Another week of being grilled over her plans for government was clearly taking its toll as Ash Regan reached the half-way point in a four-hour series of interviews for the written media. “I’m feeling a little exhausted,” she confessed, though there will be little time to relax as the SNP leadership campaign heads into its third week.
In any case, as a divorced mother of twin boys and a former government minister she is no stranger to the rigours of balancing work and home commitments and is relishing the chance to take on the country’s highest office.
The 49-year-old former PR, marketing and events executive, is the outsider in the contest with 10% of the public support, according to a Channel 4 poll, but insists she can make up ground on her two rivals, Humza Yousaf on 33% and Kate Forbes on 32%. You wouldn’t expect her to say anything else. But every poll puts her in third place and her hopes of leading the party and becoming First Minister look like ending in disappointment.
Her supporters argue that she can spring a surprise and that, at the very least, she is challenging the other candidates to avoid complacency and come up with better ideas and solutions than her own. On that score she has produced a series of practical ideas that offer something tangible rather than the usual “promised land” pledges that feature in election campaigns.
They include a “voter empowerment mechanism”, whereby a majority vote for independence parties in any UK or Holyrood election would give her government the mandate to commence negotiations with Westminster over secession.
Would it work? She says that every time a country has asked to leave the Empire or the Commonwealth, “the UK Government has said no at the beginning and eventually they have come round to saying yes.”
She wants to set up an “independence commission” to lay down the “infrastructure” for the country to become independent, which would likely include early work on the creation of a central bank overseeing her plan for a Scottish currency.
She plans a “readiness thermometer” – a physical installation that would show the work done by the commission. “When that gets up to 100%, everybody in Scotland knows that we’ve solved all these problems, everything is ready to go and we’ll have that confidence,” she says.
Whether they are bold or gimmicky, her proposals have provided food for thought for the country, not just SNP members as they cast their votes.
They also form the basis for each of the presentations she’s given, delivered with a self-belief that suggests she must be on to something. Get her on some of the details of day-to-day issues and she’s a little less comfortable, though she again rolls off a few ideas that will get people talking.
She wants to listen to businesses, saying they have had a “terrible time and some of them are teetering on the edge and we don’t want to push them over.”
She’s says there have been “strategic mistakes”, such as the deposit return scheme, which she would pause, and says that an alcohol promotion ban that prevents, for instance, the sale of branded merchandise “seems to be not a sensible suggestion”. The policy of alcohol reduction to improve health must be better targeted, she says.
‘Businesses have had a terrible time and some of them are teetering on the edge and we don’t want to push them over’
But what about business rates and rates relief? What would be her policy on an issue of particular importance to small firms?
“Mmmm.. I have not taken a decision on that, yet. Forgive me,” she says. “But if I become First Minister I want to support business and I’m going to be looking at some creative ways to do that.”
Does she have a big idea for the economy?
She offers a revival of the government’s aborted plan for a state-owned energy company, providing generation and supply, seed funded by revenue diverted from the carrier bag charge. It sounds a bit optimistic, and would mean raiding a pot earmarked for good causes. She would get the Scottish National investment Bank involved in backing it and echoes Humza Yousaf’s plan to provide it with more support.
“I would raise its budget… but I can’t give you a figure,” she admits. Nor is there any indication as to where this money would come from, confirming that it’s just an idea at the moment.
She’s asked if the green schemes, the alcohol campaign, no matched business rates relief with England and higher taxes on high earners means there is a high price to pay for running a business in Scotland.
“I’m not sure I agree with that, but I want to support businesses to thrive in Scotland,” she says, while adding that she believes in the progressive tax system now in operation and that she wants a Scottish currency.
“The Independence Commission would be tasked with setting up the infrastructure and currency is one part of that,” she says. “You need to have that flexibility over your monetary policy. It is risky for an independent country not to have its own currency. I can see us moving to a Scottish currency within months.”
What about Scottish Enterprise and the other development agencies? Any plans for them?
She hesitates before saying rather feebly: “I think they do some good work”, and concedes: “I have not looked at it in detail.”
Kate Forbes, who has been Finance Secretary since stepping in to deliver Derek Mackay’s budget in February 2020 after he was forced to step down, would be expected to have a greater grasp on financial matters. She has said she wants to build her independence campaign around a strong economic case, though she is tarnished with being a key player in a government seen to have made no progress on either growing the economy or making the breakthrough for separation.
Yousaf has stated he will pursue a “well being” economy that would build a new economic model which “puts the equality, happiness and health of all Scotland’s citizens at its heart.”
He would bring trade unions and workers into the heart of economic policy, redesign the electricity market, and launch a £20bn investment fund to invest in affordable housing, renewable energy and higher-speed internet in remote and rural areas. He also wants to rejoin the European Union, giving Scottish businesses access to the EU single market.
But all this is for the day when independence comes which, even on the most optimistic forecasts, won’t be until the end of this decade. In the meantime, voters want to know what he and his rivals will do from the end of this month. To that extent, Regan does provide a broad outline of her immediate plans for tax and investment, even they’re still a bit rough around the edges.
She has enjoyed a swift rise through the political ranks since defeating the leader of the Scottish Labour Party Kezia Dugdale at the 2016 election. In June 2018 Nicola Sturgeon appointed her as the Minister for Community Safety, succeeding Annabelle Ewing. In 2021 Regan was re-elected, increasing her share of the vote by more than 8,000 and Sturgeon reappointed her as community safety minister.
However, on 27 October last year she resigned, citing concerns over the Scottish Government’s support for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
Regan says the leadership campaign has been put together at such short notice that there has not been enough time for research, but her faltering responses on the economy adds further to a belief that most parliamentarians do not give it the attention required.
Despite the lack of preparation time, her responses on how to achieve independence appear well-rehearsed. Should her television inquisitors switch from the big populist topics to the issues of day-to-day management – it might prove her undoing.