Lord Ian Duncan on Brexit, the Lords and being an 'abomination'

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 29 September 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Scotland Office

Ian Duncan - image credit: David Anderson

When Ian Duncan was invited to take up a position in the House of Lords, he considered a few different options for his new title. In the end, he went with the one that made most sense to him, opting for ‘Lord Duncan of Springbank’ in a nod to the Alyth street where he grew up.

But there’s an air of mischief around the new peer and he initially toyed with other options, with officials warning him that certain choices were inadvisable. “There are things you can’t choose,” he explains.

“We had a discussion about whether I could choose ‘Brussels’, but they suggested you can only do that if you’ve had a significant military victory there,” he laughs. “I couldn’t really claim that, even though I have had some great successes in the European Parliament. I felt that might be a bit grand.

“When I suggested it, they looked into Springbank. They said, ‘it’s a road, isn’t it?’” he chuckles. “They said they felt it might be beneath the dignity of a baron.”


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Lord Duncan of Brussels or not, Duncan’s appointment was surrounded by controversy, with his move from Brussels to Westminster coming just months after he was rejected by voters in Perth and North Perthshire in his bid to join the House of Commons in June’s snap general election.

SNP MP Pete Wishart retained the seat, beating Duncan by just 21 votes. Duncan’s campaign aside, the election was a breakthrough for the Tories north of the border, as the party jumped from a solitary MP up to 13. But while the new influx of Scottish Tories helped soothe the pain of the party’s collapse across the UK, not one of the 12 new recruits was deemed suitable for the position of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Scotland Office. Duncan, rejected by voters, had sneaked into power through the backdoor, via the undemocratic House of Lords.

The newly appointed lord is obviously still adjusting to the move from Brussels, not least because of the change in the way he is treated. From the independence of his job as an MEP – he led on EU emission reductions work, but had to work hard to generate any media attention – to being required to seek clearance and official approval for even the slightest decision, now clearly it represents something of a shock to the system.

Nonetheless, having recently moved into his office in Edinburgh’s New Town – he hasn’t got hold of a key to it yet – Duncan seems pretty at ease with the consequences of a rollercoaster year in Scottish and UK politics.

The decoration is certainly his own. Small colourful dinosaur models are clustered around the surfaces, with one group – a brightly coloured mingling of predators and prey – huddled next to a bust of Harold Macmillan.

The dinosaurs, which Duncan says he uses occasionally to illustrate different actors while explaining a political scenario, are a reminder of his time as a palaeontologist, the field in which he was granted his doctorate.

At one point one of the UK’s leading paleo-biologists, the newly installed Tory lord once named a newly discovered species of beetle after his mother. She was not particularly excited by this, apparently.

He has had a varied career. After a stint in academia, he took a job at BP but rather than moving into geology, the subject of his undergraduate degree, they pushed him into political affairs. “Maybe that says something about my geology ability,” he laughs.

After that, and before moving to work in the Scottish Parliament as a clerk, he worked for the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Scottish Refugee Council. It is certainly an odd journey from an Alyth council estate to the House of Lords.

One half of his family were farmers, who he describes as ‘conservative with a small c’, while his grandfather on the other side was a communist, known as ‘Red John’.

In 1934 Red John packed up his possessions and moved from his small, earthen-floored cottage to the Alyth estate where Duncan grew up. John and his wife, Duncan’s grandmother, lived the rest of their lives in that house, with Duncan’s mother and his aunt and uncle all born there. His mother got a house in the same scheme – she was still there when she died a few years ago.

All of which goes to explain why Duncan was drawn to choosing Springbank for his title. After all, without ancestral grounds to fall back on, the choices were limited. “Three generations of my family have been from that self-same street,” he tells Holyrood. “If you’re looking for family lands, then Springbank Road in Alyth is where my family is from.”

Still, the invitation to take up a place in the Lords must have been a surprise.

