A first name is the only commonality between Margaret Curran and Margaret Thatcher but it is Mrs T’s legacy that helped to fan the flame of political passion in Curran that burns as strongly now as it did 30 years’ ago.
And with the Tories back in power at Westminster, she has a lot to say about it.
Curran yaps like a terrier; words tumble from her in a torrent. So much to say about so much injustice and so little time to say it in. Her appearances on Question Time are symbolised by her frequent interjections simultaneously apologising for interrupting while chastising Dimbleby for not letting her have her say.
She is a woman with a mission and like a whirlwind sometimes gets, literally, wound up by her own arguments. She’s a fascinating mix of couthie Scots housewife (you can almost see her hanging over the garden fence in a headscarf) and political ideologue. She fills sentences with soundbites from so many left-leaning theories that sometimes it is hard to follow the thread. And disarmingly, she can break midway between an explanation on Keynesian economics to ask where you’ve had your hair cut or where you went on holiday. But the reassuring thing about Curran is her raw political passion. And in this world of political cynicism, Margaret Curran does believe in something. She believes in what she always has; fighting social injustice.
Her arguments are not always very sophisticated or even robust enough to be held up to forensic intellectual scrutiny but what Curran does really well is old-fashioned Labour politics – she stands up for the wee people and she exercises her vocal chords, not by being smart or clever for the sake of being smart and clever (she is in fact both) but for giving voice to the people who are unfortunate enough not to get theirs heard. And I like that.
Curran and I have known each other for a long time. Our paths crossed as long ago as the early 1980s when I was a trainee journalist in Wester Hailes and she was a welfare rights worker in Easterhouse. We were two sides of the same coin; both trying to make a difference but approaching it from different entry points.
She was a fighter then and she remains it now.
Always standing up for someone. And now as the newly appointed Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for the area she once doled out welfare rights advice to, she has on her hands the fight of her life – standing up for all of Scotland while trying to save the Union.
Curran is proud to be a Scot. And while all Scottish Labour politicians are keen to spell out their patriotism in the current clime, Curran’s pride is bound in family gratitude. She is first generation Scottish. Her parents, Rose and Jim Curran, moved to Scotland from Ireland in the early 1950s, basically in search of a better life.
Her father was a labourer and her mother a cleaner. They came from what Curran describes as an Irish ‘peasant’ background. Her mother would talk about walking to school barefoot and her father left school officially at 14 although Curran believes he was probably only 12. They brought up their four girls – Margaret is the baby – in the East End of Glasgow, firstly in Townhead and then in Denniston and while they may not have had much in the way of money, they believed implicitly in the power of education. All four girls were encouraged to work hard at their all girls’ Catholic school and were never allowed to forget that they should be grateful for getting a free education.
“We never really thought about it in terms of it being a hard life. I think we were very aware that we weren’t the privileged but we were brought up with very strong values and we were taught that you didn’t judge someone by how much money they had.
“Education was a priority as far as Mum and Dad were concerned and I suppose it was interesting that we were all girls and yet my mum was determined, not that she would have seen herself as a woman’s rights sort of person at all, not at all, but she was determined that her girls would get an education.
“God rest her, she’s dead now, but she would say, ‘If we hadn’t come to Scotland you wouldn’t have had that education and don’t you forget that’. She wasn’t political in the sense that we mean it now but she talked about three things: Barbara Castle, because she made sure that the family allowance went to the women and not the men; Harold Wilson, because she just liked him, and Scotland, because she felt it had given us something and we owed it big time.
“We didn’t actually talk about politics in that way of having big political discussions by the fireside sort of thing but they could have told you who the Prime Minister was and they read the papers and watched the news. I was always interested in history and I loved just finding out what was going on. I remember seeing Margo [MacDonald] on the television and being really impressed by that.” In fact it was as an inquisitive 12-year-old sitting in front of the television that Curran remembers getting annoyed with news programmes that constantly referred to the English education system or the National Health Service when they only talked about English hospitals or English health problems. She saw then what she knows now; that Scotland had its own issues and they were not being addressed.
She puts this precocious interest in politics or more specifically a basic injustice down to her Irish parentage and says simply that the Irish have, by the very nature of their history, more interest than most in all things political.
