Ash Regan: I’m the unity candidate
"I’m the candidate for change,” says Ash Regan, the firm underdog in the race to be the next SNP leader. “I think I can confidently say that, and I think people would recognise that in me.
“The SNP has been an electoral success for a really long time. I think we all recognise it’s been very successful. It’s had some really great policies; it’s done really good work for the people of Scotland.
“I would say, however, the SNP needs a new direction. I think we need to reprioritise in certain areas, and I think we need to bring unity back to the party. I would say that I’m the unity candidate and I’m also the candidate that can lead the wider [independence] movement as well.”
Dubbing herself as the unity candidate is probably an unexpected take from the politician best known from resigning as a minister in protest at government policy.
I’m able to think critically about things and that I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in
Until October last year, Regan had been community safety minister since 2018, managing a portfolio that ranged from tackling prostitution, to setting legal aid fees, to restricting the sale of fireworks.
Then the Gender Recognition Reform Bill came along, which she said would risk “the dignity, the safety and the privacy of women and girls”. But she views taking the decision to quit as a strength: “I would think that that shows to people that I’m able to think critically about things and that I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in.”
An SNP government with Regan at the helm, though, is unlikely to remain in coalition with the Scottish Green Party, which backs those reforms. I ask whether she’d look to continue the Bute House Agreement. She says: “The Greens and the SNP obviously have some policy issues where they are in concert and they’re working together quite well. And then there are other issues where we don’t have the same policies. I would certainly think that we would be able to sit down with our coalition partners, have a conversation with them, and see where it goes from there.”
Regan first entered the Scottish Parliament in 2016, having got involved – like many current SNP MSPs – with the party in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. She previously told Holyrood that while the outcome of 2014 was “really upsetting”, it “galvanised the Yes side to keep going” and her to become a politician.
I need to refocus this government onto the priorities that people of Scotland have got
Fast-forward eight years and, despite what she said about the SNP needing a new direction, Regan has backed the strategy preferred by outgoing first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to approach an election as a de facto referendum.
“We’re in a position now where there’s no route for Scotland to express its democratic choice… The benefit of this plan is it’s very clear. Everybody knows exactly what’s involved in it: 50 plus one per cent combined votes, that would be for all pro-independence parties, under each or either Westminster or Holyrood elections.
“And I believe that would then show that clear instruction from the Scottish electorate to begin those negotiations of exiting the UK. I can’t speak for the UK Government but I would expect that, on being given a clear instruction from Scotland, they would listen to that.”
While she acknowledges that such a plan would not be perfect, she believes it is the “best option” given where Scottish politics finds itself. But she would seek to rearrange the now-postponed SNP special conference to discuss it further. “I want to go to conference and I want the membership – MPs, MSPs, everybody – to have a free and a big discussion on whether we think this is the right approach. We’ll listen to everybody and hopefully this will get the backing of conference. Then we’ll take it forward.”
The other prong of this plan is to take the arguments about independence outwith the political bubble. She backs the creation of an “Independence Convention”, involving other parties, organisations and thinktanks. That would come with the side benefit of ensuring she, as first minister, would be able to focus on other priorities.
“It takes the independence campaigning out of Holyrood and it takes it away from government. If I’m elected as leader and I am confirmed by parliament as the first minister, my job is going to be to deliver good governance for the people of Scotland. I need to refocus this government onto the priorities that people of Scotland have got, because we’ve gone away from that a little bit. And so that means that I can be freed up to work on that.”
This interview appears in issue 502 of Holyrood magazine. You can also read our interviews with Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes.