Alistair Carmichael: 22 years down the line, I’m still living the dream
What were you like at school?
I was probably a bit more intense than was healthy. Just to give you an idea, I joined the Liberal Party as a 14-year-old. I’ve just always been fascinated by politics and political ideas. I hope I could say that I was hard-working. I did take my academic studies seriously, but I’ve always been a last minute crammer.
Are you still like that now?
I still work to deadlines. If I know that something I need to do will take an hour, even if I have three hours in the diary to do it I will still leave it, waste the first two hours and then do it all in the last hour. And it does occasionally leave me with a bit of a regret afterwards, because sometimes having crammed to get something done, you meet the deadline, you make the speech or whatever – and then you think ‘if I had just had another half hour on that, it could have been so much better’. But look, I am what I am. And one of the things I am is 58 – I’m not going to start changing now.
What’s your most treasured possession?
This is a slightly ironic most treasured possession, but I have a picture of me with Dolly Parton, signed. Obviously, I’m a Dolly fan – who isn’t? – but I actually met her about 15 years ago.
How did that come about?
She was in Britain for the launch of the Imagination Library. There was a presentation, and a line of middle-aged starstruck MPs all waiting to have our photograph taken with her. I’m sounding slightly cynical about it, but I was genuinely starstruck. I mean, I like her music because it’s nice, easy, accessible music, but I also think, as a personality, her story is tremendous. I think there are lessons for people in politics in that. She presents as being the sort of dumb blonde with all the wigs and the rest of it, but there’s a really sharp business brain there and she has done it on our own terms. I admire anybody who can do that.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure? Obviously not Dolly…
There’s no guilt there, I’m loud and proud when it comes to Dolly Parton. My guilty pleasure is watching crap property programmes. Homes Under The Hammer or Escape To The Country or Grand Designs. I don’t know why, because my own house frankly could do with a radical makeover that it never gets. But when you’ve had a week of fairly intense politics, which happens most weeks these days, actually just to take an hour or so on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday to sit and watch something that is interesting and doesn’t really make any great demands on you. And also crap food programmes: Come Dine With Me, occasionally Three In A Bed.
Are you skilled in the kitchen?
I enjoy cooking. One of the pieces of advice that I got when first elected was get yourself a proper hobby. And to be honest, I’ve never really done that. Politics used to be my hobby, but for 20 years it’s been my occupation. But because I spent years working in hotels, I learned the basics of cooking. To spend 24 hours to get a meal ready, that’s one of my relaxations.
Any major successes?
The things I’m proudest of are when I’ve pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. When things are going wrong, that’s when I’m at my best, I can step in. And generally, my rule is you turn up the heat and just beat the living daylights out of it with a whisk. That covers most eventualities.
Do you take that approach to politics?
You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Though I don’t beat anyone with a whisk!
What skill should every person have?
I’ve always said that the first casualty of any political career is self-awareness. Hold on to your self-awareness, and have people around you who will tell you when you’re going wrong. Too many politicians surround themselves with people who will tell them how great they are, and you do need people who will tell you in a reasonable and constructive way, ‘no, you need to do that differently or better’.
Do you have that within the Lib Dem group?
Yeah, that’s one of the strengths of the current group. When we see something happening that we’re not entirely comfortable with, then the strength of the relationship between the 15 of us now is good enough, strong enough, that it will withstand somebody saying, ‘why are you doing this? What’s this about?’ It’s not always been like that, let me say, but the current cohort that we have do that very well.
What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?
That’s an interesting one. I think the worst pain I’ve ever experienced has not been my pain. I remember moments when the kids were growing up, one night my youngest son dived off the end of the sofa and we were convinced he’d broken his arm. He was obviously in real pain. I wasn’t feeling that pain, but I was more anxious about that than any physical pain I’ve ever had to endure myself.
Who would be your dream dinner date?
During the last 22 years in parliament I’ve met some truly remarkable people. Not just Dolly Parton! The Dalai Lama, some of the people that I’ve campaigned with in relation to death penalty cases in different parts of the world. The problem with being an MP is if there is somebody you ever really want to meet, then there’s generally a way to do it. So who would I most like to have dinner with? The 14-year-old me, just about to join the Liberal Party, and maybe give him a bit of advice on where you could go wrong, and how to avoid the pain and how to steer away from cliffs.
Is there anything in particular you’re thinking of?
No, I just mean we go through life, trying things – sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I think at the end of the day I would probably say ‘follow your dreams’, because that’s what I did. And whatever problems that may have brought, it’s given me a fantastic career that 22 years down the line, I’m still living the dream.