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Alison Johnstone: 'I don’t want a sterile, dull chamber but one where we can have robust but courteous debate'

Alison Johnstone photographed by David Anderson

Alison Johnstone: 'I don’t want a sterile, dull chamber but one where we can have robust but courteous debate'

As Alison Johnstone was announced as the new presiding officer and walked down past her fellow MSPs in the Chamber to be congratulated by the then presiding officer, Ken Macintosh, the grim look on the face of her former co-leader of the Greens, Patrick Harvie, told a story of the politics that had gone on behind the scenes.

It had taken three nail-biting days to get to the point where Johnstone had even agreed to put her name forward for the post. Three days in which the soon to be ex-presiding officer, Macintosh, had met with the various parties to try and break an impasse around the parliamentary numbers that meant no party wanted to give up one of their MSPs to take over from him.

Three days in which Macintosh had spoken to Johnstone “a number of times” about his own wish for her to stand.

And three days in which she had been subject to intense pressure from her own colleagues not to stand.

It was only on the morning of the fourth day, exactly a week on from the 6 May election, on the day of the PO election itself, and following a late-night call with Macintosh, that Johnstone formally submitted her nomination.

The reluctance from all sides was understandable. With an election that had returned 64 SNP MSPs and 65 opposition MSPs, for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or the Greens to lose an MSP to the politically neutral post of PO would mean that the government could not be easily defeated in parliamentary votes.

No opposition party leader wanted to be responsible for that. And with the prospect of a formal agreement between the Greens and the SNP still to be mooted, the smaller party was reluctant to give up on the power it had managed to wield during the last session over a minority SNP government.

It’s support had saved the government’s skin on a number of occasions, including on a vote of no confidence in the deputy first minister.

And with numbers on a knife-edge, similarly, the party of government could not afford to lose one from its side. So, stalemate.

And while Johnstone’s name had been previously mooted as a potential future PO prior to the election, post-election, and given the parliamentary arithmetic, her party leader Patrick Harvie was vehemently opposed to the move. 

There were bitter arguments and loyalties tested to the utmost. Johnstone, a woman of principle, was conflicted, but late on the Wednesday evening, with Macintosh on the verge of calling in all the party business managers for an emergency meeting to try and break through the deadlock, Johnstone finally indicated that she would put her name forward. And in the end Harvie agreed – or at least, stopped objecting.

Notably, Johnstone wasn’t nominated by anyone from her own party but by two women from other parties: Ruth Maguire from the SNP and Beatrice Wishart of the Lib Dems.

And while the vote remains secret, Johnstone was voted in by 97 votes to 28, with two abstentions and one spoilt ballot paper, the votes against mainly thought to be from the Tories.

In the end, Johnstone might have been the sole candidate in the election for a new presiding officer to the Scottish Parliament, but she is also a popular one and, for many, a natural choice.

She is a safe pair of hands, not confrontational for the sake of it and is not viewed as particularly partisan.

Macintosh himself had believed for some time that she had all the right qualities for the job and went as far as he could in trying to persuade her to go for it without it looking like an endorsement, should another candidate throw their hat in the ring at the last minute. 

Like Macintosh, Johnstone is, ironically, given her long tenure as an MSP, not seen as a tribal politician but someone who is motivated by doing the right thing, is principled, can work with everyone and who is fired up by injustice rather than just following a party orthodoxy.

Looking back on FMQs when she has asked the questions for the Greens, she is focused, incisive and well researched.

In September 2019 sketch writer Stephen Daisley commented, “Going by her performance at First Minister’s Questions, they [the Greens] should dump the rest and put her in charge full-time. Unlikely as it sounds, she was the star of this week’s FMQs, giving Nicola Sturgeon the toughest time she’s had in parliament in many a week.”

Johnstone is viewed very favourably among her parliamentary colleagues, commonly being referred to as ‘really nice’ and seen as well briefed and always fair-minded.

Equally, she is also an MSP of ten years standing that very few other MSPs say they know anything much about. She may have been an MSP for over a decade and worked in the parliament since its inception in 1999 but to her parliamentary colleagues across the chamber, Johnstone remains something of an enigma. 

The key to that may be in the fact that Johnstone had never meant to be a politician. She was an athlete, a competitive runner from the age of 14 to 30 – she was the east of Scotland 800m and 1500m champion – and a qualified coach.