Duncan pauses. “In some ways, it was a surprise and in some ways, it wasn’t. There was a discussion within the party, way before the election was even dreamed of, of trying to increase the European credentials within the department as Brexit was becoming a reality.

“After the election defeat, I was a bit knackered at that point, and so I was out having a lunch with alcohol with an old friend. We were having a drink and I got the call while he was in the toilet and I thought, ‘uh huh, that sounds bonkers to me but OK, that’s interesting’.

“There were lots of questions I had about that, not least because there were 12 sound and true MPs just elected to the party, not one of them was me, surely then you’d have now a wealth of talent to choose from. I’ve campaigned for all of them all over the years, they are a talented bunch. But the thing that surprised me a little bit was the general approach within the party was that to go from a standing start as an MP and then climb straight into the ministry of office was not happening. We’ve seen that the first rung of the ladder, the PPS level, even then none of the 12 have climbed that rung either. They will, I’m under no illusion about that. But I was informed that if it wasn’t going to be me, it was going to be another lord.”

So Duncan quit as an MEP, packed up his model dinosaurs and moved to the Lords, though he concedes he “didn’t quite anticipate the wider response”.

The word ‘response’ is something of a euphemism here, with politicians from across the spectrum seeming to come together to condemn the move.

The then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale called it a “Tory stitch-up”, while Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton took it as proof that “Theresa May obviously doesn’t have a lot of faith in the talents of her newly elected Scottish MPs if she is so keen to pass them over”.

Or as SNP MP Pete Wishart put it: “That anyone can be rejected by the electorate and then just days later find themselves in a powerful government role is fundamentally undemocratic and should not be allowed in a modern society.”

It was pretty cutting stuff. But was Duncan surprised?

“I don’t follow Pete Wishart on Twitter so that’s helpful,” he laughs. “There was a lot of criticism, which was a little bit strange. I found it difficult, I suppose, at that point because I’d always been, if you like, the friendly face of the Conservative Party. I wanted to help and so on and suddenly I found myself the… ,” he pauses, reflecting, “I had to turn off the little ping on my phone when you have a new Twitter notification, it just went mad.

“I wasn’t prepared for that. In the past when I tried to get things retweeted it was hard work and suddenly I was getting castigated by people I’d never met. In my previous role I had a policy that I would respond to every single tweet because I felt MEPs are so remote that this was a great opportunity. I tried to do that but I had to give up because they were coming in at a rate of every minute. It was becoming extraordinary, and perpetuated by people who I had thought better of. I’m conscious that that appointment will look to many people a strange appointment, especially against the backdrop of the 12.”

Duncan didn’t speak to any of the 12 new Conservative MPs before coming in, saying it wouldn’t have been appropriate, but he had already known David Mundell for years, as well as his predecessor, Lord Dunlop. Apparently, Dunlop’s advice to Duncan amounted to warning him, “Don’t make an arse of it”.

Probably good advice, but it may be easier said than done in politics – particularly given the challenges which lie ahead.

In fact, watching from the outside, the UK’s approach to Brexit doesn’t appear to be going brilliantly, with a mix of leaked immigration plans, a collapsing currency and claims that negotiations have stalled, leading to a sense that the vote to leave the EU could well trigger a massive drop in both living standards and the UK’s international influence.

Duncan, a Tory with a thorough understanding of the EU, was a very vocal proponent of remaining. Theresa May backed remain too, but then came in as Prime Minister and interpreted the meaning of the vote in the most extreme terms possible. How much does that concern him?

“It is difficult, actually. I had anticipated after being elected to the European Parliament, and I’d hoped, proving I was good there, that I’d be returned. I had anticipated a European career. I think being in the EU makes sense in lots of different ways. But some of the proposals that are coming out – you can use various terms ‘red, white and blue’, ‘hard Brexit’ – the worst-possible scenario is to be bound by the rules but have no input into their development. That’s the worst.