“I am that heady mix of Scottish/Irish that I guess means I am just an argumentative person,” she laughs.
“My school teachers would have probably described me as someone who had her own views and wasn’t afraid to ask questions and stand my ground – so no change there then.
“I would talk to my sisters about politics and stuff and they were a big influence, particularly my big sister Bridget. Bridget was a teacher and then moved into community work and social work, my second sister was a nurse and my third sister was a primary school teacher…we all went into public service which was a big thing for my family because it was about fulfilling what Mum stressed about putting something back into Scotland because it had been good to us.” Life in the Curran household changed when Thatcher was in power and unemployment was on the rise and for the first time in his life her father was out of work. “Dad was then in his late 50s and found he was unemployed and that was really hard for him. He got a few part-time jobs but it was a terrible time and that memory has lasted with me forever. I can feel that pain now. The effect on him was heartbreaking. His lack of pride hurt him deeply and affected his personal life and how he felt about himself and how he felt about others. As a family, we all tried to work around that but it was very, very hard for him.
“I think we forget the true costs of unemployment; not just the loss of income because actually, that wasn’t hugely important to us, we were not that type of family, but it really affected my dad personally and it certainly energised the politics in me. I haven’t thought about this for years but that time watching what it did to my dad was clearly the engine behind my later actions and the need to see things change. We mustn’t go back there.” Curran first became politically active in the Glasgow University Labour Club in the late 1970s where she forged a life-long friendship with Johann Lamont, the MSP now standing as a candidate to be Scottish Labour leader. She was the first in her family to go to university and says she was in awe of it all.
“I was wandering around in the first few days – I didn’t know anyone – and someone literally came up to me and asked if I had thought about joining the Labour Club and I remember thinking no one had ever asked me to join something so I did. I went along and Willie Ross was speaking. I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as this famous person and so I got involved. I was a very unsophisticated person with no political background, no experience, I didn’t even know anyone that was involved in anything political but at that time there had been the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 which sparked something in me and then of course there was South Africa which was a very politicising experience.” Like everything she does, Curran threw herself in and held several posts in Labour student politics, including secretary and vice-chair of Glasgow University Labour Club, and chair and secretary of the Scottish Organisation of Labour Students. She was involved in the unsuccessful campaign to elect Hortensia Allende, the widow of Chilean President, Salvador Allende, as rector in 1977.
However, she made a very conscious decision to withdraw from active party politics – although remained a Labour Party member – when she became first a welfare rights officer and then a community worker in Glasgow’s Easterhouse.
“I felt that being a community worker, I couldn’t be too associated with a party because people might feel your priorities were elsewhere and so I did put that to one side but at the same time, I was saying to community activists that they should give these politicians a hard time.” However, there was a growing recognition in Curran that people like those she was working with in Easterhouse and beyond needed politicians that understood them better. She had become very active in the 50:50 campaign to get more women involved in politics and when the Scottish Parliament became a reality, she was encouraged to stand and was elected to the first parliament in 1999.
She was promoted to a junior minister when Henry McLeish became First Minister and later served as convener of the Social Inclusion Committee, and then was promoted to Deputy Minister for Social Justice rising to become minister in that portfolio, which later changed to Minister for Communities. She introduced the Homelessness (Scotland) Bill in September 2002 and held the position of Minister for Parliamentary Business from 2004 until 2007.
She was re-elected comfortably in both the 2003 and 2007 elections and was widely viewed as a popular potential successor to Jack McConnell as its leader following the disastrous 2007 election result for Labour, but decided not to stand against Wendy Alexander. Curran was again tipped to succeed Alexander when she resigned following a donation row although at the time Curran refused to comment on the speculation. She tells me now that she was actually torn between standing for leader and fighting the Glasgow East by-election triggered by the resignation of MP David Marshall on the grounds of ill-health.
“There was discussion about me standing for leader and I’ll you the truth, I was considering it. A lot of people had suggested to me that I should stand and I was seriously considering it but then the byelection came along at the same time and I don’t want to remind you of some of the difficulties that Labour got into in terms of finding a candidate to stand for that but I just thought that is where there is the biggest challenge and you have to stand up to it. I never thought about it in terms of it being more important than the leadership but I just thought that it is what I should do. I have to say, there have been a few times I have thought ‘Thank God, I didn’t stand for leader’, she laughs.