She was working as a registrar in an Edinburgh language school for foreign students in the mid-1990s when she became involved in a local Edinburgh campaign ‘Keep Meggetland Green’ to save some playing fields from being developed into luxury housing.

And it was that protest rooted in an emotion about preserving the local environment for the people that fired the starting gun on her path towards Holyrood. 

“As a runner, you’re quite tuned into your local environment,” she tells me. “And if you’re doing a wee bit of distance running, you’re out and about on foot and you’re seeing all around you and what it means to the local community. You feel it. 

Johnstone says we should be "debating the policy, not the person"

“There was a proposal to build luxury housing on a school playing field near me and I was aware that this was quite a popular place not just for athletes and footballers to train, but also somewhere where you had easy local access, you didn’t have to book, you could just roll up and go in through the school gates.

“The grounds meant something to the community and that campaign, which sort of became very big, I mean, we made it onto the national six o’clock news, raised £12,000 and had one of the country’s top QC’s represent us when it went to the reporter because it was eventually called in by the government, made me so much more aware of the fact that local communities were engaged in these issues but that the odds were also stacked against them.

“We lost and the development went ahead, and I just had this feeling that perhaps local people’s voices weren’t being listened to.”

Johnstone has an acute sense of fairness and each small step that followed on from that grassroots campaign took her deeper into the world of elected politics without her ever really becoming a politician in the ideologue kind of way.

In the efforts to save the playing fields, she had written letters to local and national politicians trying to get them interested, including the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar.

But it was enthusiastic support from local Green members, particularly Robin Harper, that struck a chord with her and convinced her of the need to get more politically involved, although she recalls attending her first Greens national conference as a non-member and being left bemused, having arrived unwittingly during a debate on some complex constitutional issue.

Notwithstanding that initial bewilderment about constitutional matters, Johnstone became an active member of Scotland Forward, the cross-party group campaigning for Scotland to have its own parliament.

And in the first election in 1999, she also used her vote to help elect Robin Harper as an MSP, the first Green parliamentarian in the UK.

Still as a non-Green member, Johnstone applied to work as Harper’s parliamentary assistant and, to her surprise, was duly appointed. She joined the party shortly thereafter.

“I actually feel genuinely emotional when I think about it. Because you don’t realise at that point in time, because you’re in the reality of this very busy office and learning the rules and so on, just how historic it all was, but just to be in the parliament at the start of something so new and with Robin as the first Green parliamentarian elected to a UK parliament, it was amazing. You were learning all the time along with everyone else about the procedures, debates, the votes and so on.

“My politics were very much aligned to the Greens, so that wasn’t a difficult decision at all when I joined. I got more involved, but I think at that point, I was fairly adamant, given the campaign I had been involved in around the playing fields which had been a really formative experience, that I wanted to be involved in local politics. I think the planning issues, the work of the planning committee, in a city like Edinburgh, can have a really profound impact on how the city looks and how we live.”

Johnstone first stood as a Green Party candidate for the council in the North Morningside by-election of 2003, finishing third, although ahead of Labour and the SNP. She was then one of three Green councillors to be elected to the council for the first time in 2007, where she remained for five years.

“I learned such a lot from being a councillor and being in an environment where standing orders and the like are just part and parcel of your weekly working life. I think it’s fabulous as well to understand the decisions that the Scottish Parliament makes can have a real impact on what happens in our local authorities, and how those powers interact, and then how a lot of the decisions that you make in local authorities have a real impact on people’s day to day lives.

“If you look at those proposals that were on the table when I first went in as a councillor to close or reconfigure 22 schools and nurseries in total – I mean, you can appreciate that could have a real impact on everything from how people get to where they’re going in the morning, to where their children might spend their day. So huge, and it’s important to remember the impact your decisions have on real people.”

Johnstone continued to work part-time for Robin Harper in the parliament while also serving as a councillor and in 2011, when Harper announced he was standing down as an MSP at the election, she put herself forward as a candidate.

“I suppose I just thought, actually, I feel ready for this now. I’m not suggesting for a second that one must follow the other. I think you could happily stay in local government all your life, but I suppose I had been in the parliament since 1999 and was very interested too in national legislation and the impact it can have.

