Interview: Johann Lamont

by Jun 12, 2009 No Comments

Hard reality can sometimes override the politics of optimism

Johann Lamont MSP
Politicians are not known for their humility but then the deputy leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament, Johann Lamont, is not a natural-born politician and still struggles to describe herself as such. She illustrates this with the story of how, when she was deputy communities minister during a previous administration, she walked into St Andrew’s House for a top level pow-wow with civil servants and was too embarrassed to tell the security guard who she was ‘because it sounded a bit too high fallutin’ so she just mumbled, red-faced, that she was there for a meeting and was told to wait in reception.

She then struggled with the whole socially awkward and escalating situation of not then wanting to admit who she was, worrying about putting the security guard in a difficult position for feeling he should have known, and meanwhile, panicking about being late for the meeting that she was meant to be leading. After an excrutiating argument with herself, she took out her mobile and made a whispered phone call to the private secretary upstairs to explain her predicament, who then came down and collected the shamefaced minister while the bemused security guard looked on.

This deference is typical of Lamont who, despite a reputation as being a bit of a fierce one, is actually, really rather entertaining, engaging and wonderfully self-deprecating.

She tells the communities-minister story with a giggle and signs it off with the killer line that the situation happened so often during her tenure that eventually, she started taking the private secretary out with her so she could introduce her as the minister rather than Lamont herself having to admit to such a lofty position.

During an hour and a half of nineteen to the dozen, rapid-fire chat, which was a mixture of left-wing analysis, fiercely put gender politics, interspersed with anecdotes from her time as a teacher, general moans about going up three dress sizes because of the political lifestyle and a refreshingly guilt-free admission of an addiction to Coronation Street, Lamont says, with no hint of irony, that she doesn’t like talking about herself and worries that she sounds like a mixture of Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables.

True, she shares that storybook optimism that things can only get better, to coin a phrase, but Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centered much more on an unrealistic expectation, based on what she called ‘The Glad Game’, which consisted of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It originated from one disappointing Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because “we don’t need ‘em!”.

With this philosophy, and her own happygo- lucky personality, Pollyanna manages to inject so much gladness into her aunt’s miserable New England town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. ‘The Glad Game’ helps shield her from her aunt’s strict demeanour: when Aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, Pollyanna waxes lyrical at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to punish her niece for being late to dinner by feeding her just bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant, Nancy, Pollyanna offers her heartfelt thanks because she likes bread and milk, and she loves Nancy.

Lamont is far from that gut-wrenching, sickly sweet character and would probably worry about what had happened to make Aunt Polly so bitter, would take the bread and milk and give it to someone more deserving than herself and find a way of translating her concerns about Nancy’s stature within the household hierarchy into political action for the betterment of others. Lamont can sound at times aggressive and at others, pious but only because her politics remain absolutely rooted in hard reality, social justice and the drive to iron out inequality.

Her stridently expressed convictions and combative style can clearly, sometimes, get the hackles up but her bark is much worse than her bite. Colleagues describe her as bright, funny, a good gossip and happy to poke fun at herself. A powerful combination in the maledominated world of politics.

During the deputy leadership campaign, she arrived in Glasgow at a packed meeting of the party faithful, eager to hear her pitch.

She looked at the gathered throng and said: ‘I’ve been enjoying going round the country, meeting and talking to Labour members and I’ve really been looking forward to this hustings in my home city of Glasgow but now when I look around the room, I’m not so sure, as I can see I’ve fallen out with half the audience over the years.’ It got a laugh, won over the audience and she got the endorsement she needed.

Lamont comes from a Gaelic-speaking family from Tiree. Her parents, Archie and Effie, met on the mainland and Johann and her older brother, David, were brought up in Glasgow. In a Pythonesque moment, she describes her family in the context of ‘there were people on the street who were poorer’.

Her father worked for Caledonian MacBrayne on the west-coast routes, sometimes on cargo boats but also on ferry routes, like the Mallaig to Skye ferry and memorably, on the King George which for a while was an excursion boat out to Iona from Oban.

“The idea of my father as a tourist attraction still makes me smile,” she says. “Early on he was away a lot but in later life, his working conditions improved – good old unions – but he worked long hours in often unforgiving weather.

“I felt different for silly reasons, like my dad being 40 when I was born and there was a whole generation between him and my mother. This was a source of discomfort for me because I didn’t want people to think my father was my grandfather. It wasn’t a big problem but just another example of how adolescents are aware of the quirkiness of their families.

“I didn’t speak Gaelic as I didn’t want to be different and I regret that. I now feel I would never speak it properly, the way I can hear my mother speak it in my head. My mother said everyone was equal in the eyes of God and I suppose, that’s just always been part of my thinking but still aware that there were divisions.

“I didn’t feel different in a bad or intimidated way because of my Hebridean DNA, given that very many of the families around us were from the islands but what it did make me realise [was] that people came from very different backgrounds even within Scotland.” Lamont’s mother was very religious, having been converted by the evangelical preacher Billy Graham and given her husband’s long absences while away working, she was an incredibly strong influence on her daughter.

