AS president of the SNP, I won’t be expressing a public preference for any of the three now formally nominated candidates for the party leadership. I have worked well with all of them and they with me. They know my strengths and weaknesses and I think I know theirs.

What I will be doing, however, is standing up for the positive and productive leadership contest that party members both want and deserve but which we haven’t yet so far been able to have, although it is early days.

As the former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, Tricia Marwick, rightly pointed out this week, all political leadership contests can be toxic at times, largely because they are inevitably about pitting talented and ambitious people against each other.

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The current SNP race is no exception to that rule and neither were earlier party ones. The contests of 2004, 2000 and 1990 were at times fraught and fractious (I know because I was there) and in 2003 we even had a challenge to a sitting party leader that went to a vote at National Conference.

In addition, SNP internal debates always hinge on the preferred route to independence and are therefore, by definition lively and passionate, given that is our raison d’etre.

But this time there are four additional factors in play which make things even more intense.

This is the first SNP leadership contest in which support for independence across the country is – at worst – roughly equal to support for the Union.

That presents a huge and terrifying threat to the British establishment, the opposition parties and their media mouthpieces. To put it bluntly, the mix is being malevolently stirred and every word uttered is twisted by those who are no friends to independence.

Scrutiny is always welcome but if you think the stated preferences of The Times, The Telegraph, The Spectator and The New Statesman – among others – are impartial and will help our party, our cause or our country, then think again. No-one should countenance them for a moment, let alone court them.

This is also the first SNP leadership contest in which there has been a wider Yes movement. The views of that movement are, of course, important and valuable to every nationalist but it has to be admitted, sadly, that there are a few players in it who are bitterly and very personally opposed to the SNP.

Again, plainly speaking, some people who don’t have votes in this ballot are none the less trying to pull the strings. They seem strangely unwilling to walk away from the party from which, in reality, they willingly and very publicly walked away not so long ago.

This is moreover the first SNP leadership contest of the social media age, where deceit, disinformation and casual cruelty are commonplace and conspiracy theories flourish, no matter how completely crazy, maliciously invented and patently untrue. All those things are, alas, in evidence.

And this is, most significantly of all, the first SNP leadership contest in which the winner will also immediately become Scotland’s first minister. In other words, it really matters, for us and for our country.

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As SNP members, we need to factor in these new complications as we take control of what is our event.

We must ensure that we get to consider the issues we regard as important as well as the issues the nation needs to resolve.

The position or influence of any faith or denomination in politics is not among those. We are a tolerant, pluralist and open society and party and will remain so. People of religious belief are not only fully entitled to contest but also to lead, should this or any other political party willingly and openly choose them. The principle of equality demands it, natural justice and common sense dictate it and history confirms it. The days of the penal laws are long gone.

I am a lifelong, if sometimes backsliding, Scottish Episcopalian and, like many in that denomination, decidedly liberal in my social views. But as a student of Scottish Ecclesiastical History, I am well aware of and often grateful for, the contribution that Presbyterianism (of all types) and Catholicism have made to the country in which we now live.

Of course, there are things in all faiths with which we will profoundly disagree but people of those denominations, of other religions and many without any such beliefs shaped and will go on shaping our nation, which has already achieved much and has the potential to archive much more.

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We are, as William McIlvanney (above) rightly observed, a mongrel nation, and mongrel not just in race but in belief too. It is a rich and productive heritage and its foundation stone is this – that in the end, it must be the people who decide, not their pastors . No matter what faith we may hold and value as individuals, we must hold and value a tolerant participatory democracy more strongly still.

So let’s move on to the issues that are really at stake. They are not only issues of equality and the support of minorities, though such issues are very important and need to be handled with a kindly and generous recognition of both principle and conscience.

For my part, I also want the candidates to illustrate for me and for the party and country the detailed individual and collective benefits of independence. I don’t want the contest to be painted into the corner of process, which is what Unionists want and which some misguided Yes supporters cannot look beyond.

What we need to see is how each candidate can communicate their exciting vision to the voters of Scotland and persuade them that we must rejoin the world. That will be one of their key jobs.

There are other matters we need to consider, too. Take Brexit as an example. We are experiencing an unprecedented shortage of some foodstuffs in our shops. My local supermarket in Dunoon had not a single tomato on its shelves on Thursday and such situations are undoubtedly caused – directly or indirectly – by the disruption of supply chains as a result of the Tory-inflicted folly of Brexit.

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All of the leadership contenders have been ministers in portfolios affected by that disaster and they can inform our thinking on it.

Kate Forbes knows first hand the financial and business penalties that Brexit has forced on us, though we never agreed to them. Humza Yousaf has seen the devastation that Brexit has wrought on health service staffing. Ash Regan has had to deal with the weakening of our civil and criminal justice system caused by withdrawal from key EU law enforcement and legal arrangements and treaties.

We must also talk about poverty amid plenty, the cost of living crisis, the delivery of high-quality public services and the pressing existential dangers presented by the climate emergency – all issues that affect our fellow citizens in their lives and to which they look to the SNP for solutions.

I know that each of the candidates has experience and ideas to share. Let’s hear them in constructive debate, not destructive attack.

There are many other vital topics that can fill the next four weeks to overflowing. We could start with the lessons to be learnt from the McCrone Report, which this paper will feature next week, given its huge importance to the state we are now in.

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In order to get all these things aired and heard, though, we must create and defend an orderly space for the candidates to prove – or otherwise – their suitability for the highest office in our party and our land.

Of course we want Scotland to witness the choice in the making, not least because that person will be our nominee for first minister but we cannot allow others to damage our internal democracy because if they do, they damage the very cause of independence.

I became SNP president in 2020 on a promise to work for the membership. The SNP is our party and it is our responsibility to ensure it has the best, most constructive and most forward looking leadership contest possible.

So let’s have it. Indeed, let’s demand it from the candidates and all those around them. It is, after all, in their interests as well as ours to make sure that they are heard clearly and without interference or deliberate distraction.