Interview with Richard Lochhead

Written by Jenni Davidson on 5 February 2016 in Inside Politics

Holyrood talks to one of the SNP’s longest-serving politicians, Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment

Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment and MSP for Moray, is the joint longest-running member of the current Scottish cabinet, a record he shares with John Swinney, the finance secretary.

He joined the SNP in his teens, was Alex Salmond’s office manager from 1994 to 1998, and then worked briefly in local government for Dundee City Council before being elected to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999. And he has been there ever since.

Lochhead has held the same government brief since 2007 and is widely regarded as a safe pair of hands by the industries he represents. He is also a passionate advocate of Scottish produce and, despite their differences, particularly over EU quotas, he has worked well with his UK counterparts. He is not viewed as particularly tribal, although it would be a mistake to assume from his affable nature that he isn’t forceful about the SNP’s cause.

So as one of the ‘old guard’, how have things changed over his time in the parliament and the party?

“Well, often I have to pinch myself to think how far we’ve travelled in such a short space of time, and likewise, that I’ve had the privilege of being at the heart of the party’s story in the run-up to and since we’ve had a Scottish parliament. I often have to remember that I am now one of the veterans.

“I was elected when I was 29, having joined the SNP when I was about 15 at school, and I can’t quite believe I’ve now been in the SNP for more than 30 years. It makes me feel like an old man. But I still feel young at heart and these days, even being in your mid-forties is still relatively young.

“It’s been a totally remarkable journey. When I joined the SNP, we celebrated any time we got into double figures in the opinion polls and yet here we are in 2016, in our ninth year in government, and, given current opinion poll ratings, the people of Scotland are more behind the SNP than ever before. Being part of that journey means I’ve had the opportunity to serve in both the Salmond and Sturgeon cabinets, which has been an experience in itself.

“And, of course, that’s just the government perspective. I’m also MSP for Moray, which is a beautiful constituency in the north of Scotland, and that’s equally a big privilege.”

What about the transition from Salmond to Sturgeon? Was that a big change or continuity, particularly with him being so close to Salmond?

“Despite the fact Alex and Nicola clearly worked very closely as a great team for many years, in the Scottish Parliament and before that, there are differences between the two, different styles. Both have made their mark, not just on the Scottish stage, but across the whole of the UK and beyond, and the party’s benefited greatly from having two big intellectual figures in our leadership. But clearly, they’re different people, different styles, and I think everyone’s well aware of that.

“Alex took the party from being, perhaps, close to the fringes to being centre stage and professional, and to being the party of government in Scotland. Nicola has now carved out a role as the first woman first minister, who the people see as a strong leader with a big heart. Exciting times ahead.”

Exciting, or maybe very predictable, according to the opinion polls, I suggest.

“Well, you can’t take anything for granted,” he responds. “As I say, it’s humbling to be at the heart of government at a time when the party’s going through the best period in our history, and of course the referendum in 2014 transformed Scottish politics.”

It did that in a way that was perhaps unexpected, I say, in that a No vote seems to have unleashed quite a lot of positivity.

“It was tremendously exciting to be part of the referendum campaign, not only as an SNP activist but clearly as a cabinet secretary. Whilst we didn’t win and we expected to be in the doldrums licking our wounds in the aftermath, exactly the opposite has happened. Scottish politics has been reinvigorated, the SNP has quadrupled its membership or whatever, people are more engaged, and politics is just as, if not more, exciting than it was pre-referendum.”

Lochhead has worked in politics since he graduated from university. I ask if that was always his plan or if he had different ambitions.

“Well, my first job was actually with the South of Scotland Electricity Board at their headquarters in Cathcart, in Glasgow, before I decided to go to university. During university I took a year out to work for Alex Salmond. I then worked for him for a few years running his office after university. I left working for Alex to go and work for local government in economic development and then after that was lucky enough to be elected in 1999 to the first parliament as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 29 year old.

“At the time, I was attracted to how Alex Salmond was professionalising the party. I felt I could play a role in that. I love campaigning, I love meeting people, I felt strongly about the changes that Scotland needed and I was encouraged to put my name forward, so that’s how it happened. I’m very aware that my generation is extremely lucky in that so much talent came before us when the party was less successful at the ballot box compared to now.”

So if he hadn’t been doing this, what would he have done? Does he have any unrealised ambitions outside politics?

