conference in November, delegates unanimously supported a plan to allow prominent yes campaigners who are not party members or have only just joined the party – whose membership has more than trebled since the referendum – to stand for the SNP or on a joint SNP ticket in May.

Philippa Whitford, a cancer specialist from Troon, hopes to become one of them. Her speech at a Women for Independence event in May warning of the dangers of NHS privatisation if Scotland voted no became a viral hit and prompted the official yes campaign to press the subject in the final weeks before the referendum.

In her first interview since passing the vetting process for candidates, Whitford, who joined the SNP in the summer, says: “What strikes me is that, if we pull it off, this is going to be the most non-political group of politicians Westminster has seen for a long time. We’re a bunch of mavericks.”

Whitford is standing for selection in the constituency of Central Ayrshire, which Labour held in 2010 with a 12,000 majority, the SNP coming third. The latest Guardian analysis suggests it could see a swing to the nationalists with a 10% majority, although Whitford insists: “I think it’s going to be a lot harder than the polls suggest.

“One of the things wrong with Westminster is that it has moved away from people who had a life previously and went into politics for a reason,” she says, explaining her “very painful” decision to stand. “It could mean giving up a career that I fought decades for. But I felt that I needed to step up to the plate.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Kate Higgins, a prolific pro-independence blogger and organiser for Women for Independence, who is now on the approved list for Edinburgh South West and Edinburgh South, the most marginal seat in Scotland, where Labour is expected to heavily target Lib Dem voters to stop them switching to the SNP.

“You do have to stand up and be counted,” says Higgins, who has been an SNP member since the 90s but says she only returned to activist politics during the referendum. “It’s about not turning our back on the people who invested so much in the referendum campaign.

“Like many people after 18 September I was at a loss,” she explains. “We were all yes-ed up and nowhere to go. I met so many people who had staked a lot on the referendum, and I felt I’d let them down. I’d encouraged them to register and vote for the first time with the promise that things would be different, but now there was a threat to return to politics as usual.”

With a succession of polls suggesting that the SNP is headed for unprecedented success next May, Higgins says the party’s embrace of alternative candidates is evidence of an understanding that “this is no ordinary election”.

“I think that’s why they’ve made space for people of all shapes and sizes to come forward,” she says. “They understand that they need a team of different talents to go down there and finish this business. It’s not about sending people who are noise-makers, but those who are prepared to use all their time in London to change the system.”

Likewise, she dismisses the suggestion that the independent-mindedness of these new candidates may sit uneasily with the SNP’s renowned party discipline. “We’re all a bit older, with long experience in our different fields. The idea that we’ll sit quietly and do as we’re told without debating it is ridiculous.”

The “SNP plus” approach ran into difficulties initially when a number of individuals prominent in the yes movement, including the human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar and broadcaster and author Lesley Riddoch, declined to stand. Other potential candidates were understood to be unhappy that they would be expected to have the SNP under their names on the ballot paper.

Explaining her decision on her blog, Riddoch wrote: “I realise that’s a big gesture for any party to make. But I have no desire to stand under the SNP banner. If I did I would have joined the party.”

She went on: “I agreed 100% with the SNP about the merits of independence but I don’t agree with them on other policy direction … I have particular problems about the way all political parties have tended to centralise power in Scotland not reverse the stultifying top down nature of democracy.”

There have also been suggestions that, for all the SNP’s warm words about expanding the pool of candidates, it is established party figures, special advisers and friends of the party hierarchy who have found favour during vetting. The former British ambassador Craig Murray accused the SNP of bullying after he failed the process for lacking “commitment on group discipline issues”. Murray concludes that this was because he responded in the negative when asked if he would vote for the bedroom tax if told to by the SNP leadership as part of a Westminster deal with another party.

He wrote on his blog: “They were less pleasant to me than was Jack Straw or anybody in the Foreign Office when they were sacking me for blowing the whistle on extraordinary rendition and torture. It was a really weird exercise in which these highly taxpayer paid professional politicians attempted to twist every word I said to find an excuse to disqualify me … My analysis is that those in the SNP who make a fat living out of it are terrified the energy of the Yes campaign may come to threaten their comfy position.”

Gillian Martin, another first-time candidate who passed the vetting process to stand for selection in Aberdeen, points out that the bedroom tax question was one of a range of discursive scenarios that all candidates were presented with, adding: “At vetting I was with 12 other women and the majority of them were like me; new members who had got right stuck in during referendum, and felt they wanted to now work for and had something different to offer the SNP. A couple of women like this who I’ve kept in touch with from my vetting group have passed and are now nominated in their areas. Whether the SNP candidates are full of the so-called grassroots folks is not up to the party machine, it’s up to the members.”

Tommy Sheppard, owner of the Stand comedy club and former Scottish Labour assistant general secretary, was a prominent Yes Scotland supporter who joined the SNP in the aftermath of the referendum. He believes the non-traditional profile of some candidates is reflective of the new membership of the SNP as a whole and, by extension, the wider yes movement.

Sheppard, who is standing for selection in the vulnerable Labour seat of Edinburgh East, the only part of the Scottish capital to record a high yes vote, says: “We’re an unusual bunch, and not the traditional SNP characters. But this great influx of members didn’t join because they liked waving the saltire. They still want fundamental change but understand the realpolitik that they need to vote SNP to get it. So the party responded by putting forward candidates who can speak to them.”

Suzanne McLaughlin runs Glasgow’s Vespbar, which changed its name to Yesbar during the referendum campaign when it became a meeting place for yes activists. She suggests that voters’ experience of a broader kind of politics during the campaign means that they want to see wider parliamentary representation come May.

“The SNP was just part of the yes movement,” says McLaughlin, who was involved with the Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence, and is now standing in the Glasgow North and North West seats. “There is a role for independent voices and it’s important that the SNP is seen to be true to what it said about creating an umbrella of democracy.”

According to McLaughlin, who says “you could have knocked me down with a feather” when the idea of her standing was first mooted by her local MSP, “for too long the House of Commons hasn’t been about the commons”.

“I realised that I’m more representative than many people who end up as MPs. I’m a business woman, a mum with an autistic child, I’ve been unemployed, I’ve been skint, I’m comfortable now, I’ve lived through the same issues that the vast majority of people have. I’m not a grey man in a grey suit, and I’m not doing this for a career in a party.”

For Higgins, the predicted seismic shifts in Scotland’s electoral landscape throw down a gauntlet for the victors. “Something fundamental has shifted in Scottish society and none of us can quite put our finger on it. The Scottish population is on the verge of doing something pretty huge in May, and the SNP has a responsibility to make sure that the right people are in place to seize that opportunity.”

Powered by article was written by Libby Brooks, Scotland reporter, for The Guardian on Thursday 22nd January 2015 07.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010