“From my point of view, I’d be happy to tell you why I think we should be in the EU but I cannot advocate that we should be entirely bound by all of the rules but with no influence on them at all. Take something like financial services, the Tobin Tax [aka Robin Hood Tax] was an example where had they introduced this transaction tax on financial transactions, and 80 per cent of that tax would have been paid by the City of London. You can see why the UK was perhaps not very supportive of that. Take us out of the room while this is being discussed, take away our influence inside the corridors of power and there are 27 making decisions and we are bound by them. Are they going to be making decisions that are good for the City of London? No, I wouldn’t have thought so.

“So, in my mind, now we are an important nation, we are part of the G7, we are a major global player – we’re not like the other members of EFTA, we’re not like the other members of the EEA. Even with my dialogue with those countries, a lot of them are saying, ‘well, we don’t really want you in EFTA’. Why? ‘Because you’re bigger than all of us put together and multiplied by three, so you’d dominate, and our voice would be suddenly reduced to a whisper’.”

Scotland voted to remain and there is obviously strong concern north of the border over the consequences of leaving. Does that matter? How can Duncan reconcile Scotland’s desire to stay in Europe with the fact that we will be leaving?

“We do need to recognise that Scotland voted differently, I think that is true. But we also have to recognise that some of the proposals put forward in the Scottish Government are untenable, not least because they demanded of other [states], not just the rest of the UK, but members of EFTA, quite different approaches that they’re not minded to contemplate.

“The other thing we have to remember, a number of you [the press] have been saying recently the referendum itself was very close, which it was, but we’ve had a general election since then and the two principal parties in that put forward a very clear statement about their views on Brexit, and adding together those two principal parties, you see a very different balance of proportions. Particularly when you take into account the Liberal Democrats were advocating a second referendum and the SNP were arguing for a very different relationship with Europe – both did remarkably badly in that situation. So I don’t think it’s as easy to interpret as it was a close run thing and therefore that [the referendum result in Scotland] must be taken wholly into account with no other nuances recognised.”

But Theresa May’s justification for calling the general election was that it would strengthen the UK’s hand in negotiations. She said a strong and stable government would aid our position in negotiations, then she lost a lot of seats.

“I don’t think it was a good election for the Conservative Party.”

No, but if she needed a bigger majority to strengthen her hand in negotiations, does the fact she threw away her majority not weaken the UK’s hand?

“I’m not sure. I don’t anticipate that particular negotiation being conducted like a sumo wrestling match where Britain lost a few pounds in that election and is therefore a bit weaker and therefore we are not able to belly up against Europe. I don’t think it’s quite like that. We have to argue for the right thing for the people of the UK and deliver against it. Equally, the EU has to recognise that too – there’s no value in the EU winning and the UK losing any more than that applies the other way round. If we in any way affect the viability of the EU, we have just affected our principal market, and that makes no sense, and ditto in reverse. So we need to find a way of finding common ground to allow ourselves to emerge from what will be an era-defining change.”

That seems fair, but of course, we wouldn’t need to find common ground for an era-defining change if David Cameron hadn’t decided to promise a referendum to stave off criticism from the Eurosceptic wing of his party in the first place. And that is one of the oddest things about the current political chaos – there’s a strong argument that if it were not for internal politics in the Conservative Party, none of this needed to happen. Or was an EU referendum inevitable?

“I don’t know the answer to that. I think one of the difficulties when you promise something in an election is the expectation that you will deliver. The last government promised referendums at various points – I’m talking about the Blair government – and managed by dodging not to have one, I’m not sure exactly if that was an edifying moment for British politics. One could argue, if only David Cameron had done the same.”

Or he could just not have promised an EU referendum in the first place.

