Scottish Parliament at 20: Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh and his son Douglas talk 20 years of Scottish politics

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 28 January 2019 in Inside Politics

As the Scottish Parliament marks its 20th year, Holyrood speaks to the current presiding officer and his son Douglas, who was born in 1999, about the legacy so far

Scottish Parliament presiding officer Ken Macintosh and his son Douglas

Douglas Macintosh was born five days before his father, Ken, was elected as an MSP to the first Scottish Parliament on 6 May 1999.

His arrival provided the Glasgow Evening Times with the perfect photo opportunity of a newborn sporting a red rosette and accompanied by the predictable headline – ‘Labour Ward’.

Twenty years on and Douglas, like the parliament, has grown in stature – he is now an economics undergraduate at university in America, studying on a tennis scholarship.

He is as tall as his father, who is now the presiding officer, and over the years has been joined in the family by five siblings: Catriona, 17, twins Lachie and Annie, 15, Isobel, 11, and Ruth, 8.

The last two decades have proved to be a journey of exponential growth for both the parliament and the Macintosh family, whose six children truly epitomise the devolution generation.

Of course, despite his father’s pivotal role in changing Scotland, Douglas has, among other things, no memory of smoke-filled bars, he and his student friends don’t know anything of the struggle that parents faced paying fees for further and higher education, he has never paid for a prescription, gets free eye tests, benefited from the expansion of nursery care, and he and his peers will never know how their education could have been limited by Section 28, which banned teachers from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or the heartbreak of loving someone of the same sex but being barred from marriage.

He does, however, understand how important it is that the Scottish Parliament lowered the voting age, and he and his teenage sister, Catriona, have already been able to vote in elections that help shape the country they live in.

 “I’ve been able to vote in the last two elections,” says Douglas. “I just missed out on the independence vote because I was 15, but that is when all my friends started to talk politics.

“I always knew how I’d vote, but we definitely all became more vocal in how we were feeling and thinking in terms of voting around the referendum.

“I wouldn’t say I was actively campaigning all the time on behalf of the Labour Party or anything, but I became more of a voice, politically.

“I haven’t joined the party and I’ve never felt like I had to just because of my dad.

“I’ll ask things of Dad, like why is this the way it is, and maybe we don’t completely agree all the time, but the one thing he never did was come home and say, ‘This is what’s wrong and this is what’s right and this is what you have to do’, it’s more like I would actually ask him questions and reach my own conclusions.

“It’s funny, because we used to make fun of him, because he’s so into the Labour Party but not tribal, he’s just not partisan.

“In fact, he would repeat that every single day in his campaign when he stood for leader of the party. It was like a mantra.

“And, my mum doesn’t take it all so seriously, she likes to make fun of my dad sometimes, too, so it’s not like we’re all this big serious political family.”

Ken Macintosh nods: “I always say that politics is very much second best to tennis, in our family, anyway.”

As the son of a prominent Labour politician, it is perhaps no surprise that Douglas is politically aware.

He’s delivered enough leaflets and attended enough debates, but as a product of the devolution generation, his views are more nuanced, less politically tribal, but he is also very clear where power lies, and that is at Holyrood.

“I do support Westminster,” he says. “And I like being part of Britain. I feel associated with the rest of the UK – my granny is English – but in terms of where decisions are made for Scotland, then politically, I definitely always think first of the Scottish Parliament.

“I think people are proud of Scotland and proud of the Scottish Parliament and while there is always an element of anti-politician sentiment, there is definitely not so much of that levelled at the Scottish Parliament as there is at Westminster.

“I just think people feel a bit more attached or closer to politics when politics is played out like it is in Scotland.”

It was the prospect of a Scottish Parliament that first attracted Douglas’s father, Ken Macintosh, into politics.

He and his wife, Claire, were both successful television producers with the BBC and had been living in London for 11 years before they came back to Scotland in 1997 to work with the BBC.

And while he had been an active member of the Labour Party, he had never harboured any real political aspirations, and certainly not to stand for Westminster.

“Claire always laughs,” he says. “She married this successful, nice, safe, career man – I had been with the BBC for years – and then suddenly gave it all up at the very point Douglas was born, so my link between the family and the parliament is absolutely intertwined.

“That period in politics was a very exciting time. The Labour government had come in in 1997, there was a whole idea of change in the air, and with the new Scottish Parliament, in particular in ‘99, there was almost a euphoria about it, which then led of course to a counter reaction, but for me, it was a huge change.

“It was really only the Scottish Parliament that made me think about standing. I’d been a party member for, at that point, 17 years, and I’d gone to London to work for the BBC thinking I’d go for maybe two years and ended up being there for 11, but spent ages trying to get back to Scotland.

“I finally got back to Scotland with the BBC and then two and a half years [later], the parliament came along and, well, the rest is history.

