Q&A with SNP depute leader candidate Tommy Sheppard MP
Holyrood asked the four candidates for depute leader of the SNP for their views on some key issues for the party
What sets you apart from the other candidates for depute leader?
Tommy Sheppard: All of the candidates have talked about changing some aspects of the organisation in the SNP, but what sets me aside is that I don't believe that those changes will happen just by wishing it so. We need someone with the time and the drive to provide leadership to make the changes happen. And we need to invest money in this.
I'm the only candidate putting a figure of 10 per cent of party income to be devoted to staffing needs, both at headquarters and in regional hubs across the country, to support the much needed organisational improvements. The members have a choice if that’s how they want the party to spend their money. I’ve been involved in campaigning in Scottish politics for 40 years and prior to becoming an MP I worked hard building up successful businesses. I know how to work with others to make change happen.
How do you keep all those members engaged and active?
TS: There are several strands to this. First of all, on a human level, all branch meetings and party activities and campaigns need to be welcoming, interesting and fun. We need training and support for branches to engage our members. I believe that if we have regional organisers, they can facilitate this on a local basis – responding to local needs and demands.
We need an infrastructure that’s there all year round providing advice, support and training as well as basic facilities. The other key area for members’ involvement is policy development. We need to enhance this ensuring that members have opportunities to discuss policy locally, enabling them not only to input policy ideas, but also to consider and debate policy options.
How do you strike the right balance between having policy debate within the party, but not having splits and division?
TS: I don't think disagreement is a bad thing or synonymous with splitting. Debate is the essence of democracy. Debate is how we develop, and policy is vital in that. But let's be honest – our policy-making party conference is held under the spotlight of an often hostile media. That's not to say we shouldn't discuss difficult topics, but we need to prepare for it. Members need information and opportunities to debate differing ideas – perhaps in local forums. Then, when it comes to making a decision at conference, everyone feels they've had a fair crack of the whip and are well informed about the policy agreed democratically by the party.
Has the party shifted to the left since the indyref?
TS: I think the party has been moving slightly to the left for the last 10 years. The influx of members since the indy ref has consolidated the party's position on the left of centre. I think that’s where we should be. The 2014 referendum campaign brought the case for self-determination and an independent Scotland together with the campaign for social justice, and the SNP is at the political core of the two.
The SNP is often accused of focusing on independence at the expense of using the powers it already has in government. How would you answer that?
TS: I don’t think this is the case. In many ways, the two are tantamount to the same thing. By demonstrating how the powers we currently have can be used to progress our country and champion the cause of social justice, we also show how much more could be done if we were an independent country.
What policy does the SNP not currently have that you would like to add?
TS: There's always room for improvement, but in the main they depend on us having our independence, or at least more powers to deliver them. I'd like to see us develop a national renewables company. We should be learning the lessons from oil and ensure the country benefits from its assets. I also think Scotland should have its own state broadcaster, and importantly, our own version of Ofcom.
The SNP is seen as quite centralising in government. How would you ensure power is devolved down to a local level?
TS: I don't think that's a fair assessment of the SNP. Just last year we brought in the Community Empowerment Act – strengthening local voices in decisions that matter to them. However, I do believe we can do more to ensure power is devolved, particularly in relation to community councils. We should have significantly more, and more meaningful, devolution to community councils, with budgets to make real decisions that will get local people engaged and empowered.
Would you support calling another independence referendum within the next two years?
TS: The SNP has a manifesto mandate to have the right to hold a referendum if Scotland is taken out of the EU against its will. But at the moment we don’t know if that will be the case. Everything is so murky, despite Theresa May belatedly deigning to suggest a date on which the process might start. What we’re doing now is listening to the people of Scotland to see what opinion is on a second Independence Referendum. If the people of Scotland want to revisit their decision of 2014 then yes, we should be having another referendum.
What do you see as the most likely outcome of the Brexit negotiations?
TS: Over the past three months I've almost given up predicting how the UK Government is going to manage leaving the EU. I don't think anyone can honestly say they know how it's going to turn out at the moment. But Theresa May needs to respect the will of the Scottish people and explore every option to keep Scotland’s relationship with the EU. I’m not sure she will do this, and that will mean everything is back on the table.
Does Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the world need to change?
TS: Absolutely. It’s frustrating that Scotland's voice in the world is channelled through the prism of the Westminster establishment. There is a superiority and ugly xenophobic undertones to the way Britain presents itself that is completely at odds with Scotland’s position. I want to see an independent Scotland that is outward looking and works constructively with other countries.
Who is your inspiration as a leader?
TS: Without going for the obvious answer of Nicola Sturgeon, I’d have to go with Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. The first-ever socialist MP, the first president of the SNP and a founder of the Scottish Labour party. By all accounts, he was a character! And, I think, he would be pleased to see both of those traditions - of radical change and self-determination – coming together again in the modern SNP and Yes movement.
What is your top leadership tip?
TS: Don't take things personally.
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