“We’ve seen that through the pandemic, in a really clear, clear way, it’s been immensely important that the decisions were taken here to keep the population as safe as possible. Back then, I think it just felt that I have this experience, and I’m ready, and I’d like to contribute to national politics.

“I came in in 2011 and it was just Patrick Harvie and I for the Greens, and it was a majority SNP government, so it was more difficult to have your voice heard and there were two of us trying to cover everything. Can you imagine all the government portfolios between us?

“So, you’re multi-tasking in the extreme. It was a different sort of session for us. Whereas in 2016, there were six Green MSPs and we were on more committees, and it felt like chalk and cheese. It’s obviously good to have had that experience because it is one thing working for a parliamentarian as I had for Robin, but it’s another thing to find yourself in committee, scrutinising government policy, asking questions of witnesses and so on. It takes time to adjust to all of that.”

Johnstone with Robin Harper at the Greens' party conference in 2010

Some of Johnstone’s early campaigns as a parliamentarian included Fans First (a push for fan ownership of football clubs), a ban on fracking, and against benefits sanctions in devolved employment schemes.

One of her most prominent campaigns has been against the killing of mountain hares. In March this year, it became illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares without a licence. The changes were part of the Scottish Government’s Animals and Wildlife Act, following pressure from Johnstone’s campaign.

And while the latter months of session five were consumed by the toxic machination surrounding the committee exploring what went wrong in terms of the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against the former first minister, Alex Salmond, Johnstone was replaced on that committee by former Green MSP Andy Wightman while she focused on recovering from planned surgery.

In her typical unflappable manner, Johnstone politely bats away questions about the impact on her of such a life-affirming procedure by saying, “I took a few weeks off work which were planned and I think what I would say to you, and this surely applies to anyone who undergoes a surgery and they’re away from work for a few weeks, you know, you do sit back and you take stock of what matters.  

“But I never ever contemplated not being in parliament. Obviously, I was aware that we had an election coming up and whether I was here or not would be in the hands of the electorate. To be honest, that was more of my focus. I mean, lots of people go into hospital for an operation.

“I went in, I recovered, I enjoyed the election campaign, albeit a very different one that I largely conducted from my kitchen table with about 30 virtual hustings, and I was delighted when the voters returned me to parliament.

“And putting my name forward for the presiding officer was a very, very difficult decision and in truth, I still hadn’t made up my mind fully right up until the evening before. I joined the Greens in 1999 and I suppose, like a lot of previous POs, to leave your party behind is very hard. It’s like any decision when you decide you want a change in career.

“But I do feel that this is a really important role, so it was worthy of careful consideration and thought. I am also very committed to the Scottish Parliament and part of my Green politics was that I very much believe that we need to see more women in these central roles, you know, that well known, often quoted phrase, that ‘you can’t be, what you can’t see’, and the figures speak for themselves with regards to how many male POs we’ve had. 

“It’s no secret to you that I co-founded Women 50/50 with Kezia Dugdale which came about following the referendum in 2014 when we realised that there was a lot of women out there whose voices we’d never heard until the campaign.

“I was also only too aware after my time in local government that when there was a proposal about schools and nurseries across Edinburgh in 2007, surgeries were packed with women and then we’d get into the council chamber, where the decisions were being made, and I think at that time about a fifth of the councillors were women. 

“So, a big part of my politics has been based around the need to see equal representation. We’ve not yet achieved that in parliament and I’d be very interested to see whether with 45 per cent of women now making up the parliament, does that come across in contributions made?

“Who are we hearing from most in the chamber, who are making the interventions, where is the debate coming from? For me, it will be just making sure that everyone feels comfortable in the chamber and helping to develop that confidence to get your voice heard. I would really like to think I can make a difference when it comes to that, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.

“I’d also like to see the pace picked up in question-and-answer sessions, because I think we can give everyone an opportunity to be more involved. 

“There’s always going to be some theatre in politics. A lot of people find that attractive. Politics will always be passionate because you get involved with a cause because you care about something. And emotions are important.

“We’re all human and I don’t want a sterile, dull chamber but I want one where we can actually hear what people are saying and where we can have robust but courteous debate. I always made a point while in the chamber debating myself that I’d like to be able to debate an issue thoroughly with a colleague who I may disagree with entirely, but at the end of it, I’d have no problem having a cup of tea with them.

“You know, we should be debating the policy, not the person. That’s the politics I want to encourage.” 

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