Interview: Richard Lochhead returns to the front bench with an appreciation of life/work balance

Written by Tom Freeman on 9 November 2018 in Inside Politics

Science, colleges and universities minister Richard lochhead speaks to Holyrood about returning to government and his own education

Richard Lochhead - David Anderson/Holyrood

Richard Lochhead describes the phone call from Nicola Sturgeon to invite him back to the front bench as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science as a “bolt out of the blue”.

The former Environment Secretary had resigned ahead of Sturgeon’s post-election reshuffle in 2016, citing personal reasons, and there was no expectation on his part that a return to the front line was imminent.

Indeed, the personal nature of his reasons for stepping down could have been interpreted as a request for a longer stint on the back benches.

Pressure had been building on Lochhead over his handling of delays to Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers. A new £178m IT system had failed to pay out EU support to farmers across Scotland in time.

But it was his wife Fiona being treated for breast cancer in 2015 that had prompted his decision to step down, he had said. 

The time had come, he said at the time, “to change the priorities in my life” and spend more time with her and his two sons, who were “growing up fast”.

Lochhead seemed to enjoy his return to the back benches, campaigning on constituency issues such as parcel delivery charges to rural and remote areas.

However, Sturgeon’s first choice as FE and HE minister, Gillian Martin, was dropped before she had even been confirmed by MSPs over blog posts she had written in 2007 when she was working as a college lecturer, in which she complained about “political correctness” in education.

It was clear opposition parties would not have endorsed Martin in the role, and she was left out of the new team.

This led to a summer recess with no minister in post. The First Minister clearly needed an experienced politician to take up the reins and hit the ground running. 

And there are few with more experience than Lochhead, who has been in parliament since it first sat in 1999 and in cabinet from the SNP’s ascendency to power in 2007 until he stepped down in 2016. Only the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can boast of longer records in cabinet in the Scottish Parliament’s history.

Holyrood suggests Lochhead had the best of both worlds, gaining a promotion but not having to spend the summer meeting stakeholders and reading a mountain of documents on his new brief.
“Well, yes, I had a summer in the constituency and with my family. Out on the bike. All these things I had time to do,” he grins.

“So, I guess I had a bit of an edge over my colleagues who had to spend the summer reading their briefing papers and getting up to scratch with their portfolios. I had my holiday.”

The rest must have recharged the batteries. Lochhead has the energy of someone who is enjoying the challenge of a new brief that, he says, has “exceeded all my expectations”. But when he left cabinet, he had said that his priorities had shifted, indicating work/life balance had become a priority. Have those priorities shifted back again?

“I feel I achieved a lot in my portfolios, it was a real privilege and I’m even today seeing a lot of ideas I kicked off coming into fruition,” he says.

“But it was nine years, and it is often difficult to articulate to people not in cabinet just how hectic the life can be. How demanding. Nine years of that. You can’t go on forever, and I knew it wasn’t going to go on forever. 

“On top of that, I had other issues of my life going on, with my wife’s illness. You do reflect and weigh up things in your mind. She was seriously ill at one point and therefore, having done the role for nine years, there was an election, the time of the new cabinet was clearly the time to make the decision. 

“That’s why at the time I notified the First Minister I didn’t want to be considered to continue in government. I felt nine years was a good stint.

“However, it is two years on now. I had a good time on the back benches, working hard in my constituency. But I didn’t have a real doubt about going back into government. It wasn’t my choice but if the privilege, the honour of ever being considered, you obviously don’t rule it out.”

Achieving a balance between work and personal life is difficult for many people in the workplace, but politics often blurs the lines between the two, especially in the era of always-on social media. For a minister, duties can take place at any hour, on any day, and take you far afield. Holyrood asks Lochhead how he can protect against the same issues arising again.

“Clearly when I had the opportunity to take on this portfolio, I did weigh up those things in my mind at the time. But it is new. It’s exciting,” he says. 

“And in my previous role, I spent a lot of time negotiating overseas. I was regularly in London, Brussels and Luxembourg, as well as other countries with trade missions through the food and drink portfolio. This is different. This doesn’t involve regular negotiations in Brussels and Luxembourg. It will be hard working and demanding, as it should be, but it’s different. And my family are OK with it.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges the call from the First Minister came as “a surprise”.

“I’ve more than enough to keep myself busy as a backbench MSP but of course at the back of your mind, you’re always wondering what the future might hold. I think it’s good for everyone to know that you can be in government, leave government but then you can get back into government.” 

Lochhead can claim some experience with both further and higher education, having studied at college both full-time and part-time before becoming the first person in his family to go to university.
After attending college in Glasgow, he left a position with prospects at the South of Scotland Electricity Board to go to Stirling University in 1989. 

Initially set to study history, he switched to political studies which, he says, was “not what you’d think”, focusing on literature and history as opposed to political theory. 

“At one point, I was ruthlessly ambitious, wanting to get on in business, but then I changed my mind,” he remembers.

“I thought ‘that’s not for me’, I want to go and have experience of university and broaden my intellectual horizons. I wanted to meet people from other countries. Just experience university life as well as the educational side of things.”

This was a decision that he had failed to share with his mother, who passed away earlier this year.

“I remember, kind of to my shame, resigning my well-paid, exciting job I had with a good trajectory without telling my mum. I lived with my mum at the time, and she was very keen for me to have a well-paid job and stick at it. I resigned my job, applied for university and accepted my offer, all without telling my mum. I feel guilty about that now, because she was really upset when she found out that I hadn’t wanted to tell her.”

Lochhead gives his contemporary friends “a lot of the credit” because they were all at university while he was still in college part-time, and had shown him the delights of the Strathclyde University students’ union.

