Alexander Stewart: I’ll fight a corner in any part of my region or constituency area
If you spend any time around the Scottish Parliament’s Garden Lobby you will be struck, for the most part, by sharply dressed MSPs, aides, and advisors. But there’s a cut above the rest. As Alexander Stewart has told me on more than one occasion, he is the best-dressed man in parliament. But I suppose he should know a thing or two about dressing well, having spent ten years in the fashion industry before he forged his three-decade-long political career.
But behind the sharply tailored suits, the gold tie clip and the pristinely polished shoes is a man who has never shied from standing up for what he believes is right and fighting for his community.
One of Stewart’s earliest memories is of his father physically abusing his mother. The Mid Scotland and Fife regional MSP describes that early period of his life as “challenging” and “traumatic”, but says it gave him the ability to be introspective at a level way beyond his years.
“Even at that young age, I knew it was wrong and couldn’t reconcile how someone could be supposedly part of a family and also have that kind of behaviour. It laid down in me the foundations for how to act when I meet people, and I admit that I was wary of meeting new people to begin with because I knew that I came from a background at home where this [domestic abuse] was going on.
“It is quite traumatic to think about those times. My mother accepted the domestic abuse because she blamed herself. She saw it as part of her growing up. But I thought, ‘no it’s not, you need to change this’. I think that’s what made me think I wanted to do something different with my life.
“It was traumatic and I’m 60-years-old now and I am still shaped by it.”
Family history matters to Stewart, and he walks to the back of his office – where there is a portrait of his grandfather hanging over his desk – and he picks up an old leather-bound scrapbook as he tells me he comes from seven generations of folk who worked in the licensing trade. The book is brimming with newspaper clippings from the times of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He picks a clipping out about a pub his family owned in the 1920s.
At the turn of the century, his great-grandfather was a bailie, a town judge, and owned pubs and hotels. His son, Stewart’s grandfather, then got involved in the licensing trade, as did his father.
“The family have had a huge involvement and my father expected me to become a licensee and said to me when I was 21 that he would buy me my first premises. But I told him I don’t want it; it wasn’t where I saw myself going. I didn’t want to be ‘the son of’, or ‘the grandson of’, I wanted to do my own thing.”
And that he did. Shortly after that conversation with his father, he moved to London to start a career in fashion retail. Over the next decade, Stewart progressed to buying for large department stores, going to Fashion Week in London, Paris and Milan, and bringing back styles that he thought would resonate with the UK buyers.
He also got involved in the Chamber of Commerce and became president of the London branch. He says this time in his life opened up “a huge world” to him, showing him that there were different aspects of business and community and that “different areas needed support” for reasons such as deprivation – something he says he had not experienced much of until this point in his life.
“When I went elsewhere, I could see industry, I could see commerce, I could see poverty. And I think that gave me the feeling that together we can do more to help one another.”
Stewart returned to Scotland in 1991, started his own fashion business, and the next year married his first wife Sarah. But the lessons he had learned south of the border were still fresh in his memory – and so he threw himself into Scottish politics.
He draws comparisons with his life then and now. Going to Fashion Week was “great fun”, but it was “a bubble” – but “this is a bigger and a better bubble”.
As a child, Stewart was surrounded by Scottish nationalism. His father was, as he describes, “a strong nationalist” and he was Douglas Crawford’s agent when he was the MP for Perth and East Perthshire in the 1970s.
He recounts meeting members of the movement as a child.
“My father had a friendship with Margo MacDonald. I remember meeting and going for lunch with this blonde lady. One day she came on the television, I thought ‘that’s the lady I met years ago’.
“I was only a child, but he had connections with all these people at that time. And I knew then that I wasn’t SNP. I’m very patriotic, but I’m not nationalistic.”
As his involvement in politics in the 1990s grew, he took two courses at the Open University, earning a diploma in Government Politics and an honours degree in Politics and Social Science. But he soon realised he could not juggle his ventures in business whilst still so active in politics, so he stopped the former.
