Christina McKelvie: Equality is about changing culture and attitudes

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Scotland’s equalities minister Christina McKelvie talks of the inequity that drove her into politics

Equalities minister Christina McKelvie - David Anderson/Holyrood

When Christina McKelvie’s father died, after a long battle with a terminal illness, her mum, who had single-handedly cared for her sick husband and their four children, was left widowed at 48 and with no income. 

Having been forced to give up her job as the manageress of a Glasgow bakery when she was pregnant with Christina in the late 1960s – that’s how gender equality worked back then – she went on to become a full-time carer for her husband, who was diagnosed with MND, and also worked as a cleaner in the evenings when her kids were at home, just to make ends meet.

And when McKelvie’s father died after a heartbreaking 13-year struggle with the degenerative disease, and her mother discovered that she didn’t qualify for a widow’s pension, which kicked in at 50, she took it straight to the top and wrote directly to Margaret Thatcher, who was the prime minister at the time.

“There was no stopping my mum when she saw an injustice,” says McKelvie. “And so she wrote to Margaret Thatcher to tell her this wasn’t fair. She could be really brutal when she had a bee in her bonnet, my mum, but she basically wrote to Thatcher ‘woman-to-woman’ to say, this isn’t right. 

“I think she had qualified for something like 22 pence or something stupid and she just saw red. She had been an unpaid carer for all that time and was basically being let loose by the government with nothing, plunged into a real situation of dire poverty.

“She probably wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, but she was very pro women and all about women having their rights and she basically believed that as a woman, widowed, under the age of 50, she had the right to be cared for by the state, and so she went to war with Thatcher.

“I suppose growing up in the east end of Glasgow, in a working-class family where your big, strong dad is struck down with this terrible, terrible, illness and everything that comes with that, all the anger and the frustration, you see the real impact it had on my mum and my brother and my sisters, but we came through that with a real philosophy that if something’s not fair, it’s not fair, and that you stood up and you had your say about it.

“Of course, it wasn’t fair that my big, strong dad had MND. It’s cruel and he was stubborn, and he hung on. I don’t know how many times we had the priest running up the street to give him the last rites in the last couple of years, but he carried on and I know that was hard for him.

“The progression of him losing his ability to do things was terrible to watch and the impact that then had on him was hard. His frustration was really deep, his resentment was really deep, and I suppose us all running about, full of life, was not in some cases a nice thing for him to see. We were all teenagers when he got a lot worse and that was a pretty tense time, because we were all wanting to be out and about and do this and that and we had to stay in to look after Dad.

“I remember having a conversation with him one night, after I’d left home and moved into my wee flat in Dennistoun, not long before he died, and I told him that I felt bad about telling him to stop being a bam, and all that stuff, you know, the way teenagers respond normally to their parents in a row, and he said that he just couldn’t stand seeing how full of life we all were when he knew he couldn’t and wouldn’t be part of our future. It was only then that that penny dropped about how horrible that was for him, but we were kids and could only see the things we were not being able to do. 

“It’s funny, but one of the fondest memories I’ve got is the day he got his diagnosis at the Southern General. He came to the school at lunchtime and shouted at me in the schoolyard, ‘Get your brother and your sisters, we’re out of here’, and we’re like, it’s in the middle of the school day and the headteacher is shouting at him and he said, ‘My kids can come to school any day but they can’t always spend a day with their dad’. 

“He took us out of school, and we went to see Star Wars. That, for me, is the kind of memory I draw on, not the hard times, and sometimes, it was really hard. My mum had to work at night and so she was about the house in the day, looking after my dad and she worked at night, so we were about to care for him. I was nine, my brother was seven and my sister was five. My elder sister had just started her nurse’s training, so it was hard, for us all. 

“When I look at people now and reflect on how we, as a government, are building a social security agency in Scotland, treating people with dignity, fairness and respect, I think about my mum having to take my dad on a bus when his legs weren’t working properly to some health centre miles and miles away – two or three bus rides away – just to get an assessment to see if we were entitled to free school meals or not...

“You know, I did the eulogy at my mum’s funeral a few years back, and it was the hardest speech I’ve ever had to do in my entire life, but it was a good thing to do because it reminded me of all the good things, the things you would smile about, how amazing she was for a wee woman from Easterhouse who was just caring, and people knew she cared, and she created those safe environments for people to feel cared. And she was strong, really strong.”

McKelvie has that same inner strength as her mother, wrapped up in a mushy comfort blanket. She is a real glass half full kind of woman. And while she wears her heart on her sleeve and has compassion stamped across her forehead, you wouldn’t want to cross her. She is made of the same kind of grit as her old mum, but also makes light of almost every personal situation. 