“Well, after I left school, I was ambitious to become successful in business, or in my working life. I took a different direction after realising at that age that money wasn’t everything. I don’t often think about what I would do post-politics because politics is so exciting just now and I’m lucky enough to be at the heart of government. May will bring what May brings.

“You know, I’m a history buff. I’d love to teach history. I’d love to do all these sort of things, but just now, I’m in the middle of an election campaign. I’ve got my hands full with my portfolios and so things are exciting.”

He has held his portfolio for eight years and I ask if that longevity is helpful.

“Well, the benefit I’ve had in being in the post since day one is that it enables you to learn your subject, develop the vision and then put that into practice, and I have worked flat out to do that across my portfolios.

“Often in government, if people are in post for one or two years – as we often see at UK level, in particular – people don’t have time to make lasting change. You know, I’m now shadowing my fifth DEFRA secretary of state and I think the continuity we’ve had in Scotland across many portfolios has been a hallmark of the SNP administrations that people have welcomed.”

Was rural affairs, environment and fisheries an area he was already interested in anyway or did he become interested because he was given responsibility for it?

“When I was first elected in 1999, I represented North East Scotland as a regional member. I’ve represented Moray since 2006, so clearly I learned so much about rural issues. I was always intensely interested in Scotland’s environment so I had my dream job in that I was rural affairs secretary and environment secretary.

“When I first came to government, I realised within days, and indeed before [that], that our food and drink industry had to come out of the shadows. I took that under my wing and I’ve been able to develop that hugely over the last few years.

“It’s very tough. You’re dealing with communities directly. You’re not dealing necessarily with the representatives of industries, you’re dealing with the people whose livelihoods depend on the success or otherwise of the government’s policies, people who live in rural areas, people who are actually fishermen, or food producers, or farmers, or crofters or whoever, and that brings an extra dimension to this job. And sometimes quite a lot of pressure.”

And quite a lot of balancing?

“There is. And one thing I’m proud of is when we first went into government there were some traditional battlegrounds between fishermen and environmentalists or between tenants and landlords; we have addressed some of those conflicts over the years. Some, of course, are still there, as evidenced through the current land reform debate, but I do think that Scotland is a different place in 2016 compared to 2007 – much more confidence, in many ways, much more successful, despite the economic downturn we’ve seen across Europe and the world.”

Is there something of a dichotomy between the way Scotland sees itself, as an unhealthy, fried-food nation, and the way we’re seen abroad in export markets, with the association being whisky, salmon and high quality?

“Well, the food and drink policy is all about transforming Scotland into a good-food nation and that’s building on the fact that people are much more proud than ever before of the food and drink we produce and we’re moving away from the old stereotypes. It’s not just about fried food and the booze; it’s about high-end products and healthy, nutritious products.

“Our seafood is phenomenally successful, our berries, we produce high-end craft beers, of course Scotch whisky is more successful than ever before, the beef, the lamb, the fine chocolates we’re now producing – you know, we’ve got something like 70 fine chocolate producers in Scotland. Not many people are aware of that.

“Our food self-image is streets ahead of what it was in past decades. However, I’m the first to recognise the challenges are still huge, with Scotland’s obesity record, with the fact you can still go into your petrol station on the way home and see appalling food offerings on the shelves. Children’s food menus are still pretty poor most places you go to in Scotland.

“So, whilst there’s definitely a food revolution taking place, there’s still a long way to go to transform our food culture. But at least the journey’s now begun and there’s no going back now.”

There must be quite a pull within his portfolio between protecting the environment and increasing food production, for example, with marine protected areas. How does he balance that?

“These tensions are never going to go away,” he answers. “We have made great strides in sustainable fisheries, for instance. Many of the stocks people said would never recover are now recovering and scientists are recommending higher quotas, like for North Sea cod, and the fishermen themselves have played a big role in getting us to where we are today.

“The mindset amongst our fishing industry has been changing in recent years, and I commend them for adopting new methods of conservation and coming up with new nets and gears to make that happen. Scotland’s led the way in Europe in terms of fisheries conservation.

“That doesn’t mean to say these tensions are not there. We are putting through the marine protected areas at the moment and clearly some fishermen feel that environmental protection’s going too far. We always have to strike that balance between allowing people to make a living with the fact that we now understand more than ever before about our seabed and our marine environment.