“You can imagine, though, how I felt in May 1999. Douglas was born, and then days later I got elected. I mean, what a change that was for both Claire and me.

“Family and being elected all came at the same time and I was conscious, very early on, that the very things that I was most concerned about in public life and political life were the same things that actually did affect my family.

“So very early on, it was the expansion of nurseries and education, it was the state of the primary school estate, it was the teachers’ pay and so on.

“I was very education focused, and then, of course, although it didn’t directly affect the kids at that age, it was the expansion of further and higher education.

“I remember feeling very pleased that these things were happening at the very point that our family was growing, and that Douglas was going to school, so that he would begin to benefit from that investment in education.

“The prioritising of education was important to me because of the children, but more generally, it was about this idea, that having a family gives you even more of a stake in trying to make a better society.

“I used to think of Scotland as quite an inward-looking country, quite defensive sometimes, and then things like the smoking ban was the epitome of what we wanted to do to change.

“It was a statement of intent, saying, we’ll take charge of our own health and no one else is to blame if we’re dying early and young and in poor health, it’s no one else’s fault, it’s ours.

“We needed to change the way we live, and I was very conscious that this country we were helping to change was the one that I would want to bring a family up in.

“There’s no two ways about it, having a family changed me and for me, it coinciding exactly with becoming an MSP, helped me see things more sharply.

“It didn’t necessarily shape my political choices, but it was there always in the back of my mind. What would this mean for a family?”

These were the building blocks for a modern Scotland, but for the generation that directly benefited, Douglas’s generation, it is difficult for them to comprehend the monumental effect something like the smoking ban had because they have nothing to compare it with.

Douglas grimaces. “I vaguely remember the smoking ban being passed or some form of it being passed, and then asking Dad what it was like before, because all I’ve really known is that you can’t smoke inside or in public areas.

“Dad would describe how all these rooms used to be filled with cigarette smoke and it was just horrible.

“Everyone is so repulsed by that now, but people like me, my generation, my brothers and sisters growing up, we are just used to completely different things.

“At university, some people do smoke sometimes, but it’s not really cool to smoke all the time and so you always have to go out far away and do it.

“It’s completely alienated a group of people now. It’s just normal not to smoke.”

Ken Macintosh says there is a lesson in there for politicians. “For me, smoking was a big issue, and there are lots of other big issues that I look back on with pride, as it were, but Douglas and his generation of voters, not only do they not remember what it was like before a smoking ban, they’re not even remotely grateful!

“They’re not going to thank you, vote for you, because you changed society in what you thought was such a fundamental way, because there’s a whole set of other problems facing us which need to be dealt with.

“So, as a politician, you really have to remember that, you’re sitting back on your laurels, thinking, look at what I’ve done and everyone else is going, what are you talking about, look at the state of the place and what are you going to do about it?”

One fundamental that the presiding officer believes firmly that devolution has changed for the better is to create a more confident Scotland.

“I have to say, I think we’re prouder of Scotland than we used to be, because when you’re talking about Scotland in the past, you were both proud and ashamed at the same time. The cringe.

“I remember having a great football team and being proud of the heritage and the educational achievements and the inventors, but also you’d know we’d have the worst teeth, the worst heart disease, the worst cancer rates. Then you look round Scotland and some of the attitudes that were there were unbelievable.

“There were unbelievable amounts of prejudice when I was a kid and there was sectarianism and so on and that’s another big difference in terms of Douglas’s generation, they’re far more aware of racial inequality, gender stereotyping, using correct terms for people’s sexuality and so on, far more than we were when we were kids and that is a big change.

“The assumptions or presumptions that we made at his age that I like to think I’ve challenged all my life, you don’t have them as much now and I think the Scottish Parliament has played a big role in that.

“But then I’m looking around thinking the world is better now and more equal than it was when I was Douglas’s age and he’s looking round and saying, look at the inequality that needs to be challenged, look at what it’s like to be black in this country or a woman, and I’m thinking, well, it used to be absolutely terrible, but it’s still terrible when you think about it, because it still exists.

“I recognise I’m still carrying all the baggage of 40 years ago, whereas Douglas and his generation are looking at the world in the now and the change that still needs to come.

“The things now that are challenging are, for example, the number of women in senior positions, and the not so visible discriminations, like the way that either gay people might be treated, or even Irish people, that still goes on in Scotland, less so now than it was, but it’s still there.

“Scotland doesn’t have quite the multicultural community that America has, where Douglas is studying, but there are still levels of discrimination which are apparent, inequalities which are apparent, if you’re sensitive to them and I think younger people are more sensitive to them than my generation.”

Douglas agrees, but says while discrimination may be less obvious than when his father was in his twenties, it is more invidious because it is about structures of inequality that have existed for so long.