The social life, he admits, was “part of the attraction”, even though the college he was attending had had a good social scene of its own.

“I went back down memory lane, because I went to visit the students’ association with the NUS presidents and student union presidents at Strathclyde Uni a few weeks ago, and I went up to level eight, which is where I went to watch all the gigs with my mates.”

While Lochhead’s reasons for opting to go to university are familiar – to broaden your intellectual and social horizons – universities themselves are very different entities to what they were 30 years ago.

Apart from the fact more people than ever attend, and do much of their learning online, universities have promoted their position as global brands with an increasing focus on commercialisation and links with business. Students are increasingly seen as consumers as well as learners, even in fee-free Scotland where the number of students from overseas paying large fees is higher than elsewhere in the UK.

Holyrood asks Lochhead if he feels something has been lost from that ambition of broadening intellectual horizons that had inspired him to leave a well-paid job. He says he is challenging universities to do both.

“I’m not exaggerating to say I’m awe-struck by the wealth of talents, the innovation and excellence in our institutions. They mustn’t lose that magic. Our universities must be allowed to be intellectually adventurous and have the freedom to be distinctive,” he says.

“However, I see it as part of my job to ensure the public investment that goes into universities – and the fact we have this wealth of excellence and expertise on the doorstep – delivers for Scotland. That it helps us be a prosperous country.”

Having the best health science on campus, he argues, should mean Scotland has the best health service in the world, or even the “healthiest nation in the world”.

“I want to make sure we are all getting the absolute benefits of having this fantastic academic wealth. So that’s a big challenge I’m laying down to universities.”

Scotland’s place in the world is changing, though. The reality of Brexit remains shrouded in mystery, and it is something the research community remains very concerned about.

Earlier that day, a letter from 29 Nobel Laureates to Theresa May and Jean-Claude-Juncker, had warned a hard Brexit could “cripple UK science”, with freedom of movement and funding two of the sector’s biggest concerns.

But Lochhead came into government in 2007 promising to “relentlessly” pursue the interests of Scottish fishermen, including calling the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) “a travesty for Scotland”.

Given Scottish fishermen appear to be eager to ensure a harder Brexit to escape the CFP, does he feel split loyalties on the biggest political issue of our times?

He tells Holyrood those fishing communities have indeed been on his mind, but education has a lot to lose.

Universities, he says, “play a major economic role in their communities. They are part of our culture, part of our international collaboration.” 

He continues: “Universities help make Scotland an outward-looking country. A lot of that is at risk if we have a no-deal or hard Brexit. No mobility for researchers and students to come easily to Scotland. Also, the funding programmes, because we punch above our weight in terms of attracting research grants and so on. That is definitely a huge risk.”

Leaving the CFP, meanwhile, is “probably the only benefit of leaving Europe”.

“Clearly the Common Fisheries Policy has not been successful for Scotland. But we have to put the national interest first. And the national interest is to remain in Europe. If we leave Europe, we have to remain as close to Europe as possible, through the single market and customs union. That is the national interest.”

The SNP’s focus on nation-building, both in education and in wider economic policy, has been about productivity and responding to future skills needs and skills gaps.

However, we are halfway through a flagship programme to reduce youth unemployment which grew out of Sir Ian Wood’s recommendations to raise the esteem of vocational and work-based learning, and there seems to be little evidence of the cultural shift required for that to happen.

Parents often still see university as the mark of success, even if Lochhead’s own experience was different.

But the college sector, he believes, is far more innovative than when he studied accounting at Glasgow Central College of Commerce while working as a trainee for the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

“One of the big reasons the government is pursuing the widening access agenda is to open up and democratise all our education institutions to everyone in Scotland. So that there are no ‘soft barriers’ to attending university, like seeing it as elitist or ‘not for me’,” he says.

He insists students and their families are becoming “more confident” in pursuing whatever learning path they want, so that things like  hiding his ambitions from his mother remain in the past.
“I’ve spoken to college students who were offered a place at university but decided to go to the local college because they decided that was going to deliver a better outcome for them, so, I do think there has been a blurring of the lines between universities and colleges. 

“We always want to maintain the strengths of each sector and allow our sectors to be distinctive. I think the key is to make the journey, the options, as seamless as possible. Easy to choose.”

With the University of the Highlands and Islands based around 13 colleges and a lot of higher education being delivered in college settings, these blurring of the lines step right out of Lochhead’s own experience.

Like much of politics, the personal becomes embroiled in the work and vice versa. For an SNP veteran like Lochhead, this has been heightened with the allegations and subsequent court action involving Alex Salmond, a man who was at the heart of turning the party from a single-issue campaigning fringe into a government.

“On a personal level, it’s been horrific. Extremely difficult,” reflects Lochhead. 

“We all know the process that has to be followed and that is absolutely the case. But you can’t divorce that from your own life, and I am where I am today because of Alex Salmond. 

“I first met Alex when I took my year out at university because they were reopening the department and I had to wait for the department to reopen and I went to work for Alex Salmond. I was, I don’t know, 21 or something. So yes, it’s a very difficult time.”

But given Lochhead’s own journey in the last few years – his wife is currently three years into the five-year remission period with no symptoms of the disease – the relationship between his job and his personal life has already been at the forefront of his mind. “It’s a big thing,” he says.

“Many people work away from home. Whether you work offshore or work shifts, a lorry driver, whatever it is you do. Politicians are not unique in working away from home, but it does bring added pressures. You are away from family. 

“If my wife is ill and I have two young kids, you’re several hours away from home and can’t drop everything very easily to get home to them. These are always factors. There’s even looking after your own wellbeing. I’ve done an awful lot of cycling over the last two years. I’ve been back on the bike getting fit again. We should be looking after our health in politics, and our mental wellbeing as well.”  

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