Who is Ash Regan? The SNP gender rebel aiming to unite independence parties

MSP quit her role as community safety minister in 2022

Rebecca McCurdy,Joe Sommerlad
Monday 27 March 2023 12:24 BST
Scotland will be independent in three years time under my leadership, says Ash Regan

Ash Regan is best known as a prominent Scottish National Party (SNP) rebel after she resigned from her ministerial position in protest at the Scottish government’s gender reform plans.

As a leadership candidate, the 48-year-old MSP for Edinburgh Eastern has pledged to “reinvigorate” the SNP, promising more power to party members.

Ms Regan is hoping to appeal to SNP voters who want a greater focus on the campaign for Scottish independence and who want to see the the gender policies she opposed dropped.

As first minister, she would seek to unite the wider independence movement and create a “convention” of all pro-independence groups, she has promised.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry came out early in support of Ms Regan’s candidacy, saying she has shown “courage” and “leadership” in standing against the gender reforms.

Here’s a look back over the key moments in her career so far.

Start in politics

Ms Regan attended primary school in Scotland before moving to Cumbria and going on to study international relations at Keele University, after which she went on to work in marketing and PR.

She later earned a diploma in public relations at the London School of Public Relations in 2007 and an MSc in development management at the Open University.

Her first foray into politics came when she became the head of campaigns and advocacy at the Common Weal – a pro-independence think-tank in Scotland.

She went on to become prominent in the Women for Independence (WfI) movement, joining its national committee in January 2014 and actively campaigned for Yes Scotland.

Entering Holyrood

Ms Regan joined the SNP after the public rejected Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.

She was selected as the party’s candidate for Edinburgh Eastern ahead of the 2016 Holyrood elections, replacing the incumbent SNP Kenny MacAskill.

Her victory attracted huge attention as she defeated Kezia Dugdale, who was the Scottish Labour leader at the time.

Ms Regan took 47.3 per cent of the vote share, compared to Ms Dugdale’s 33 per cent.

Ministerial role

The first two years of Ms Regan’s time in the Scottish Parliament were spent on the backbenches, where she served as parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary for culture, tourism and external affairs.

She also sat on the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee and Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution committee.

In November 2017, she was moved from the economy committee to the health and sport committee, where she was appointed deputy convener.

Ash Regan (Paul Campbell/PA)

But following the first minister’s Cabinet reshuffle in June 2018, Ms Regan became the minister for community safety, succeeding Annabelle Ewing.

In the 2021 elections, she was re-elected, increasing her vote share by more than 8,000.

Ms Regan continued as community safety minister until 2022, when she resigned over the Scottish government’s Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Act (GRA).

SNP rebel

In April 2019, she was one of 15 SNP politicians who signed a public letter urging ministers to delay the GRA, which makes it easier for transgender people to legally change their gender.

A leaked exchanged between Ms Regan and fellow MSPs Gillian Martin and Ruth Maguire emerged later that month, expressing frustration at first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

She resigned from her ministerial role once the Bill finally passed in principle in Holyrood, saying her conscience would not allow her to support the plans.

She was one of nine SNP rebels against the reforms – seven voted against and two abstained.

The relationship between Ms Regan and Ms Sturgeon became a talking point after her resignation, with the first minister claiming the ex-minister did not approach her about her concerns – a claim vehemently denied by Ms Regan.

Leadership contender

As a candidate for first minister, Ms Regan has made ditching the gender reforms and renewing the focus on Scottish independence the lead items on her campaign agenda.

Making it to the final three with finance secretary Kate Forbes and health secretary Humza Yousaf, she is considered an outsider for the top job but has insisted she is “in this competition to win it”.

Ms Regan has said she accepts that she is “probably the least well-known out of the candidates with less name recognition”, adding that means she has to “work that bit harder to set out my stall”.

But she told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on Sky News: “I believe I am the candidate setting out a credible, democratic means for Scotland to express its will at the ballot box and to give Scotland that choice over their own future.”

A voter empowerment mechanism she has championed as a candidate sets out the prospect of using any future Scottish or Westminster election as a means of establishing a majority for independence.

Ms Regan said her proposal “sets up a permanent mechanism to run each and every election in Scotland as an opportunity for the people of Scotland to express their will over whether they want to govern themselves”.

Elsewhere, she moved quickly to express her support for the right to equal marriage after Ms Forbes came under fire for saying she would not have voted for same-sex marriage because of her religious faith.

During a recent Sky leadership debate with Ms Forbes and Mr Yousaf, Ms Regan made the bold pledge that the country would be independent within three years if she were to be chose as Ms Sturgeon’s successor.

She has also openly discussed the prospect of her defeat, insisting she remains committed to the SNP whatever happens and will respect the result of the poll of SNP members after her suggestion that voters be allowed to edit their ballots was rejected.

Speaking recently to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland, she said she felt her campaign had been “vindicated” as a result of the recent resignations from the party, commenting: “I said that the party had lost its way on a number of issues.

“And I do feel that by the high-profile resignations that we’ve had from the party over the weekend [including long-serving chief executive Peter Murrell], that I have been vindicated in setting out that actually what we need is more democracy and a fresh vision.”

Ms Regan told the BBC she felt optimistic about the outcome of the leadership vote because there has been a “material change in circumstances” within the SNP, which meant that many voters would no longer want a “continuity candidate” to succeed Ms Sturgeon.

Should she win, she has pledged to “hit the ground running”, promising to support the NHS and tackle the cost of living crisis.

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