And on that note, his father recalls one particular family argument that was so intimately intertwined with his political beliefs that it hit the headlines, and that was over private schools.

Douglas won a tennis scholarship in 2014 to study at one of the most prestigious private schools in Scotland, Merchiston Castle, and the decision for Douglas to ultimately take up the place not only tested Ken’s political ideology against his personal aspirations for his family but also attracted criticism when he stood to be party leader in 2015.

“My politics doesn’t usually impact on the family, but that’s one political argument we did have, and it was a biggy about private education, and I basically lost.

“It was an almost impossible situation for me as a father, but the argument for Douglas was very straightforward – it was about sport, and his dream of being a professional tennis player.

“In the end, it was a very personal family argument, or discussion, rather than a political one, but there’s no doubt about it, my own personal thoughts on this are there for the same reason that I have my political views on this.

“I can’t separate them, I try to, but in the end, I don’t want to impose on my son the idea that he should have a socialist upbringing, but that’s what I believe, so it was a very testing time.”

Interestingly for Douglas, even though he ultimately did take up the scholarship, he too disagrees with the premise of private education.

“It was always really hard for me, tennis-wise, outside of when I went to Merchiston.

“Basically, my tennis was in Stirling, but I went to school in Glasgow and I lived in Glasgow, so if I was to go to Stirling every day, I was then missing school.

“I missed so much class time for tennis and it got to the point where I was choosing sport or school, whereas I could go to Merchiston and do both.

“At the end of the day, I really liked it there, it was a great school, but I wouldn’t have even thought about moving there if it wasn’t for tennis.

“I was protected from the arguments that were going on at home about it and I was quite young to fully understand it, but politically, I wouldn’t have supported me going there if it wasn’t for tennis.”

Douglas also won a scholarship to study in the States because of his tennis and says that one of his observations of American attitudes has been how Scots can be held back by their own restraint.

“I didn’t notice it until I went to America, but people in Scotland I would just say are more humble or slightly more afraid to be outwardly ambitious.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing as long as it doesn’t become restrictive or limits aspiration by bringing other people down, or even bringing yourself down.

“I definitely notice that in America, because they are the complete opposite. They are happy to tell you exactly how great they are.

“That’s not always a great thing, it can be boastful and crass, but it did make me think that while we might look down on boastfulness, at the same time, people here probably do shy back from sharing what they really want to do or can do and that’s not always a good thing.”

On the subject of holding back, Ken says that one of the difficulties for the family is being seen as public property simply because their father is an MSP.

“When you’re elected to public office, you become a public figure, you become public property, people can approach you anywhere.

“We haven’t talked about that, but the kids used to get annoyed at me when people would come up and speak to me in the street.

“They’d say, do you know them, and I’d say I do or don’t, but that’s just part of political life and I liked it.

“I’d think it was great, but where do you draw the line with private life, and there’s no hard and fast place, so the kids have always helped me at election time, they’ve always come out and done a bit, leafleting or something like that, but I’ve never forced it on them and they can choose to help or not, but they’re exposed because you have to tell people who you are and what kind of person you are and you are public property so you didn’t have any choice in that.

“There are lots of pictures in which there are five Macintosh children, not six, because Douglas would refuse to participate, and these were the days before Photoshop, so we’d just cut him out of another photo and stick him on,” he laughs.

Douglas says there was one day when they were supposed to be doing a family picture and he went to school half an hour early, simply so he could avoid being part of the photo.

“People had funny views about being the son of a politician,” he says.

“People used to always say, ‘Oh, Ken Macintosh, is that your dad?’, and they never said good or bad things, but I didn’t like people always saying it, and they would think we lived in a fortress and have personal security and things and then they’d see our house and it was like a complete mess with six kids running around. We were just normal.”

And that normality was something Ken Macintosh worked hard to preserve.

“I was very consciously not one of those MSPs who stayed over here in Edinburgh when parliament was sitting,” he says.

“And I thanked myself for that decision in later years, for example, in the expenses scandal, when people had bought houses and made money out of it. That didn’t go down well with the public.

“I could have bought a flat, but I never ever wanted to stay over, I wanted to go back, I wanted to be part of my family.

“I always went back home and instead of having evening conversations round the bar in here, I was very much focused on being a constituency MSP and seeing the family.

“It shaped my political life, and at the end of the day, all families, all mums and dads can have jobs where they end up commuting, coming back late and taking work home with them on their computer.

“It’s funny thinking about it as a job, really, because for ages, I still thought of myself as a TV producer in politics and yet none of my kids have ever known me as anything other than a politician.”

At that, Douglas Macintosh quips: “I always thought that you were in politics, not as a job, it was like, for the fun and to help people and do things.”

To which his father gets the last word: “It’s still not a job.”


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