LEWIS MACDONALD outlines his vision for Scotland and tells Neil Drysdale why he thinks he would make a great Deputy Leader for the Scottish Labour Party.
Lewis Macdonald tells a story about his childhood in Stornoway, which reveals how politics have always been at the centre of his life. “The kids in the town used to go to the picture house for a matinee showing on Saturday afternoons and then, suddenly, the owners decided to stop screening films and start bingo sessions,” recalled Macdonald, who had flicked a switch and suddenly taken us back to 1963. “We were unhappy with that, so we set up a protest group, and I was on my first picket line at the age of six! And it worked. We managed to change their minds and could enjoy the pictures again. It demonstrated what people can achieve when they work together.”
This is a familiar theme in Macdonald’s conversation and reflects some of the core beliefs which explain why he has chosen to run for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party at Holyrood. Ever since his formative years, he has tackled inequality, proclaimed the values of tolerance and social inclusion and championed such traditional concepts as a fair day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Macdonald is unequivocal in his objection to what he is convinced are the divisive and damaging policies of the SNP administration in Edinburgh, but he is clear that Scottish Labour must re-invent itself for the 21st century, in responding to the twin problems posed by David Cameron at Westminster and Alex Salmond at Holyrood.
“I think we need to recognise that we were riding the tide of public opinion in 1997 and 1999, when Tony Blair came to power, and the Scottish Parliament came into being, but a lot of things have changed during the last 14 years and it isn’t enough for us to continue as we have done in the past,” says Macdonald, who has been an MSP since devolution sprung into existence, twelve years ago, “Scottish Labour has to be clear, very clear that we are a Scottish party and our first commitment has always to be doing what is best for Scotland. Maybe, that sounds obvious, but many of our supporters simply didn’t get that message in May this year. I think that we perhaps underestimated the changes which would happen when devolution was established and people’s priorities have altered since we got our own parliament. So we have to regroup and put forward convincing policies, which help to tackle such matters as the blight of youth unemployment and the financial banking crisis, which isn’t simply an issue for Scotland, but for the whole of Britain and the world at large. Fundamentally, we are a democratic socialist party [Macdonald has no difficulties in promoting the “S” word] with the belief that Britain is stronger together and weaker apart and we won’t solve any of the major problems afflicting Britain at the moment by putting narrow self-interest ahead of solutions which work for everybody in the country. Because, make no mistake, we are only just beginning to see what the Conservatives are planning for Britain and it won’t do us any good to think that we can ignore it in Scotland. We can’t.”
Macdonald seems perfectly suited to the job of deputy – he is dogged in his methods, diligent in his research and determined to disprove the prevailing Nationalist orthodoxy that oil revenue offers a panacea, which will instantaneously transform Caledonia into a land of milk and honey. During the last few weeks, he has studied various SNP claims, such as the claim that an independent Scotland would become the sixth richest country on the planet, and retorts that voters shouldn’t be swayed by this hype and that it would be more sensible to examine the figures closely, instead of leaping to wild conclusions.
More controversially, he has also noted the fashion in which Alex Salmond has started to pick arguments with the Supreme Court and the Judiciary and detects parallels between the conduct of the First Minister and the Thatcher administration in the 1980s. But first, let’s deal with the oil question. “A lot of the [SNP’s] assumptions are fantasy and don’t stand up to scrutiny, not least because there is nothing more certain than the uncertainty over future supplies, and even the major producers, such as Saudi Arabia, no longer have the ability to control oil prices,” says Macdonald. “Now don’t misunderstand me, I think that oil is a very valuable resource and if the companies who are making investment decisions believe they can rely on financial stability in the long term, they will invest here. But we shouldn’t forget that while the North Sea is a relatively safe and secure location, it is technologically very challenging and there are no guarantees that we will keep discovering new fields out there. I hope we do, and I fully expect that when my kids [Sophie and Iona] retire 40 or 50 years from now, there will still be jobs in the oil industry in Scotland. But if Alex Salmond wants to declare independence to squeeze the oil industry, or put pressure on them, there are dangers in that approach, and we shouldn’t ignore that, not least because the companies might simply move elsewhere. We can’t rely on oil alone and yet that seems to be their way of doing things right now.”
That moved us on to the wider ramifications of the First Minister’s regular clashes with the judges of late, including public rebuke by Lord Osborne to Salmond over his criticism of William Walton, one of the objectors to the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route. And, when the conversation shifted in this direction, Macdonald, normally so even-tempered and conciliatory in his manner, grew positively indignant.
“I don’t like to shout or bawl the odds and I think you can respect the integrity of people from other parties, irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with what they are saying, but my concern is that the climate seems to have changed and with Alex Salmond, you are talking about a man who signs his letters “Yours for Scotland” and who has the attitude; “Scotland First, Scotland Last” and that nothing else matters,” says Macdonald. “I worry about that, because I am an internationalist, and although I think Scotland is a fantastic place and Scots have made contributions to the world in every area, we have also benefited from other countries in turn, and we have achieved so much, precisely because we haven’t been inward looking. That is what concerns me about Alex Salmond’s attitude and the SNP in general: that they, in a way which we haven’t seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher, seem to think there is no difference between party and state. There is. There always has been and always should be. We don’t live in a one-party state, but a country with an independent judiciary and we have to preserve their independence. I am worried that the distinctions are increasingly being blurred.”
As a beetle-browed devotee of history and a voracious reader of the events which have moulded and shaped us, Macdonald has the wisdom to appreciate the ebb and flow of political fortune. When he was growing up in the Western Isles, his parents encouraged their children to debate the burning issues of the day and he and his wife, Sandra, have equally encouraged their children to think for themselves, without seeking refuge in ideology. It means that Lewis will never be a tub-thumping fanatic, nor a member of any clique or faction, but that independent streak is exactly what Scottish Labour requires when they progress into 2012, with a new leader and second-in-command.
“As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be involved in politics, and I’ve always worked with people in communities wherever I have lived, whether in Stornoway or in Aberdeen or further afield, and I have had a strong sense of growing up in places where we were far away from the centre of power,” says Macdonald, “From an early age, I’ve believed that Scotland was different in some ways from the rest of Britain, and it was right that the Labour Party took the necessary action to bring us devolution, even if we had to wait 18 years after the first referendum in 1979. But I don’t think it is a mature, adult way to behave to continue to blame England for everything that goes wrong and that’s one of the reasons why I oppose separation.
“We have to make that argument forcibly and we need to make it to every single person in Scotland, but we also have to move with the times and accentuate the virtues of being Scottish and British. Labour’s values are still Scotland’s values, but we need to speak to people where they are today, not where they were before devolution.”
Macdonald possesses an energy and unstinting commitment to his constituents, to the extent that it is difficult to imagine him relaxing for any sustained period. Indeed, in the midst of attempting to fathom how he unwound, his answer was interrupted by another telephone call, indicating that the news was filtering through the media of his intention to stand as deputy.
In short, Lewis Macdonald lives for public service and protecting public services. He may not believe in tribal name-calling and shrinks from the tendency to provide pat answers to labyrinthine inquiries. But he intends to prove that it diminishes Scotland’s reputation for the SNP to engage in endless battles about subsidies with Westminster and, as he concluded: “We have to be bigger than that and fight for what we believe in.”
The Quiet Man he might be, but he won’t back down when the battle commences.
Lewis Macdonald was born in Stornoway, moved to the North East at the age of 10, went to university in Aberdeen and has lived and worked in the city most of his life. He has been an MSP since 1999, and on the Labour Front Bench since 2001. Since May, he has been Shadow Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment.