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by Mandy Rhodes
22 May 2023
Andrew Bowie MP: 'It has been a hell of a ride'

Andrew Bowie MP photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood Schieffer

Andrew Bowie MP: 'It has been a hell of a ride'

At last month’s Scottish Conservative Party conference, Michael Gove introduced fellow Scot, Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as the Duracell Bunny of the political world. And it is true, his energy levels appear boundless.

On that day alone, I had followed Bowie as he went from main conference hall to glad handing at the exhibition stands, on to speaking at one lunchtime fringe after another, and then onto a busy evening schedule of events from the inaugural Scottish Conservative LGBTQ+ drinks reception, through to the packed Women2Win fringe and then to the formal conference dinner.

He had time for everyone, pressing the flesh with party members, media, charities, and business organisations alike, with a smile that never seemed to fade and an enthusiasm for whatever was being discussed. Gove doesn’t, in this instance, exaggerate. Bowie is a human tornado with a full-on approach to life and always apparently in fifth gear. Indeed, looking at his parliamentary record, it is hard to believe that 35-year-old Bowie, who previously worked in both Brussels and Holyrood, has only been an MP for six years.

Elected in in 2017, when he won the seat from the SNP’s Stuart Donaldson (son of veteran SNP MSP Maureen Watt), he has served as a parliamentary private secretary for one prime minister (Theresa May), been vice-chair of the party under another (Boris Johnson), campaigned hard for a third (Rishi Sunak) and is the first Scottish Conservative MP since 1997 to serve in a UK Government department outwith the Scotland Office, having served first as a junior minister for exports in the Department for International Trade before moving to the Department of Energy, where he now serves as parliamentary under-secretary of state for nuclear and networks and is steering through the Energy Bill which is set to pass over the summer. He says the legislation will make power “cleaner, more affordable and more secure” for homes and businesses across the UK but has also expressed his frustration that the SNP government will not even consider the installation of any new nuclear power plants in Scotland, which he has described as “Luddite” and out of step with the public.

Indeed, an opinion poll published just days later reveals that a majority of Scots (57 per cent) support introducing new nuclear power to help in the nation’s journey to net zero and that, surprisingly, 44 per cent of SNP voters back the technology despite the party’s opposition to it.
Bowie’s annoyance at the SNP government’s intransigence on the matter of nuclear energy is palpable.

“It’s so frustrating, it’s the biggest frustration I’ve got today. It is bad for Scotland and bad for Scots. I just had a meeting with an American company which wants to come into the UK and develop small modular reactors and they had a map of the British Isles where they wanted to develop. And all across England and Wales are little red dots where they are going to go, and of course, Scotland is just blank. A no-go. 

“This is safe, clean, proven technology, that could deliver power into the [National] Grid for UK households and businesses for generations to come. And that’s not to mention the jobs and the economic benefits that come with bringing high skill, high wage jobs, that we could bring into Scotland to supplement, not instead of, but alongside, all the jobs that are being created in the renewables sphere. So, I really struggle with this Scottish Government attitude. It’s not an either/or, it’s a mix, we need a wide energy mix. And nuclear will provide energy when the wind isn’t blowing, when the sun isn’t shining. Renewables won’t. So, I just really struggle with it. It’s a Luddite mentality. They’re stuck in the past. Research done recently has shown that every demographic and every region of the UK now supports nuclear as a safe and clean fuel for the future. So, yeah, that is the frustration.

“That aside, I am loving this job. I’m loving it more than I thought I would. I loved exports. It was a great gig. You were the UK salesperson to the world, and I quite like that. But I made a mistake – we were in downtown Jakarta sitting in the ambassador’s Land Rover with outriders taking us through the traffic with the Union flag flying on the front of the car, and I turned to my private secretary and said, ‘you know, I think I have got the best job in government’. It was the next week that Rishi moved me to a different job, this job, he must have had the car bugged!

“But seriously, I am loving it. You’re at the forefront of a genuine revolution in terms of how we think about the UK energy supply, about how we reach our net-zero commitments, about new nuclear infrastructure, about all of the conversations we’re having on the grid and on the network, some of it very tough, some very difficult decisions that are going to have to be taken, but incredibly exciting to be in the room as you’re taking those decisions that will literally change lives. For example, I went to Hinkley Point C, which is our new nuclear power station being built in the southwest, and you’re going through this beautiful rolling Somerset countryside, quite bucolic landscaping, you can almost hear Jerusalem being played in the background, you turn the corner and you see this massive construction site, five miles across, 54 cranes, 154 buses, 12,000 construction workers, and they’re building this piece of infrastructure which will deliver power into the UK grid, keeping the lights on in this country for the next 40 to 50 years. 

“And yes, in that there is a hypocrisy from the Scottish Government because the beauty of the great British grid is that things that we’re developing down south, in terms of nuclear energy that the Scottish Government is so against, will end up being utilised by Scots. When the wind doesn’t blow, we will be exporting power generated by nuclear facilities in England and Wales up into Scotland. So, it’s just really frustrating because if you go to Hunterston, if you go to Dounreay, if you go to Torness, they want new nuclear, they want these jobs to be created where there were nuclear jobs before, but the Scottish Government just won’t countenance it.

“I feel really honoured to be part of this revolution and when I get to a stage that I’m turfed out by either the people of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine or I decide to step down, I’ll be able to take my daughter to Hinkley Point C and point to it and say, ‘you know, your daddy had something to do with that’. That’s a hugely privileged position to be in.”

Maybe there is a stereotype of what a Conservative politician is like

As we sit on the terrace at Westminster overlooking the Thames, discussing Bowie’s role at the heart of a Conservative-led government and his enthusiasm for effectively changing the nature of the country we live in and how we even heat our homes, I ask him, given he is one of the most vilified MPs on Twitter, if he just epitomises everything that the nationalists so famously “detest” about the Tories.

“I hope not because I don’t want to engender that sort of image and I certainly don’t have that kind of relationship with the SNP, but you do have your online persona and your in-person persona, and obviously, things can feel very different on social media to real life but in terms of real relationships that I have with individual SNP members, and in fact, with Scottish Government ministers, I had, for example, a really positive meeting with Gillian Martin [Scottish Government energy minister] on the Energy Bill – the biggest bill we have done since 2006 – and the relations are really positive, actually, and so no, I hope that I am not seen as someone there to simply be a figure of hate for the SNP.

“Maybe there is a stereotype of what a Conservative politician is like, but I don’t think I conform to that stereotype. My father was a trade union representative, and my mother was a school auxiliary. So, I don’t exactly come from a background where I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth at all. I just happen to believe that the Conservative values – that you work hard, you play by the rules, that the State should remain as small as possible, whilst also supporting those who are in need of it – is the best way forward. And I think there should be space within Scottish politics to have debate, to have that representation, and to have people that think along those same lines as me, and this idea that we are all from a certain background, like Alexander Burnett or Edward Mountain, is complete nonsense. The Scottish Conservative party is a very wide-ranging organisation. People who are in the Scottish Conservative party come from a whole breadth of backgrounds and have very wide-ranging lived experiences; I think it’s a very good thing.

“And interestingly, Douglas [Ross] is the only leader of one of the main parties in the Scottish Parliament not to have gone to a fee-paying school, for example, and actually not to have gone to one particular fee-paying school. And my childhood wasn’t exactly a privileged one. In fact, I would suggest [it was] an incredibly normal Scottish childhood, a normal, middle-class childhood.

“My dad worked in the bank, for the Royal Bank of Scotland, where he was a trade union representative for BIFU, which then became UNIFI, and we discussed politics an awful lot. My mum was a school auxiliary, and my grandfather was in the navy for 25 years, which is why I wanted to do that when I left school, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. So it was, as I said, what I would describe as a very normal childhood, just a very normal one where my father came home for his lunch every day and we all played out in the street, where my school was just up the road, and so on, so, very normal, very ordinary, but what my family did give me was a real sense of security and confidence.”

Bowie, who was head boy at Inverurie Academy and also played violin in the National Youth Orchestra for Scotland, prefers not to say where his parents’ political affiliations fell or fall but says there were “heated exchanges on politics across the dinner table” and fair to say, that he and his trade unionist father didn’t, and don’t, always, agree.

“I was lucky in that I was brought up to make my own mind up about the world, about my politics, about everything. I was aware of the views that my mum and dad held but they never imposed them on us. I remember walking along the street in Inverurie with my mum and I was very, very young, it must have been before the 1997 general election, and I made some comment about how we all hate John Major or something like that, because obviously at school I’d heard that in Scotland, we hate John Major, we hate the Tories and so on, and my mum turned to me and said, ‘firstly, you must not hate, and secondly, you have to judge everybody on their own merits’. And so obviously I was far too young, less than ten, to really know what conservatism was but from that point on, really, and I can remember that so distinctly, I’ve always in my mind been a conservative.”

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps and with a view to seeing the world, Bowie passed the Admiralty board exams in 2005 to join the Royal Navy but because of a hiatus on recruitment didn’t actually get in until February 2007 when he was 19, having spent the intervening 18 months working in his local Morrisons supermarket on the tobacco counter where he says he honed his skills of being able to talk to voters on the doorsteps by chatting to all the old ladies coming in for their packets of Lambert and Butler or buying their lucky dips for the Lottery.

He spent just over three years in the Royal Navy, travelling far and wide before leaving to take up a place at the University of Aberdeen. He says the Navy taught him that “the team is always more important than the individual”, which has been seminal in his approach to politics.

“Using the analogy of a warship, every part of that ship is doing something different, but it all adds to the whole. So, the engine rooms, making sure the engines are running; the weapons, engineers ensuring that you’re able to defend yourself; the bridge, taking decisions navigationally; the chefs cooking, and making sure everyone is fed; they’re all doing the work in their own little silos, but ultimately, they’re all working as one team and going in the same direction. And I think that’s a really important lesson to teach for any world of work that you end up in, but especially in politics, that you can all be interested in working on your own individual politics, but ultimately, you have to ensure you’re contributing to the team and you’re helping push the team in the direction you want to go which is why I never rebelled, even though I found myself in deep disagreement about some of the decisions that Boris Johnson took, or even Liz Truss took when she was briefly prime minister, the team is much more important than my own views.

“We need to demonstrate to the world a united front because people don’t vote for divided parties, and you only influence from the inside and never from the outside. I think, actually, what reinforced that theory was the period that I was in Downing Street and I saw from the Remainer side and from the Brexiteer side, the fact that, yes, both of these groups passionately believed in what they were doing, but they were each, in their own way, disrupting what we were trying to do collectively to such a degree that we weren’t getting anything done. And so that reinforced this view that I established when I was in the Navy, more than anything else, it also reinforced my view of the United Kingdom as an entity and I take great pride that I was there on a ship alongside Welshmen, Liverpudlians, Mancunians, Londoners, people from Northern Ireland, from all over Scotland, and there was no difference, we were all British, we were all in this organisation, the Royal Navy, prepared to fight under one flag. And that’s also why, when it came to that decision in 2014 for instance, there was never any doubt in my mind about voting ‘no’.

the way that backbenchers within my own party addressed Theresa [May], they would never speak to a male prime minister in the same way

“I didn’t join the Conservative party because I was a unionist, that was a given, but there was never any question in my mind as to the fact that I felt so proud to be British and I don’t think any less of or care less about people or places, be that Plymouth, Brighton, Cardiff, Belfast, as I do about Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, they’re all one, very distinctive and should be treated as such, but all part of one home.”

Bowie first joined the Tory party in 2007 when he was in the RN based at Dartmouth but reveals that he was actually forced to quit because of Navy rules. 

“You were not allowed to be an active member of a political party and be a serving officer in the Royal Navy by Queen’s regulations, and while that has changed now, back then it just wasn’t allowed, and I didn’t know this. So, having joined the Conservative Party in, I think, October/November 2007, I had a knock on my door from the master-at-arms, who’s the regulatory officer, the policeman, basically, about a week after joining to say, ‘it’s come to my attention that you joined the Conservative Party, and I am afraid you’re going to have to resign’ which I promptly did. So, I think I have probably the record of having the shortest-ever membership of the Conservative party of any MP. I rejoined when I got to university.”

It was at university studying history and politics that Bowie became much more politically active. He says the student Conservative group had 30 to 40 members at the time and “was very dynamic” and it also worked closely with the Liberal Democrats, reflective of the then coalition at Westminster and says that at the time, these were the largest political societies on campus, adding, “how times change”.

After graduating, Bowie was employed as a military projects’ coordinator for a diving equipment supplier based in Aberdeenshire before leaving to take up a role as a campaign manager for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in early 2014 and was then seconded to work on the Better Together campaign during the referendum. He then worked as an advisor to the then MEP Ian Duncan and then at Holyrood as office manager to MSP Liam Kerr in 2016. Bitten by the bug of elected politics, he stood for election in the 2017 general election, taking the seat from the SNP. Since then, his parliamentary career has been stratospheric, taking him into the very heart of government. 

“I’ve been very lucky since I got elected in 2017. I was the first member of the 2017 intake to be made a parliamentary private secretary, that was to Matt Hancock, who was Minister of State for Digital and Culture at the time. I then had a phone call in December 2018 to go into Downing Street and support Theresa May [then PM], and I was then made vice-chair of the party under Boris. There was then, obviously, a bit of a slight hiatus last year before Rishi appointed me as a minister and I am now the first ever nuclear minister. Looking back, it has been a hell of a ride. But I’ve never really had an opportunity, at any stage, to take a step back and review because you just get on and do the job to the best of your ability.”

Given the number of leaders his party has had over the last few years, I ask whether it is important to like them.

“Ha, well, I’m lucky in that I’ve liked all of them, including Liz, including Boris, and obviously, I like Theresa very much and came to know [her] very well. I still have a lot of resentment towards, not the individuals necessarily, but the things that were done and said about her, which I frankly think wouldn’t have been the case if she’d been a man. There was a lot of sexism involved in the caricature of her, the cartoons, the idea that she was this weak and feeble woman that couldn’t hold her own in discussions with the EU and all the rest of it; that she would go into a room with Jean-Claude Juncker, for instance, and he’d get the better of her because she was a woman. It was never explicitly said but it was always implicit in what people were saying or the way they acted around her. The way that backbenchers addressed her was not the same as with others. I’ve been in rooms with Boris, maybe not so much with Liz because there wasn’t enough time, but I’ve been in rooms with Boris, in rooms with Theresa, and in rooms with Rishi, and the way that backbenchers within my own party addressed Theresa, they would never speak to a male prime minister in the same way. Patronising, yeah, they would be like, patting her on the arm and saying, ‘now, let me give you a bit of advice’, that kind of thing and I’d be thinking, ‘for God’s sake, it is the prime minister of the country you are speaking to, show some respect’.  

“She’s about as far from being robotic, some iron-clad personality, as it’s possible to get. She’s warm, she’s funny, she’s got a wicked sense of humour, a very blue sense of humour. She’s engaging, she wouldn’t have been re-elected as many times as she has, she wouldn’t be as popular on the doorstep as she is, she wouldn’t have been our party chairman, for God’s sake, for a number of years, if that were true. This image that is out there of her being this robotic personality is wrong. I can understand where that comes from because I think there was a decision taken by people around her at the time that they wanted to present this strong and stable outlook in 2017. And they also almost overly protected her from media scrutiny. And if they had just let her be herself, let people see who she really is, then I think it wouldn’t have become as big an issue as it became.”

Bowie is clearly pained by the whole experience on behalf of May, and I ask him if it changed the way he felt about some in his own party.

“Yeah, it did. Being a PPS to a prime minister is probably one of the most privileged positions within government. Firstly, you’re not a government minister, so you don’t have any ministerial responsibility, but you are as up close and personal with the prime minister than anybody else, apart from perhaps their spouse. You’re there on good days and bad days, you’re there to carry the bags, quite literally, and to be a shoulder to cry on and again, quite literally. I was all of those things to Theresa. 

“There were difficult days. And some very emotional days. Nobody wants to be brought down in the way that Theresa was brought down in a very public humiliating fashion. It was awful. But she remains because she is loyal. She believes in the Conservative party. She believes in its members. She believes in what we stand for. And she believes that throughout history, we have always proven to have the answers to the problem, whatever that problem might be, and she also believes that if you want to change something, and let’s be absolutely frank here, the Conservative party, at times, has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, in the direction that those of us want it to move, you also need to be inside the tent to be able to do that. So, when people ask how can I possibly stay in a party that’s led by Boris Johnson when I was so close to Theresa, likewise Liz Truss, well, I say, how could David Cameron sit in a party that was led by Iain Duncan Smith, or Ken Clarke, for that matter, or serve in a party under Michael Howard? You have to stay in and fight for what you believe in within the tent because I absolutely believe, to the core of my being, that the Conservative party has the right answers to the problems that we face as a country.”

But does he ever ponder on how different things might have been had May continued as prime minister?

should it have been, you know, Boris for Brexit, Theresa for Covid, could that have worked better?

“Ha, yes, All the time. We could spend a long time debating that. I still wonder what might have happened had the DUP assisted us and got that deal over the line when we were asking for it. But then again, it’s always the big ‘what ifs’, isn’t it? It’s the biggest question that you ask in terms of history, the ‘what if’ question. I mean, if you remember, she told the 1922 Committee in advance of the third meaningful vote that she would resign if the party voted for her deal. So if we had gotten the deal, which by the way was not dissimilar to the deal that was struck at the end anyway by Boris, but let’s put that to one side, she would have resigned anyway, and the chances are that Boris would then have become prime minister slightly earlier, without Brexit to go into an election, and then what would have happened? There are so many ‘what ifs’ to be raised. I do think, now, that despite the difficult journey that it took us to get here, that we are in the right place – I think we’ve got the right leader for the time. Rishi is pragmatic, sensible, calm, has a managerial style, some might suggest boring, but that might be what the country requires after two, three, four, five years of political hysteria. I think we’re in the right place now. And I think Theresa would give you the exact same answer.”

I wonder if he has ever thought that perhaps May would have been a better prime minister to navigate the country through the pandemic?

“It’s not an original thought but should it have been, you know, Boris for Brexit, Theresa for Covid, could that have worked better? Probably, but then nobody knew Covid was around the corner, so it’s a difficult question to answer. Would she have taken different decisions or have presented the decisions that were taken in a different way? Almost certainly. It’s a difficult question to answer and actually, on Covid, although subsequently partygate and all those things that have overshadowed what happened, we cannot forget that when it comes to the vaccine rollout, when it comes to deaths, all told, now that numbers are in from around the world, the UK actually did pretty well, getting through the pandemic in the way that it did, despite all the internal wrangling between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England, all the rest of it, but the vaccine was a huge success, the best in the world, and we shouldn’t forget that. And to be fair to Boris, he did push that through.”

Given all his experience of prime ministers, is that a job he next aspires to?

“Absolutely not. In fact, nothing put me off more than being PPS to a prime minister. I don’t think there is any Conservative Member of Parliament that can honestly tell you when they come into politics that they don’t think they could do the job better than the prime minister. I didn’t think I could do the job better than the prime minister when I first came here, but I certainly wanted to do it. But I couldn’t think of anything worse now.

“What do I want to achieve? Look, at the end of the day, I think you have to believe that tomorrow is going to be better than today. You have to completely subscribe to the notion of there being sunny uplands to march towards and I think ultimately, that’s where my conservatism actually stems from, and that’s probably where this energy, this determination, this desire, I have to leave some mark in this job, and therefore hopefully, even though it sound very grandiose, on this country. 

“Hopefully, we can all leave this world in a slightly better place than that in which we inherited it, which is a difficult ask with everything that’s going on right now, but as I said, I’m still positive. I believe tomorrow will be better than today, I absolutely believe that, and I am privileged enough to be in a position to do something about it and I think that’s probably the fuel that fires me and why I seem as energetic as I am.”

And with that, Bowie bounces off to hear Katrina and the Waves playing at a Eurovision party.

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