Curran went on, famously, to lose the Glasgow East by-election to the SNP and Iain Gray became the leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament. The party seemed to never have recovered its mojo from either but Curran herself learnt lessons from defeat and went on to win Glasgow East at the General Election last year and went to Westminster, resigning her Scottish parliamentary seat in this year’s election.
“I felt the loss of the by-election strongly,” she says. “It felt like unfinished business and I felt that we needed to in some ways, and this might sound bizarre, and I need to be careful how I say this, but I felt that in some ways I needed to go through the exercise to turn around defeat, it was a really interesting challenge. It’s very exciting and it’s really emotive thinking ‘can I really do this?’ I had to go back into the east end of Glasgow and look people in the eye who had clearly not voted for me and say, ‘I need to talk to you. I need to try and persuade you back’.
“It had to be done for me personally but actually understanding what you do, how you do it, how you communicate, how you persuade people back, what you need to do as a collective organisation to win that support and learning, what we need to do to change things is actually at the heart and soul of politics. And yes, it’s a shame we hadn’t taken that properly on board after 2007 and yes, I wish I had thought more about the lessons I had learnt from Glasgow East but because we won Glenrothes and then Glasgow North East, I think we thought it had turned around. I thought it too, that people were beginning to understand that the SNP were in government and they couldn’t just get away with things and that people were coming back to us but it was just temporary, as May then showed us.
“There were clear issues in terms of the campaign and I felt it most on the doorsteps that people felt we were not vibrant enough, not energetic enough, not positive enough and we didn’t have a vision for Scotland and we didn’t speak to the hopes and optimism of a Scotland that people want. I think we did have some good policies and they were right and yes, you could argue that some didn’t speak to all of Scotland and I am not trying to pretend that they did but they didn’t hang together enough with a strong message.
“I think part of it was that we didn’t fully appreciate what the Scottish people were telling us and I think Glasgow East, and at the 2007 election, they were beginning to say, ‘wake up, listen, you need to think about us more rather than yourselves’ and that wasn’t acknowledged as widely as it should have been throughout the party and we didn’t change systematically enough. I think some of it was perhaps that we weren’t emotionally intelligent enough and we need to be emotionally intelligent and we need to be able to communicate that more. For instance, I love Scotland and I can explain to you why I put Scotland first and foremost because I was brought up to have a loyalty to Scotland.
Scotland gave a lot to my family and I was brought up to believe I needed to give something back. That is quite simple to say but we didn’t communicate that kind of thing more and one of the big mistakes we made was we talked too much about the chambers we were in and the institutions we were in rather than the people we represented. I think maybe we were impressed by it all but I think we thought that we had created the Scottish Parliament and ‘isn’t it fantastic’ and ‘oh, we love the Scottish Parliament’ and some people identified more with being a Westminster MP or being a Scottish MSP when actually, none of that matters to the people out there.
I think what people wanted was for Labour to say things about Labour whereas we were talking about the Parliament. I remember at the by-election thinking that people would ask me why I wanted to be an MP instead of an MSP but it just didn’t come up because you were a Labour person and it didn’t matter where you sat; it was what you said. We need to be much more focused on the people we serve and not on where we sit.
“I think for us there is a bit of a feeling that constitutional change is an end to a means rather than a means to an end so we express our values through other means so being Scottish is about getting into the social injustice, tackling poverty, saying it shouldn’t matter where you are born in terms of opportunities and that is what is intrinsically Scottish to me. It is what I identify as being Scottish.
“I don’t think we communicated enough of that positive vision, an optimistic, hopeful, vision for Scotland and that’s why all people heard was a negative. If you got me in a room, or any of the leadership candidates, I think in all honesty what you would hear is hopeful, is positive, is about taking people out of poor circumstances, is about releasing energies and making change for the better. We do have a positive message but equally, I also have every right to be angry with the SNP and what they have done to the east end of Glasgow, not one new school built and the most successful college in Scotland, John Wheatley, with its budget cut.
So there is an anger that is legitimate, reasonable and is credible over that but you can’t just be angry; you have to actually say there is a better way and a better alternative.
