Is Ash Regan the dark horse in the SNP leadership race? Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are the frontrunners, yet in a race full of surprises, Regan’s chances should not be ruled out. The 48-year-old MSP for Edinburgh Eastern resigned in protest over gender self ID. Now she has returned as the candidate for change from the Nicola Sturgeon era – but might her ties to another former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, prove to be her undoing?
Regan is clear about what went wrong for the SNP under its outgoing leader: ‘Kids in the playground can see that there have been some issues in the SNP of late,’ she says when I meet her at her campaign launch in North Queensferry in Fife. ‘Our movement has been divided for far too long by petty differences and personal agendas.’
Sturgeon famously said she ‘detests the Tories’. Does Regan? ‘I am friends with Tories!’ she laughs. ‘I am. Listen, people get into politics because they’re passionate about things and they have a particular view of how they think things can be better. Do I think that the way the Tories look at things is right and they make the right choices? No – and I’m sure they would think the same about me. But you’ve got to treat everybody with respect. I also think the public like that. They want to see us all working together, don’t they, for the benefit of Scotland. I want to get back to that.’
If Regan is keen to talk about what went wrong for the SNP under Sturgeon, she is more evasive on her ties to Salmond. Kirk Torrance, an adviser on Regan’s campaign, is credited with much of the SNP’s success in the early noughties under Salmond. He was also instrumental in the creation of Salmond’s rival pro-independence party, Alba. He also sparked controversy when Salmond was acquitted after he made tweets that alleged Nicola Sturgeon had been part of a ‘machiavellian stitch-up’ against Alex Salmond following Salmond’s acquittal of sexual assault charges.
Does Regan have any policies that are not Alba policies? She couldn’t answer the question. Has she spoken to Salmond within the last seven days? She didn’t think so. Has she had contact with Salmond in the last week? Silence. Would she invite him back into her SNP if he said he wanted to come back, I asked her. ‘If he wanted to. Sure.’ Is Regan a pawn for Salmond’s Alba party, a vessel through which they can get their policies into parliament? Her denial was unconvincing.
Regan’s other weakness is her lack of experience: she has never run a Scottish department and is up against the health and finance secretaries. But she insists she is up for the job: ‘I have attended cabinet lots,’ Regan says, ‘Whether you’re a senior minister or a junior minister, you’re doing exactly the same job.’ Regan also has little time to win over SNP supporters: voting will take place over 14 days (unlike the 51 days for the Tory leadership). ‘I actually think this timescale is inappropriate for a decision of this importance,’ Regan said, ‘but we are where we are.’
Might this be a dig at the fact that the timetable was set by Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, who is chief executive of the SNP? Regan described his role in the contest as a ‘clear conflict of interest’. Torrance echoed her sentiment: ‘I would like this to be a fair election. If Carrie was counting Boris’s votes, I think everybody would have questions about that.’
Regan rose to prominence only a few months ago after she quit the SNP over the gender reform bill. Unsurprisingly she sees the end of Sturgeon’s bill as a progressive triumph.‘There can be no compromise on women’s rights,’ she says.
So how about independence? Opinions in the SNP differ on the timing and strategy: Yousaf and Forbes have both declined to echo Sturgeon’s idea of regarding the next general election as a de facto referendum. Regan proposes a brand new scheme: the ‘voter empowerment mechanism’ or, as she described it, ‘VEM’ for short.
But Regan isn’t particularly clear on how this policy would work. At first, she suggests ‘this has got nothing to do with the UK government’ and she’s nonetheless ‘sure that [the VEM] will be regarded well by the international community’ – but why? And how could any referendum work unless unionists recognise it?
Regan is cooler on the green agenda and wants to slow the proposed phasing out of oil and gas extraction from the North Sea and the race to net zero (Scotland’s current target is 2045, five years earlier than the rest of the UK). This is a bold policy move for someone who wants to lead a party in coalition with the Scottish Greens and something of a deviation of her younger self, who in 2014 spoke with excitement about building her ‘eco-friendly’, solar-panelled home in the Scottish Borders.
Does it matter to her if the relationship between the SNP and the Greens breaks down? The short answer is: not really. ‘It seems as if the Greens are going to have a problem with some of my policy positions,’ she responded. ‘I need to talk to them. But I’m not afraid to work in a minority government, if that’s the question you’re asking me.’
Almost two thirds of Scots surveyed last June think there should not be an independence referendum this year, while only 16 per cent think it is a top priority for the Scottish government. The majority of Scottish voters are concerned that discussions on independence are detracting from the hardships they face on a daily basis. So why not prioritise governing, instead of campaigning?
‘A lot of the problems that Scotland is facing is because we’re part of the UK,’ she says. ‘I’m very aware there’s a perception that the SNP is not focusing on the priorities that the public have, like the NHS, the cost of living crisis, the economy. I will reprioritise onto these areas the best people and the best jobs, and bring the best team, to see if we can meet these challenges head on.’
The sentiment is a positive one, but it remains vague. Does Regan have more details of her policies, not least on how to fix the Scottish NHS? ‘We will be setting out policy on what we do with the NHS in the next couple of weeks,’ she assured me, though that doesn’t give her campaign team long to make an impression, given the race is set to finish in only four weeks’ time.
What of Regan’s own track record in positions of power? In 2019, she came under fire for paying off ex-employees and using non-disclosure agreements which led to calls for more transparency on publicly-funded settlement agreements. Allegations included complaints about passing on of confidential employee health details via email, staff members facing discrimination due to their disability and reports of bullying and victimisation occurring within her MSP office. She was keen to move away from questions on this, saying that ‘what we need to remember with those types of agreements is that they protect people on both sides’. As she was being asked whether she was a ‘bully or a discriminator’, she promptly drew the questions to a close.
And this is the problem with Ash Regan: while clearly an ambitious, intelligent woman with a hefty public relation-filled CV and an admirable attitude to cross-party unity and open debate, she is not as polished as her competitors and nowhere near as media-savvy as Nicola Sturgeon. Halfway through the one-to-one media interviews that followed her speech, Regan announced to her team that she was ‘exhausted’. As Sturgeon said in her resignation speech, politicians are humans, too. But she said that after fifteen years at the forefront of Scottish politics. Regan’s campaign has only just started.