“Well, that’s true. But for the same reason that the Labour Party promised it in the late 90s, early 00s, was the same reason that David Cameron promised it – there are some issues now upon which the mood of the people itself must be the determinant. We joined by referendum, we left by referendum. In some ways, we should only ever have a referendum if you’re sure of the outcome, but that’s maybe a bit of a biased way of looking at it. I would be counselling against having another referendum.”

On anything?

“On anything, ever again. I think it’s high risk. I think we didn’t quite get there but if that result had been 50-50 decided by 10 votes, would that have been as legitimate? If it was a majority, albeit a modest one, would that be more acceptable? I think the very fact that we had such a clear division into two halves, if it had gone the other way, I’m not sure that they’ve healed the wounds either.”

Some would like to see a referendum on the future of the House of Lords. With the place steeped in archaic tradition, and criticism of the lack of democracy on show a constant feature of UK political debate, it must have been a bit of a culture shock to walk in those doors.

Duncan nods. “It is a bit of an odd place – all the people that you remember from your childhood watching the news are all dead or they’re in the Lords. They’ve all aged – it’s a bit like watching the return to Crossroads, 20 years after it ended. You think, ‘oh, they’re still here’. In many ways, their contributions are all the better for that because they’ve had a lifetime of experience that they can put into debates which can be fascinating. Their role in Brexit will be absolutely critical because there’s no majority in the Lords.”

So what has Duncan taken from it?

“I have a couple of observations. One, the Lords is the most unionist part of Westminster because the SNP has chosen not to put any lords in there. I think that’s a mistake but I’ve already had that spat with Alex Salmond. The Lords are remarkably polite. Polite in the sense that you can imagine them very politely stabbing you in the forehead with a knife. They are remarkably able and talented and they might come across as polite old ladies and gentlemen but actually, my word, know your stuff or they will cut you off at the knees.”

Duncan is clearly still adapting to his new role, having switched from three and a bit years working in Europe, flying out to Brussels on a Monday and back on a Friday, to a totally different routine. He says he hasn’t really settled into a new working routine, saying, “it hasn’t quite got its rhythm yet here”.

Duncan paints and draws in his spare time – he recently held an exhibition of his work – while his husband, whom he met in Brussels, is obviously a calming influence in a hectic career.

He tells Holyrood: “My partner is constantly amused by what I do, day to day. During the debacle over my appointment, he said, ‘you’re an abomination, but you’re my abomination’, which I thought was quite touching, in a slightly dark way! He does keep me grounded which is good.

“But he was supportive [of the move]. He didn’t know what I was going to do after Brexit. That’s the other thing, he didn’t want me lounging about the house. I think for an American it’s quite funny – my father was pleased when I got ennobled, but not as pleased as his family were! My goodness, the number of letters I got from obscure members of his family, all addressed to Lord Duncan of Springbank, the word has got out across America!

“Nobody in my family sent me anything, but I got all these cards from his family, which was quite touching. I’ve got them all in a bundle on my desk. I brought my family down when I was ennobled and that was quite strange. We did a little dress rehearsal beforehand because you could easily point in the wrong direction. It was the first time I’d actually heard the title used. I remember thinking, my mum would have loved this. She’s no longer with us and I’m thinking, her whole life was spent in Springbank, it would have been quite touching for her to have thought, my goodness, all the way from high school [to the Lords]. That is quite a journey. Not a journey that I’d anticipated. I don’t feel I’m entering into the retirement phase of my life yet, so I still think I’ve got something else in me. I don’t know what that is yet.”

But whatever happens, Duncan will still be the Lord of Springbank when he leaves.

He nods. “Well, they don’t take the title away and I’ve pondered that because if I wanted to run for Westminster, I could retire it. That was the first question I asked. I thought I was maybe 20 or 30 years away from the Lords, I didn’t think I’d get there in my 40s. The title is not something I’ve felt the need to take out for a spin. I’m not sure what the rest of my career will look like but this challenge is certainly going to occupy my waking hours for quite some time and hopefully, on the other side, people will see that I’ve done a good job.”

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