Holyrood 2021 was supposed to be an election for the mavericks. Alex Salmond is back from the political dead with a new party promising to lead nationalists to independence where his former party has failed. George Galloway has turned his attention to Scotland and, despite his previous pronouncements on the matter, is heading up an outfit opposed to indyref2. While Salmond has had no trouble drumming up headlines, neither has made much of an impression on the polls.
That might be because their respective parties appear to be all about one man. The opposite seems to be true of Andy Wightman, who actually is one man but his campaign is tapping into a grassroots movement for more rigour, integrity and free-thinking at Holyrood. Having quit his old party during the last parliament on a point of principle, Wightman is standing as an independent in this election. Not in his old stomping ground of Lothian, either, but in the less electorally promising Highlands and Islands region, the vast length and breadth of which he is presently driving solo to introduce himself to an entirely new crop of voters. If anyone can lay a claim to the mantle of a maverick, it is Wightman.
Bookish, with thinning hair, ever-peering from behind a pair of conservatively-styled glasses, Wightman bears a passing resemblance to a non-evil Jeffrey Archer. He first came to public attention during the 2014 independence campaign, in which his soft-spoken style of discourse stood out from some of the more bilious outpourings on the Yes side. He is also a land reform campaigner and has written well-received books on the subject, showing a flair for stirring interest in what has been regarded as a dry, obscure issue. Selected by the Scottish Greens to contest the 2016 election, he secured a list seat in the Lothian region and quickly established a reputation for a thoroughness of legislative scrutiny rare at Holyrood.
For the Greens, he was something of a catch: a renowned author and researcher on a policy area where successive devolved administrations had made more noise than progress. What’s more, he was a man of the non-sectarian left who commanded respect across the political spectrum for his work ethic and his knack for making radical measures seem reasonable, even obvious. Yes, he could be slightly donnish and a little tetchy, but a Green who not only could speak to normal people, but might actually have been one? Matcha lattes all round.
What went wrong? If you’ve been keeping pace with the new intolerance sweeping through politics, you can probably guess. Wightman found himself at odds with his party, which takes a hardline position on gender identity, and even had to issue a statement apologising for attending a feminist meeting at which Julie Bindel spoke. (For anyone blissfully unfamiliar with these matters, Bindel is the trans movement's Emmanuel Goldstein and merely being in the same room as her is enough to get you cancelled.) Wightman is obviously conflicted on these questions and doesn’t fit into any of the main ideological camps, but even educated doubt is seemingly no longer permitted in the Scottish Greens.
By last December, Wightman had had enough and quit the party to sit as an independent. His resignation letter described ‘intolerance’ within the Greens towards ‘an open and mature dialogue’ about the tension between trans rights and women’s rights, adding that some of the party’s ‘language, approaches and postures’ had been ‘provocative, alienating and confrontational’. He said he had been threatened with disciplinary action if he voted for an amendment allowing those undergoing forensic examination for sexual assault to request an examiner of the same sex (rather than 'gender'). The Greens had become ‘very censorious of any deviation from an agreed line’, he contended, and concluded: ‘I cannot operate in this kind of environment’.
In the early days of the Scottish Parliament, awkward-squadders were able to stand as independents and win. After some New Labour control-freakery in selections for the first parliament excluded left-winger Dennis Canavan, he stood in Falkirk West as an independent and romped home with a 12,000-vote majority. Margo MacDonald, originally elected as an SNP MSP, went solo after falling victim to similar internal politicking, embarrassing her old party by winning her seat three times in a row off her own steam. In 2003, retired GP Jean Turner humiliated then-mighty Scottish Labour by winning an upset victory in Strathkelvin and Bearsden on a platform to save the local hospital.
Nowadays independents have to contend with a hyper-tribal politics in which every election is fought as constitutional Armageddon: Scottish democracy vs. the future of the United Kingdom. On the pro-independence side, voting for the SNP is spoke of as though it were a moral duty. Conviction politicians struggle to get a hearing above the partisan din. Wightman reckons he needs 15,000 votes to get back in, roughly what his old party took in Highlands and Islands last time. I would have put money on him managing that in Lothian, but I couldn’t fathom why he would take the risk of standing in a new area, so I asked him.
‘Two reasons,’ he says. ‘Firstly, I have moved to Lochaber. This has been on the cards for a couple of years but the timing is down to family issues and relatives’ care needs. My mum lives on Skye so I want to be closer to her. Secondly, because I now live here, I think it is wrong to seek to represent another region where my chances may be better but I have no longer any local connection.’
You can see why everyone goes on about his integrity. Wightman tells me that, in voting for him, the electors of Highlands and Islands ‘will get an independent voice to speak for them and the issues they care about without being compromised by party lines, policy and discipline’. He adds:
“They will get someone who will speak their mind and listen to their concerns with respect and understanding. And they will get someone who will champion decentralisation of power, tackling the housing crisis facing local communities and young people and who will argue for more regional autonomy and power.