She says growing up in Glasgow’s east end during the 1970s was a “tough gig” and “you either ran with the gang or ran really fast” and “I got medals for running with the Shettleston Warriors, that’s how fast I was.”

But she goes on to describe her group of friends from Easterhouse and how many of them have reconnected, but that their conversations are filled with what she calls the “ghosts of the past”, schoolfriends and neighbours who have died as a result of drugs, domestic violence, suicide or alcoholism.

“I have often wondered ‘Why not me?’ and I suspect it was my two Glasgow grannies saying, ‘Actually, your life is really valuable and you should use it to the best of your ability and get the most out of it’. 

“I think if I’m honest, that’s maybe the thoughts that have been in my head when growing up, I’d maybe been presented with opportunities where I could go down that route of doing something or trying something new that I shouldn’t. God, I’ve never even attempted to smoke. I grew up in a household full of smokers, but I’ve never, ever attempted to smoke. It might just be my personality, but whatever it was, I’m thankful.

“The writer Carol Craig wrote the book The Tears that Made the Clyde and in there was a chapter all about ‘the Glesca granny’ and I basically had two of them. Strong women with a big belief in family. 

“The granny I’m named after, Christina Burns, was in her 90s by the time she died. Born in 1912, lived through the war, had eight kids in a single end in Shamrock Street, brought them all up singlehandedly with my grandfather in the navy. She was a real trooper with a really strong personality, a proper matriarch. 

“It was the same for my maternal grandma, a very strong woman. She had a career, she was a nurse, always was a hard worker, and always imparted great knowledge. 

“When I was 15, she gave me a birthday card and in the card was a £5 note and a wee note saying, ‘Put that in the back of your purse and if you ever have to get away, that’s your bus fare’. Imagine, giving you that kind of a life lesson at the age of 15, about not being trapped in a relationship when it’s maybe not the best for you? And when you think about the life she lived with that kind of ‘you made your bed, you lay in it’ type attitude, she had a very different attitude for her granddaughters and their futures.”

McKelvie was clearly guided by the influences of her family. She describes both parents as campaigners. Her mother as a “nationalist to her core” and her father as “firmly in the Jimmy Reid camp, so very firmly to the left”, who was latterly an SNP activist.

She also describes her teenage self as an “activist” and “gobby” and says: “I was away every other weekend protesting against nuclear weapons and whatever feminist campaign was on at the time. I was always in the middle of all that.”  

She believed in an independent Scotland from an early age as a basic reaction to not wanting decisions being made for Scots, fuelled particularly by the question of nuclear weapons. However, she didn’t join the SNP as a teenager because she saw herself as more anti-establishment. And the backdrop to all of that was where she was brought up in Easterhouse.

“It was a tough place to grow up and possibly to thrive. There was lots of addiction, whether it was alcohol or drugs, and lots of violence. How do you survive some of that? Well, your family nurture you, your school. I had a great school, I had brilliant opportunities at school, but I could see that that didn’t work for everyone. So my activism was always about where I came from.

“I was also brought up at a time when Margaret Thatcher was in government, the late 70s and into the 80s and when I was at high school, Margaret Thatcher came and opened the first right-to-buy project in Easterhouse. My auntie stayed up next to it, and we staged a walk-out from the school to go and protest. I must have been about 13 or 14 at that time. That’ll be your measure of the wee bolshie lassie from Easterhouse who dyed her hair blue. Anyway, I got a row off the police and I had to tell my dad that I got a row for bunking off school and going and protesting against Margaret Thatcher. I thought I would get a row from him, too, but he was like, ‘That’s my girl’.

“And then at the age of 15, which was a really pivotal age for me, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This was in the charts that week. It was the 4th March, and I was on a week’s outward bounds course at Rhu, in Helensburgh, and the instructor showed us this map of the nuclear fallout should one of the subs that were moving into the Clyde at the time go off and that horrified me. 

"A few weeks later, Bruce Kent [then CND’s general secretary] was speaking in George Square, and that was me, I signed up for CND that day because he was just so inspirational. It was his view of a world which was about caring and understanding and supporting each other, and not about mutual destruction, that I loved. It was that attitude, I think that’s always been the cord that’s drawn me in. About what it is you’re doing and how does that have an impact on other people? How will it make a difference? Is it for the better or is it for the worse? 

“I stayed on at school. I did a fifth and a sixth year at St Leonard’s in Easterhouse. Unheard of. There were four of us in fifth year and just one, me, in sixth year. That was it. When you think now you get classes of 30 going through fifth and sixth year, it was not a thing you did then. You left school and you went into work, and most people went into a youth opportunities scheme. 

