The argument in this article can be followed without clicking the many hyperlinks it includes. They are there to provide sources for the facts cited. Corrections and any additional information are, as always, welcome.
Lawyers for Yes was a pro-independence group whose existence was made public on 22 June 2014, a mere three months before Scotland’s independence referendum. It was one of many such groups that sprouted before or during the referendum campaign, some genuine, some said to be SNP ‘fronts’, some hardly more than one or two people who set up a Twitter account.
Like many of those other groups, Lawyers for Yes might have faded as a footnote to history if parts of the profession concerned hadn’t come into current prominence over matters perhaps involving Michelle Thomson MP. She was elected as an SNP candidate but her membership of its parliamentary group is currently in abeyance. The issues concerned, which regular readers of No Thanks! will surely be aware of, relate to a solicitor acting for one of Mrs Thomson’s companies who was struck off for his involvement in a number of residential property sales.
Numerous allegations have been made around this brief summary of what is rapidly becoming a saga. Some of them focus on the Law Society of Scotland which practising solicitors in Scotland have to belong to and which regulates their conduct. The purpose of this post is not to speculate about those allegations – I have no more information on them than is available to other members of the public – but to look at the connections between some of the leading members of the group and other groupings or organisations. I draw no specific implications from those links but they are interesting in themselves, especially in a small country where people in or around power often know each other in a variety of different circumstances (observers can, however, see the sometimes baleful effects of similar connections in other small countries like Ireland).
By the time they ceased taking signatories to their declaration prior to the referendum, Lawyers for Yes included 190 names of solicitors, advocates, students, and academic and retired lawyers. The first twenty names on the list are arranged alphabetically by surname. At No. 21 the list jumps back to ‘A’ and the remaining names are then also arranged alphabetically. From other evidence it is clear that those first twenty names were the initial, core signatories. Here they are:
I have only had time to analyse publicly known connections of these first twenty signatories although I comment later on a few of the others.
A useful starting point for understanding the relevance of Lawyers for Yes is the statement by Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the Yes campaign that greeted news of its formation:
Lawyers for Yes is an important new addition to the Yes movement and an expression of our depth, diversity and expertise. The group has enlisted some of the country’s most eminent legal brains and its authoritative statements on subjects such as citizens’ rights and EU membership are a vital and welcome contribution to the debate about Scotland’s future.
The key signatories involved in the formation of the group were Joanna Cherry (No. 5 on the list) and Gail Gianni (No. 7). Ms Cherry explained to the Law Society Journal:
My colleague Gail Gianni and I set up this group to show that many in the legal profession support an independent Scotland.
On the Lawyers for Yes web site she listed the six signatories who formed the steering committee for the group. Here they are with what I regard as their connections relevant to this article:
- Joanna Cherry (convenor) – QC and SNP member. Since May 2015 SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and SNP spokesperson in the Commons for justice and home affairs
- James Aitken (No. 2) – a solicitor who is also a member of Business for Scotland, a pro-independence group analysed forensically by blogger Kevin Hague for its untruths about the economics of independence and for the links of its leading members with the SNP (the latter aspect here)
- Gail Gianni – an advocate whose membership of any other relevant grouping I cannot discover, but whose Facebook page includes ‘Likes’ of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond
- Robert Holland (No. 9) – a solicitor advocate who was SNP candidate for Edinburgh South in the Holyrood election in 2007. Currently representing petitioners in the case to oust Alistair Carmichael as MP for Orkney and Shetland
- Brandon Malone (No. 15) – solicitor advocate and member of the Law Society of Scotland council. He has or had a blog called My Indyref Diary which sports the SNP logo and includes a link to their web site
- Jonathan Mitchell (No. 19) – another QC and another lawyer representing petitioners seeking to oust Alistair Carmichael as Orkney and Shetland MP. I cannot find that Mr Mitchell has a formal political affiliation but he retweeted approvingly on 2 September a tweet by SNP chief executive Peter Murrell on the first minister’s (his wife’s) views on the Syrian refugee crisis.
So all six members of the Lawyers for Yes steering committee either are SNP members or have expressed clear sympathy for the party, as well as being involved in other aspects of the Yes/independence movement.
Of the other remaining initial signatories of Lawyers for Yes three are also SNP members or backers:
- Harvey Aberdein (No. 1) – solicitor and ‘a wealthy SNP backer’ (UK Polling Report). He is quoted elsewhere on the web as saying ‘setting up of the mechanisms of a new state will provide a huge boost to the corporate and commercial property sector.’ Er, yes
- Fiona Cook (No. 6) – solicitor, whose Twitter page says she is ‘ex-Labour now SNP’
- Ian Hamilton (No. 8) – retired QC of Stone of Destiny fame and long-time SNP member.
Although I was not able to analyse systematically any affiliations of the remaining 170 signatories I did notice a few familiar names, including:
- Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (No. 24) – well-connected MP who also features in my earlier analysis of the connections of senior SNP politicians
- Aamer Anwar (No. 29) – well known human rights solicitor and, according to The Scotsman, recent SNP member
- Simon Brown (No. 48) – solicitor advocate and member of the Law Society of Scotland council
- William Criggie (No. 72) – solicitor and former business partner in Hamilton Burns WS of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh
- Paul Kirkwood (No. 110) – solicitor and husband of Sheila Kirkwood, employee of the Law Society and secretary of their guarantee fund sub-committee that handled the case of the struck-off solicitor referred to above
Since comments have been made in both the mainstream and social media about what the Law Society might or might not have done in relation to what I describe above as ‘matters perhaps involving Michelle Thomson MP’, I thought I would check any cross-membership between their large council, which has 41 legal members, and Lawyers for Yes. Apart from the two mentioned above (Messrs. Malone and Brown) there is none.
Lawyers for Yes is an interesting case study of the groups that sprung up in response to the independence referendum. It is interesting because it represented an attempt to lend gravitas to the Yes campaign by getting one of the three traditional and traditionally respected professions (the law, medicine and the ministry) aligned with the independence movement. It is interesting because it formed so late on, almost as if it were a panic measure to bolster confidence in the Yes campaign as it failed to shift opinion. And it is interesting because despite the great publicity that attended its emergence so few lawyers actually signed its declaration.
The Law Society alone has over 11,000 practising solicitor members. Even if all the signatories were solicitors (some were advocates, some were students and some were retired) that would be only 1.2% of the membership: the vast majority of lawyers in Scotland chose not to sign. And that gives me some comfort about the wider legal profession which I would prefer, given the nature of its work, not to express overt political opinions – of any sort.
Whether or not Lawyers for Yes was an SNP ‘front’ organisation as some have claimed is a moot point. It is clear that its core leadership was heavily dominated by SNP members or sympathisers. And the lawyer who seems to have driven its formation, Joanna Cherry, arguably received her reward from the SNP in the subsequent general election. These things alone are helpful to know.