Why is our politics so lacking an awkward squad?

A look at the sacking of Joanna Cherry from the SNP's frontbench at Westminster.

Why is our politics so lacking an awkward squad? PA Ready

It really is a truism that in politics the people that wish you the most harm are on the same side. After 30-odd years watching how all parties operate I am left bemused by the internal cultures which would make a blood sport look like an afternoon picnic.

Many years ago, I remember having a conversation with the legendary Scottish organiser of the Labour Party in Scotland (as it was then called), Jimmy Allison.

Allison was a brilliant organiser with a hound’s nose for smelling the political air. He knew instinctively how an election was going. He was not overly tribal on internal politics and indeed sang the praises of people he disagreed with on the ground that ‘the movement’ needed their ability. This man of the soft left would happily champion an individual on the party’s right wing if it was in the interests of advancing the party and its cause.

I was reminded of Allison’s ecumenism this week after learning of Joanna Cherry’s sacking from the SNP frontbench at Westminster. I hold no brief for her as I don’t know her. 

Cherry is articulate, does her homework, asks pointed and pertinent questions and is the kind of unflustered presence that commands respect from opponents. I have not really seen her tested in interviews beyond the ground in which she is most comfortable: independence, Brexit, legal issues.

Whether she has what it takes to lead I know not. Climbing to the top of the greasy poll eludes many talented people for many reasons. Some don’t build bases, others tell it as they see it and make enemies, often they realise they do not have the intellectual, mental and emotional stamina to take on a job which is designed to drive the sane, utterly mad.

I do know, however, that Cherry is one of the abler MPs at Westminster and one of the party’s most effective performers so her sacking is down to her enemies within.

Joanna Cherry is not the first politician to find that when your face does not fit the dogs are taken off their leash. It was ever thus. In the run-up to the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, Labour had a vetting committee which made no secret of the fact that it was on the lookout for new people for a new era of politics.

I did not think there was necessarily anything wrong with that as Labour boasted a few dinosaurs at the time and there was a mood around to break with a culture where many of the party’s MPs looked on their constituencies as some kind of personal fiefdom.

The problem was the panel who decided if aspirants were fit for office made a number of incomprehensible decisions which looked as if it was a committee for settling scores. Comrade Allison was no doubt horrified.

If my memory serves me right, one of Donald Dewar’s special advisers (he was Secretary of State for Scotland at the time) was deemed not to be good enough. So too, Susan Deacon who would later go on to be a health secretary once devolution arrived.

But the biggest cause celebre of the vetting was Dennis Canavan. He served his constituents at Westminster for nearly a quarter of a century but wasn’t allowed to try and represent them at Holyrood. Outraged by the decision of the vetting panel, he took on the machine and won. Canavan was elected with the biggest majority standing as an independent when the first elections took place in May 1999.

There was a time when debate was the lifeblood of politics and honest disagreement a sign of maturity. There was also a time when intellectual giants sparred with one another elevating discourse and demonstrating to the public that civic leaders were serious men and women.

And today? Being permanently on message seems a pre-requisite for advancement. Road testing argument to avoid political or legislative pitfalls leads to a car crash in career terms. All parties seem to have a central casting agency full of people who have little life experience beyond the political bubble.

Often, in this world where loyalty is all, truth is lost in the thunder of propaganda, frailties are never admitted to and an ability to hold a line in the face of facts deemed a commendable leadership trait. 

Question Time at Westminster and Holyrood are largely exercises in the trading of soundbites and are often high on the squirm factor when some backbench nobody seeks to curry ministerial favour with a dive into the deep end of obsequiousness.

Dissent and respectful but furious argument is a necessity in holding power to account. The late, great Tam Dalyell was a parliamentary terrorist in the matter of impaling Executive arrogance on a sword of truth. No argument was left untested, every expert canvassed, every stone turned in the pursuit of what he believed to be true.

As a minster rattled through another answer prepared by the civil service, the old Etonian would rise with the most devastatingly simple question: why? The answer would come. He would rise again. Why? And so it would continue until the point was made.

At Westminster, UK Government ministers will be grateful to Ian Blackford. By sacking Joanna Cherry he has just made their job that bit easier in holding a line or what Sir Bernard Ingham refers to as the peddling of bunkum and balderdash.