“My mother didn’t work when we were wee but was very bright. She had done her secondary education in Oban but hadn’t enjoyed the experience of being away from home and gave up but then as we were growing up, we used to all go to the Mitchell Library and David and I would be doing homework while my mother was studying for her Highers.

Johann Lamont MSP“When I first became politically aware, it was about the notion that things weren’t fair.

This was a world that wasn’t fair. My family was quite settled and we were looked after but growing up in Glasgow, poverty was all around us and there was a notion that if you had a bit more money, you got more opportunity, you had a different kind of house, etc and I had a very strong sense that those who had money, had more power and the rest of us didn’t, so [I had] a sense of inequality and injustice from being quite young.

“We were invited to sit exams for scholarships to selective schools during primary 7 but I would not sit them, partly, I think looking back, because I did not think it was fair that only some of us could access this, allegedly, better education but also, I guess, because I did not want to go to a different school from my pals. As it was, Woodside was a school with a very good record of academic achievement.” Every summer holiday was spent on Tiree where, interestingly, Labour’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was also holidaying with his family at the same time but the two never spoke, ‘him being a boy and me being achingly shy’, she explains.

Even on those seemingly idyllic holidays on the islands, her politics were being honed as she identified the complex issues around crofting, land ownership, identity and natural justice.

One of her earliest political memories is of listening to the news and hearing that Harold Wilson had become Prime Minister: “I was seven years old, but I thought this was just wonderful.” She says that her parents weren’t politically active but she assumes they voted Labour.

Her mum believed that all were equal before God and she also inherited various things from her Gaelic background which dictated a distaste for pomposity and that it was bad manners to be proud or boastful.

“I am a very humble person and I like to think I’m a team player. I taught for 20 years and the staffroom shaped my early adulthood – people got cut down to size if they were giving the ‘big I am’.” Lamont speaks from the heart and from experience. Inequality is ingrained in her very being. She joined the Labour Party in 1975 as an 18-year-old student, attracted by a party that promised change.

“I saw the Labour Party as the movement which could bring real change and deliver opportunity for those in greatest need. I do remember as a student getting a big lecture from a member of the IS – the predecessor of the SWP – for supporting Labour because it could not deliver for the working class but it had delivered me to university, at a time when only five per cent of students came from my kind of background – while privilege had delivered him there so, I guess, I had more reason to be grateful.

“I thought Harold Wilson was wonderful and I can remember Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams besting Tories in argument on the big issues of the day. Since then, feminists like Rosina Macrae who, when I first knew her, worked for Women’s Aid, opened my eyes to a different kind of inequality and discrimination because I had tended to think of inequality only in economic terms. Of course as a child of the sixties, I was also aware of the huge debates on nuclear weapons and apartheid. My friend the former MP Maria Fyfe is a role model for sticking to your principles and giving practical expression to your beliefs.” Lamont funnelled that desire to make change into a career in education. She had a cousin who was a primary school teacher and her family believed teaching was a real achievement and reward for studying.

Her teaching career spanned 20 years and took her to Castlemilk, at a period when major house-building programmes were under way.

She highlights this as the first time she saw how changes and improvements in the fabric of a place could begin to make a difference, and bring regeneration to a community in a wider sense. Her own job became more wide-ranging, as she moved from being a classroom teacher to taking on a more intensive supportive role for youngsters who were having problems.

She taught history and English in inner-city Glasgow schools before becoming the Labour MSP for Pollok and has witnessed inequality and social injustice at first hand.

She recalls teaching a young lad who was always sleeping in class and was labelled as a ‘bad boy’. Lamont didn’t believe in labels or in simply giving up on a child and through sheer tenacity, discovered that in fact, the reason he kept falling asleep was that when his father was home and not in prison, the wee lad couldn’t sleep because he was so worried about what would happen to his mother if he did. This is what drives Lamont; the sheer inability to accept life at a superficial level. She is fuelled by the desire to ask why things happen and what can be done to engender change.

“Terrible things are happening in the lives of children and we, meanwhile, are talking about having breakfast clubs which is all well and good but the issue is usually not about food, it’s about something much deeper and can only be solved by reaching into the lives of children and asking questions.

“I did work with a boy who was refusing to come to school because he said he hated French. I worried about this lad and felt there were other issues but couldn’t get to the bottom of it. Then a few months later, I asked his mother how he was and she said, “Oh, he’s a lot better now he’s off the drink”.

All these professionals were involved in that boy’s life but not one was talking about the real problem he had with alcohol and why.

A free school meal wasn’t hitting any of his problems.” Lamont is a gut feeling, driven politician and as such, once on a soapbox, it’s hard to get her off but I ask her if she thinks the Labour Party has got a monopoly on compassion?