“Society as a whole feels ownership of that. It’s not something that just belongs to our fishermen, our seabed belongs to society and people want that protected. These tensions and debates are very much to the fore at the moment as we roll out the marine protected areas. But we’re going in the right direction.”

This has been a difficult time for the environment because of flooding. How has that affected him personally?

“It was jaw-dropping to see what were biblical floods in many parts of Scotland over these last few weeks. It does make me realise the responsibility we have to get our policies right and to tackle climate change. It also makes me proud that Scotland’s in the vanguard of trying to persuade the rest of the world to waken up to the need to address the threat of climate and the impact it’s having.”

Have we got that right? Is Scotland in the vanguard of tackling climate change?

“I’m very proud of our record on climate change, especially given that other countries are holding us up as an example to follow. Often here in Scotland we beat ourselves up that we’re not doing enough or not achieving all our targets, but we are being held up as the example to follow by other countries in the world.

“And I recall when we committed to a climate change act in the 2007 manifesto and the targets that arose from that of reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, that seemed an impossible mountain to climb, yet here we are well on the way to the interim target of 42 per cent by 2020. If you look at targets we’re achieving in terms of renewable energy and what we’re now producing from renewables in terms of domestic demand for electricity, we are making phenomenal progress and Scotland is becoming a beacon of environmentalism and sustainability in Europe.”

However, simultaneously, we have a policy of using up all the North Sea oil, or exporting it. So we could be achieving our targets but exporting to others who’re not achieving theirs…

“Yes, but are we gearing society towards being a low-carbon society? And what people like, I believe, about the SNP government, is the fact that we’re offering vision. A lot of these long-term policies won’t deliver the results we want to see overnight, but people like the fact that we’re sitting down looking at Scotland’s future. Where do we want Scotland to be in 2025? 2030? Or in the case of climate change, 2050?  I think people like that. And we’re making progress on every level. So, fossil fuels – we need to keep the country moving and working as we make the transformation towards the low-carbon economy in the coming years.”

And if he is not cabinet secretary after the election in May, what would he like his legacy to be?

“Well, I can’t talk about legacies yet. I’m still in the cabinet and the election’s still happening. The future will hold what it will hold.

“In terms of my legacy, Scotland’s come on leaps and bounds in terms of our sustainability and safeguarding our environment. I hope I’ve given our farmers and our fishermen a voice in government and in terms of speaking up with no holds barred, putting the case to Europe or to the UK government on some of these contentious issues we’ve had to deal with over the last few years.

“Our stand-out policy’s the phenomenal success of our food and drink industry, which I wanted to bring in from the cold. It’s a huge strength we have. We should build on Scotland’s national strengths and the food industries that we’ve got are huge strengths. Our food and drink industry has grown at double the rate of the UK’s food and drink industry.”

This is a particularly difficult time for Richard, personally, with his wife Fiona currently being treated for breast cancer. I ask how he is managing, particularly with such a heavy portfolio.

“By the time you go to print, she’ll be halfway through her chemotherapy. The news of her diagnosis, like it is with any family, was just a shellshock and clearly every politician, whether you’re a minister, an MSP [or] whatever your role is in life, people have to face up to these challenges in their lives. Yes, it’s extremely tough. The initial few weeks following the diagnosis were very challenging for my family and, you know, so many families have been through this, it makes you put things into perspective.

“Yes, you have the challenge of having to balance going to work. I’ve been very lucky in that, in the initial weeks in particular, the government were very understanding. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister said to me, ‘you’ve got to put your family first, do what’s right’, so I did my best to be there for my wife when she needed me. I’m still doing that. She’s at chemo on Friday, so I’ll be there to pick her up from hospital and the few days after that I have to be around for her. But everyone’s been very supportive.

“First and foremost, it’s my wife that’s having to deal with this. She’s a working mum. It gives you a perspective because as a politician you’ve got constituents who come to you whose lives have been affected by illness. It throws down some of life’s biggest challenges to you and then suddenly you’re experiencing that yourself. So it allows you to put things into perspective.”

Fiona Lochhead has been very open in talking to the media about her cancer. Has that made it easier or harder that everyone knows about it?