Regional autonomy is a big talking point in rural Scotland and especially Highlands and Islands, where locals resent how many decisions have been centralised by the Edinburgh government. One of the ironies of the SNP’s approach to government is that, even as it demands more autonomy from Westminster, the Holyrood bureaucracy has centralised power — by abolishing regional police and fire services, by treating councils like arms-length executive agencies, by overruling local planning decisions. As far as Highlanders and Islanders are concerned, this has led to the issues of most importance to them being overlooked by Central Belt politicians with Central Belt priorities.
Wightman points out the failure to tackle the especially acute lack of affordable housing in the region, as well as transport and broadband connectivity. He says ‘too many in the political establishment are unwilling to let go of power and trust genuine local democracy’. He believes in the ‘Lego brick’ model of autonomy: ‘Small but effective municipalities retain political responsibility but deliver it through bottom-up partnerships,’ he explains. He would like to see Highlands and Islands responsible for its own infrastructure, ferries, land use, housing, transport, environmental policy and more besides.
Ownership of land looms large in all this and Wightman insists it is a matter of practicalities, not simply ideology. ‘Land reform is not some radical chic policy to gain votes,’ he says. ‘More local control of the land and sea, of fisheries, forests and the food economy is a vital component of a more resilient and productive economy.’
Another form of autonomy Wightman advocates is Scottish independence, but he does so without any of the animus evinced by sections of the SNP. He tells me: ‘The nation state is on its way out. We need new ways of international co-operation. I am a confederalist at heart. No country can be independent in the age of global challenges such as climate change.’
However, he is impatient with the attitude that says Scotland must wait for independence before it can see change:
“Scotland could do things differently with the powers of independence but it could do so much more right now with the powers that the Scottish Parliament already has, by decentralising power; reforming public services to properly implement preventative policies in health, for example; tackling the housing crisis; reforming land law; supporting co-operative and mutual models of business and public service; and so much more.
No one can doubt that Wightman has ideas, but what he no longer has is a party infrastructure to knock doors, deliver leaflets and pay for billboard and social media advertising for him. Winning as an independent in Highlands and Islands is more daunting still because, although there is a strong independent tradition in local government, the region has never sent an independent to Holyrood. Then again, it has never been presented with an independent quite like Andy Wightman.
If it was up to his opponents, he’d be a shoo-in. I asked one MSP to describe Wightman and was told:
“A very thoughtful and decent man and a very effective politician. He is nobody’s fool and judges issues on their merits. Always prepared to talk and listen to arguments. I really rate him.
“There are MSPs from all parties who are quietly hoping Andy makes it back, not least because he brings a quiet dignity to proceedings, is intensely cerebral and a throughly decent guy. I don’t know an MSP more trusted across the chamber — except, I guess, among the Greens. He raises the level of public debate and I daresay the IQ of the Scottish Parliament by some margin.
A third professed to have ‘always been a fan’ of Wightman and, while ‘not sure he has the profile throughout the whole area to break through’, said:
“He's a deep thinker when it comes to legislation, and unusual in his willingness to get right into the weeds of a policy and how best to enact it in law, provision by provision. We definitely need people like him in Holyrood.
To reiterate, these are his opponents talking. The party whips exert so much control that MSPs from all parties desperately want to see the return of someone who can speak his mind. Indeed, someone who perhaps can't help but speak his mind, even if it gets him into trouble sometimes. For his part, Wightman notes:
“Too many MSPs are unwilling to speak out because of party discipline or the prospect of promotion. Some do, of course, but they are the exception. SNP MSPs too often sit on their hands rather than use their influence to argue for changes in government policy.
If he wins on May 6, Wightman wants to form a cross-party caucus of Highlands and Islands MSPs to work together on key policy areas and give individual parliamentarians the support to stand up to party business managers. Such an alliance would weaken party control over MSPs and, in turn, Edinburgh's ability to dictate to local authorities and communities. It would disrupt business-as-usual at Holyrood. It would cause all sorts of trouble for ministers. It would drive the whips to distraction. It’s a wonderful idea.
The putative mavericks of this campaign have failed to impress, not least because they don’t appear all that maverick in their thinking. Voters in Lothian are losing a proper maverick, an MSP willing to put principle not only before party but before personal career and political fortunes. Lothian’s loss may prove to be Highlands and Islands’ gain, particularly if the region’s electorate wants to break free from one-size-fits-all centralism and Holyrood-knows-best imperiousness. Holyrood doesn't know best and seldom meets even the lowest expectations. A win for Andy Wightman (and a few more like him) might be the first step to changing that.