“I wasn’t planning to become a councillor; I was going to go down the parliamentary route. But I became the Conservative candidate for the Wellshill ward in Perth because the person who had been selected had taken a heart attack eight weeks before the election.
“It was a tough gig, going into those housing estates, and I remember someone saying to me, even with all of your experience and your family background – my father and great grandfather had also been the chairman at St. Johnstone Football Club, they were employing people through the hotels, pubs, and nightclubs – hell would freeze over before you’re going to win this ward.
And that morning my majority was 12.”
And “the rest was history”, Stewart says. For the next 18 years, he held senior positions within Perth and Kinross Council. He ran for a seat in Holyrood in 2003 (despite campaigning against a devolved Scottish Parliament the decade prior) but lost to Roseanna Cunningham by a margin of 727. He stood against Pete Wishart for the Perth and North Perthshire Westminster seat in 2015, losing by over 9,000.
He admits he thought that was the end of his parliamentary ambitions. He was “getting older” and there were conversations about maybe becoming Provost of Perth and Kinross. But he decided to stand a final time, in 2016, and while he did not win the seat of Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, he was elected through the regional list. He was then re-elected in 2021. He is now “coming to the end” of his career in politics but is planning to stand one more time for Holyrood.
Stewart says he will continue to fight for community issues in parliament. He recalls going to an event in a housing estate where he’d previously received abuse while canvassing. He says that he had to “fight his corner”, but people did come to him for help.
“I had people telling me about their family member being abused, a family member who had a drug addiction, people asking me to get someone out of jail so they could go to their mother’s funeral. I helped with all these things, for that community.
“I would turn up to the tea dance. I remember standing up at a bingo tea and I was handing out the prizes and the community police officer said to me, ‘I hope you are not passing over stolen goods’ as I handed a television over to someone who had just won.
“But I went to these events to try and become part of that community, the same as I have in Clackmannanshire and Dunblane. I fought very hard in places like Alloa, and I am still doing that. Over the summer recess, I was at the food bank, at the Men’s Shed, finding out what was going on in people’s lives. I don’t shy away from difficult subjects and difficult topics, whether it is antisocial behaviour, drugs, alcoholism, or whatever it might be, I will be there to support the community that I represent.
“I’m not saying that makes me different. I do that because it is important.”
Stewart was one of only four Tory MSPs to campaign to leave the European Union in 2016. I asked him what he thinks of Brexit now and if it has delivered. He still maintains that the “power base” that the EU had over the UK was “challenging”, but he says there have been pros and cons to leaving.
“If I put my business hat on, I still maintain that there were business issues that needed to be managed, the finance, and all of that. I still believe in the sovereignty of our nation to some extent; I still believe in giving people freedom and opportunities.
“I need to be realistic about where we are. People are trying every day to come to this country from other parts of the world because they believe the United Kingdom has more to offer. And I am very proud of the United Kingdom as a nation, and I think we played a very strong part in Europe in the past.
“For me, I still think it was the right thing to do and through time things will improve.”
Speaking to Stewart just hours before Humza Yousaf detailed his Programme for Government (PfG), I ask him what we should be prioritising in the year ahead. Unsurprisingly as the deputy constitution spokesperson, he tells me that he thinks it is wrong the SNP should be furthering the case for independence within the PfG.
“No one came to my surgery or told me on the doorstep last weekend that independence should be top of the priorities. We need to improve our public services. I feel quite strongly about how we are taxed higher here than any other part of the UK, but I still maintain that people who are struggling need to be supported.”
He continued: “What I want to do is to improve... I want to make sure that everyone gets a chance. We need to understand what our community want, and what our constituents want.
“And yes, there is a bigger agenda with what the nation wants, but my priority will always be to try and serve the people and I’ll fight a corner in any part of my region or constituency area.”