“Being at Westminster does help me relate what is happening between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament and maybe it is the patriot in me but when I think Clegg is doing better on child care than we are in Scotland that does make me ask, ‘how can that be?’” It is that patriotism that now has to come to the fore as Labour attempts to develop a narrative to counter the SNP’s independence referendum. Curran is angry, however, that Scotland’s First Minister refuses to name the day.
“The Scottish people categorically and overwhelmingly voted to have a referendum so my view is if we are going to have it then don’t put it in the cupboard and kid on it’s not there. It’s not his [Alex Salmond’s] decision, it’s Scotland’s and it’s what the people voted for.
“I think in all sincerity people voted for a referendum when they voted for the SNP and the SNP’s central cause, absolutely central cause, is that Scotland needs to be independent to do the things they want to do with it, so get on with it.
“The SNP have to engage in the debate.
You have won the election, you’ve got to have that conversation but more significantly if you believe that in order to solve poverty in Scotland, to make the economy grow, to harness Scotland, if you believe that can not be done unless we are independent then why not get on with it? It makes no sense, apart from political tactical sense.
If you believe in it, why aren’t you doing it? If you have just delivered this victory on this scale then what does that say about you if you think you can’t win the argument that is at your very core?” And on the idea of a two-question referendum, Curran is forthright.
“Look, there is a debate to be had about devolution and how it develops; should we go for this, go for that, what powers should be devolved and how should Scotland develop, etc and opinion will develop on that and we will interrogate the evidence around that over time but that is quite distinct from whether we are separate or not. You have seen the confusion around that already and the whole idea of whether you take the majority of two different questions, it’s absurd. I think it just needs to be sorted out and ask, do we want to be separate, do we want to go down that road, or not? Yes or no and if we say no then we can have another debate at another time about devolution. It doesn’t mean devolution is finished.” Would she be the figurehead for a ‘No’ campaign? She laughs uproariously: “Who is saying that…don’t start on that…I don’t know about any ‘No’ campaign. Seriously, I don’t think it will be even a traditional kind of way we have this debate but the debate is here so let’s roll up our sleeves, look at the evidence and get on with it.” Does she see the prevarication as arrogance on the side of Salmond?
“It is arrogant…I am quite surprised sometimes at how disrespectful he is of other people. I think what he is very clever at is the way he deals with political opponents in one way and the way he speaks to Scotland in another and I have to respect and admire that.
Alex Salmond is a very serious political figure and good luck to him, he won the election and I am not going to get rancorous about that I just want to talk about the issues.” Does she think the SNP is a one-man band?
“I think if Alex Salmond went under a bus tomorrow – not that I would ask who drove that bus – but seriously, if he wasn’t there, I don’t think there is any other member of that team who could fulfil the role that he is playing and have that relationship with the Scottish people that he clearly does. I think Nicola is very good and I wouldn’t want to talk her down or disrespect her but I think he is a very particular individual.” Does that not imply how important it is for Labour to get a leader that can be his match?
“I think it illustrates that actually, your political arguments can’t just be obsessed with one person because I don’t think just because he is this very particular character and had this engagement with people and commands this political space, ergo the only way to challenge that or change that is to put one more into the conversation and just have it between two people. I think we need to broaden it out and part of my politics has always been that politics is too important for it to just have a conversation between leading politicians. It’s not party policy but I would be arguing for getting back to the spirit of devolution; it was about changing politics, about new politics, about having different people in the Parliament, making it more accessible, about looking at who is on committees, about whether we should have committees of experts, or a revising chamber and maybe reach out to a different strata of Scottish society but we have fallen into just being a Parliament of hard line, two-party politics and I am one of them so I am not angry at the SNP for that but I think we need to recapture again that debate about how the Scottish Parliament needed to be different. We need to reach out a bit more and reconnect on that. For me, personally, it is remembering the purpose of politics. We can easily get caught up in the day-to-day political machinery but you should remember what your central purpose is and that is understanding the lives of ordinary people.
“I’ve been backwards and forwards to Ireland recently seeing family and now I am in Westminster they see me more on the telly and they say Mum and Dad would be so proud but I can tell you they were not people interested in position but what would have made them proud is what you do with that position.”