“Well, my wife is a strong woman, she’s a very bright, strong woman, so when she told me, within days of her diagnosis, that she wanted to speak out, that she was determined to do that, that was her decision and I’ve supported her all the way.

“And of course, even though I knew she was a strong woman, I’ve seen a different side to her.” He laughs. “She’s been giving amazing interviews and even been on television, you know, cramping my style,” he jokes. “But I’m very proud of her and she’s been very effective in getting the message across to other women to check themselves for lumps. She wanted not just to learn her lesson herself but wanted other people to learn from her mistakes, and that’s a very admirable approach to her illness.”

I mention that Fiona described him in one interview as “not very medical” and ask if that has changed.

He laughs. “Well, clearly, I’ve had to go to the hospital more times than I care to remember over the last few months. I’m not the best person at the sight of blood, but obviously she’s been a regular visitor to the hospitals so I’ve learnt a lot, let’s just say, about cancer and, of course, about our fantastic NHS.

“As a politician, we all sit around the cabinet table and discuss the future of the NHS. It’s a big issue, politically, people are very concerned about the fortunes of the health service, it’s often a political football, but when you’re actually there speaking to the surgeons who’re going to save your wife’s life and the nurses who’re going to look after her and comfort her, you just realise how lucky we are to have an NHS, how incredibly talented and committed the people that work there are. We’re so lucky in this country to have that service available to us.”

What about hobbies and relaxing? Does he have time for any?

“Well, on the cancer theme, I’m cycling the Loch Ness étape in April and I’m raising money for Macmillan Cancer. But I’m also taking up cycling again because I’ve been doing that since 2014. I cycled even more in 2015 and now 2016 is my year of the étapes, so I’ve signed up for Loch Ness and the Caledonian and also the Royale, that’s three étapes in different parts of Scotland.

“I decided a few years ago that if I don’t look after myself and get a bit fitter, I ain’t gonna be on this planet much longer. I have to, like most people, reappraise my health, so I have been trying to be more active again.

“I used to be a lot more active many years ago but sometimes you let the job get in the way, and this can be a very unhealthy lifestyle. So, yeah, I’ve got Lycra. I’m your stereotypical middle-aged man in Lycra. I’m going to be going out several times every weekend. And I enjoy it – it’s a great escapism, you’re one-to-one with nature and the countryside, so it’s fantastic.”

What about other hobbies?

“Apart from reading every single book I can get my hands on about the Second World War, I’m a complete music fanatic. I spend a lot of time listening to music and I even bought myself a drum kit, not this Christmas, but last Christmas, so I’ve set that up at home. I don’t call myself a drummer because I can’t really play the drums, but I like to bang the drums.”

I joke that he only needs the fast car for every middle-aged stereotype to be ticked and he agrees. I note, too, that he seems from his Twitter to have been particularly touched by David Bowie’s death.

“I’m a huge Bowie fan,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of his albums, never seen him live unfortunately, so it hit me when we lost him because I’ve spent a lot of time over the years listening to his music. I’m a Springsteen fanatic, of course, as well as lots of music. I love to get the opportunity when I’m in the car to listen to music or at home when I’ve got a bit of spare time, and I sometimes even go and bang away on the drums with the music on the big amplifier speakers in the background playing away.

“I’ve not been to that many gigs recently. I had to pull out of U2 because of Fiona’s illness. I would have loved to have seen them play. But I saw The Proclaimers a few weeks ago in Glasgow and there’s a band called Future Islands who I’ve seen three or four times the last few years. I see Springsteen when he comes to Scotland and I’ve been down to Sheffield to see him a few years ago as well. And Fleetwood Mac, I’ve been to see them in Glasgow twice.”

That’s not bad record on gig attendance, I say.

“Not bad trying to fit that in with this hectic lifestyle,” he agrees. “Very occasionally I sneak away from parliament on a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening to go to a gig. I don’t manage to do that often, but sometimes without telling anyone, I just simply sneak away from parliament and go to a gig in Glasgow or wherever and watch some of my bands.

“My ambition is to play the drums right through a whole song with a band in front of me. One day I might do that. Preferably with Bruce Springsteen – but that’s pretty unlikely.

“I once had a dream that I gave Bruce Springsteen a tour of the Scottish Parliament. Then I woke up and unfortunately discovered it was a dream. I’d love to take him to the bar downstairs for a local beer.”

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