“No, not at all. I think – I know – there are people inside the SNP that agree with me. What has been an eye-opener to me is the fact that there has not been one single rebellion within the SNP since they got into government. The decentralisation and being able to blame local authorities for everything and yet no one in the SNP has said anything about it. I don’t want to sound pious but you can’t spend your life saying, ‘we really care’ and then not have a critique of your own government. If Salmond said his critique of society was such and such and sustainable economic growth was his priority and that while anti-poverty measures are fair enough they’re not fundamental to economic growth and stability, then I’d have more respect for him but what we have is George Mathewson’s pal who, basically, has an anti-poverty strategy which consists of free prescriptions, a freeze in council tax and free school meals. That is not an anti-poverty strategy.

“Not one step of equality has ever happened by accident. You have to do both. The trouble is, there are people inside the SNP that know this doesn’t happen by accident but they think that once independence happens, you can then reconfigure society as you want. In the meantime, much of the work we have done around inequalities is going into reverse at 100 miles an hour. Somebody within the SNP said to me that if they rebelled, it wouldn’t be the leaders that would kill them but the party membership. Their goal is different – they have to get the independence thing first and then work out how to deal with inequality and that is not how I think it works.

“My great fear now is that this is pulling away and I’m quite keen to see that as we tackle the recession, equality is not just for when the sun shines – not just a bonus. There are people in the SNP who get social policy but with all due respect, I don’t think Alex Salmond gets it. I mean, this is a man that can answer a question on a child murder and then a few questions later, talk about suicide in young people and not see the connection.

He doesn’t make a priority of being seen to understand that – it’s not what informs his political priorities.” Why did she take that leap into becoming a politician? She gives an ironic smile and says it wasn’t planned. “I really haven’t done anything the right way round. I was always involved in women’s politics because we could see the barriers facing women – you could be hugely capable but would not be able to go out there and work because you had a child.

We’ve come a long way, and now have the minimum wage, better access to child care, all those things. It has changed drastically.

“Women saw the Scottish Parliament as a real opportunity. It was new and there were no foregone conclusions about who would get a seat. For me, the timing wasn’t great as I had two young children, but I was persuaded that if I didn’t stand then that in itself could send out messages about the women’s issues I had fought for, so I put my name forward and won my seat.” She was convener of the Communities Committee before becoming Deputy Minister for Communities where, predictably, the big issue for her was tackling poverty.

“We need to constantly ask ourselves, ‘will this make a difference or will it just make us feel better?’ During her time on Holyrood’s front and back benches, she has also been a strong voice on violence against women and inequality and as deputy justice minister, saw through reforms to speed up Scotland’s lower court system and was one of the backbench mainsprings of the antisocial behaviour legislation. She has also served as chair of the Scottish Labour Party and is now the deputy leader of the Labour MSPs.

As the person also now charged with driving through key policies to take the party into the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, how does she feel being a politician at this time of crisis?

“I have only recently accepted the notion of being a politician. I did not start off in life saying I wanted to be a politician. I joined the party but for a long time resisted the idea of being a paid member of the party.

How does it feel being a Labour politician?

You can’t deny what has happened at a UK level is horrendous. I had a group of primary school kids and college students visit me in one day and the first question from both was about expenses. We are in a really bad place and Labour is somehow being blamed for the disgraceful behaviour of certain MPs of all parties. It is a Labour problem but it is not a uniquely Labour problem. One of the really important things is that it is a bad day to be a politician but it is a harder thing being a Labour supporter, out on the doors canvassing and we have to say, our task is saying, yes, that is Labour but not in the name of Labour and we need to reconnect and understand why people are still out, as we speak, campaigning for the party.

“What worries me now is that for young people, when they feel angry about injustice and the us and them, is that they see us and politicians and that is so far removed from what I want them to think. I want them to see that there are some politicians that argue for one kind of world, and politicians that argue something differently and the situation today adds succour to those antipolitics types who say, what is the point in voting, they’re all the same, there’s nothing you can do about your situation, etc and I have always thought that apathy is the indulgence of the middle classes because they can afford, because they have influence in other ways, not to vote. Young people in Pollock and elsewhere need to understand their power to put pressure on politicians and make a difference. This is a very bad time for politics and a very bad time for politicians and very bad for Labour. If you joined the Labour Party because you believe in tackling underlying inequalities, this feels like you have been hurt by your own family and it is hard from that point of view.” Speaking of family, Lamont leaves her humility at the door when it comes to her own children, Faye, 14, and Colin, 12.

She says that motherhood has helped her understand what really matters in life and it is the one area where she does not resist the temptation to boast.

“If there was an Olympic sport in being a proud parent, I would be on that podium,” she says.

She has also learnt from her own children that politics is an evolving process and even in the saccharine coated world of Pollyanna, the world can always be improved upon.

“When I was wee, it was thought of as posh to have a light on in your hall and I aspired to that. Now Faye goes around switching all the lights off after me because of the green thing and there’s me thinking, ‘that’s my social standing you’re switching off here’ and she thinks she’s saving the world.”

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...

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