“I went into nursing, which was a bit of a family tradition, lots of nurses in my family, and I realised really quickly, about half way through that course – it was a three-year course – that it wasn’t really for me. I was very arty and crafty, and I managed to get a fantastic wee job doing therapeutic arts and crafts for the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector with people with learning disabilities, mental health issues and older people. 

“Ha! How your life comes full circle. I loved it and I built all my social work qualifications around working with adults with learning disabilities and people with mental health issues.”

McKelvie married at 21 – her dad lived to give her away, but died the following year – and had her first son at 24 and her second shortly after. The marriage didn’t last, and while that is clearly painful for someone with such a focus on the strength in family, she threw everything into the wellbeing of her two boys as a single mum.

“I would like to hope that I have brought my boys up to be, maybe not be feminists, but to be incredibly understanding about women. They had to be, when it was just the three of us and I was working and then when I went into politics, it had to be a team approach to household chores, to the shopping, to everything that needed done. We supported each other in that, and it worked, and I’ve got two young men now who when I watch them being incredibly supportive to their girlfriends, it gives me a wee thrill because I think, would that have been as automatic if I hadn’t instilled some of this in them? 

“You don’t know, that whole nature/nurture stuff, the debate that goes on all the time, but I quite like to think that my two boys and their understanding of their girlfriends, their periods and period pain, and all the stuff that they go through in their life as women, in terms of the challenges that they face in the workplaces and so on, that the boys understand that, are incredibly supportive and that they enable them to be who they are. That makes me proud.”

McKelvie’s political journey really began in 1997 when Tony Blair got elected and one of his first speeches on the steps of Downing Street was to announce that there would be a devolution referendum. McKelvie joined the SNP that day and, in typical fashion, threw all her energies at it.

However, it wasn’t until party conference in 2005 in Perth that two women she was having a cup of tea with suggested she should put herself forward for candidate vetting for the 2007 election. The two women were Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon.

McKelvie stood as a candidate for Hamilton and won the seat from Labour veteran Tom McCabe. Winnie Ewing, who had won the Hamilton Westminster by-election for the SNP in 1967, said she was “moved beyond words” by McKelvie’s victory.

McKelvie has been a doughty and passionate backbencher. She has an emotional intelligence and a common touch, not unlike that of the late Margo MacDonald, that means people warm to her. But there is no hiding the fact that despite her best efforts, she was passed over for a ministerial post by both Alex Salmond and Sturgeon. 

However, she threw herself into committee work and as convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, did some ground-breaking work around asylum seekers and austerity. In a 2018 reshuffle, she was appointed by the First Minister into a newly created ministerial role, responsible for equalities and older people.

“Not being too cliched, but this is my dream job,” she says. “I was absolutely over the moon when the First Minister had that conversation with me and then later that afternoon, I got a couple of bits of paper saying these are the duties and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, domestic violence, gypsy travellers, people with disabilities, women, older people, all of the areas where I’ve always battled and been involved with people to try and advance human rights and embed mainstream equalities across government. 

“Some of the things that I sat in the backbenches complaining about and writing letters to ministers about to take action, I am now leading on, and it is just absolutely amazing.

“A lot of this is about changing culture and attitudes, which are the biggest challenges I’ve got. It’s changing some of the anti-women attitudes you see; it’s changing some of the anti-gypsy Roma attitudes; the attitudes towards someone with disabilities; the way we approach older people as a burden rather than as an asset. 

“That’s the biggest challenge, how do we work to change some of those attitudes, and all of the work that I’m doing, whether it’s the social isolation and loneliness strategy, the older people’s framework, the ministerial committee on gypsy travellers, Equally Safe, it’s all about changing attitudes, culture and process to make sure the process further creates the equality that all of these groups need. 

“On menopause, I suppose on that subject, it was always forgotten about, it was a bit of a taboo, people didn’t tackle it, and interestingly, this weekend, when I met some of my friends, one of them said that someone from her work had been at the conference that you and I both spoke at, Mandy, and when you see us, a group of women, sitting at that top table sharing our experiences, looking for the resolutions to some of the problems we share on something like the menopause, which has been such a hidden subject and really exposing that, I see change happening and I see some of that coming back to me, reflected through my pals, reflected through my colleagues.

“And something like the menopause, in terms of the healthcare or the policy that your employer has got, that’s been an easy one to just allow women to be discounted from and we’ve allowed that to continue by our silence, but we’re 51 per cent of the population, and the sisters are not allowing it to be ignored anymore.”

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