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by Louise Wilson
04 July 2023
Baroness Goldie: Russia has to be challenged and defeated in Ukraine

Baroness Annabel Goldie has been UK defence minister since 2019 | Photography by Anna Moffat

Baroness Goldie: Russia has to be challenged and defeated in Ukraine

Baroness Annabel Goldie still has all her marbles – at least, she hopes she has. At 73, she is one of the oldest members of the UK Government and when I ask her if she ever thought about enjoying a quiet life after retiring from the Scottish Parliament, she laughs.

“My view in life has always been if you feel you can do it – and if other people think you can do it – do it. What matters is, at the end of the day, whether or not you think you can do it and whether or not you think you’re any good at doing it. And I’ve always taken the view other people will be quick to tell me if I’m an absolute chump and making a complete mess of the job. But I’ve managed to survive. I’ve survived nearly four years. I’ve survived Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak – I’m still there.”

Then, with a mischievous smile, she adds that one of the “blessings of age” is being able to ask certain questions that other, younger colleagues may not. “It’s very gratifying when there’s a silence followed by, ‘that’s a really good question’. I love what I’m doing. I take the view that this can’t go on forever, of course it can’t, but providing I’ve still got my marbles, and I hope I have, and providing others think I’m still up to the job, then for the moment I’m very happy to do it.”

Baroness Goldie took on the job as UK defence minister in July 2019 and she speaks about it now with unbridled enthusiasm. She variously describes it as “stimulating,” “massively absorbing” and “satisfying”, but what she clearly gets a kick out of most of all is its unpredictability.

This cannot be accepted. This has to be challenged, and Russia defeated

The Ministry of Defence is an unusual department. Unlike others, it has to be in a state of constant readiness, able to respond to a variety of events at the drop of a hat. That point was driven home 16 months ago, when the unimaginable happened and war returned to Europe.

I ask about those weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Goldie tells me: “There’s a limited amount I can share with you, but what I can say is that we were very clear that the situation was escalating at the Russian end. What no one was absolutely certain about was when Putin would strike.

“When he did strike, we were absolutely primed with information, with communication channels, and the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main concern was – and in my opinion, absolutely rightly – this cannot be accepted. This has to be challenged, and Russia defeated. They cannot go invading countries in Europe, because if they do and they are not challenged, where is this going to end?”

The MoD was already working with Ukrainian forces and had been since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. That meant there was already a good relationship between the two countries. The other integral part to all of this, Goldie is quick to add, is Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Quite simply, cometh the hour cometh the man,” she says. “He is someone not from a political background, who absolutely not only steps up to the plate, but shows he is a leader of world calibre, you know, he is a global leader. He is astute, he’s shrewd, he inspires, and he knows how to engage with other global powers. That meant that we, as a country, had someone we could work with.”

While the UK and its Nato allies are offering as much support as possible to Ukraine, one of the more difficult lines to toe is preventing an escalation to nuclear warfare. In recent weeks, President Putin has been ramping up rhetoric on that front. Goldie says this is “irresponsible” and “deplorable”, but she also says that he is “acutely aware” of Nato’s own nuclear capability. And it has reinforced her view that the UK must retain its own nuclear weapons.

“It was a Roman philosopher who first coined the phrase, ‘if you seek peace, prepare for war’. And repeatedly down history, we have found that if you didn’t anticipate the emergence of a dictator or an aggressor, and you were unprepared for that, war was inevitable,” she says.

“But if you prepare for war, you make sure you have the defence capability you need, it often deters. And, of course, our nuclear capability is just that, it’s a deterrent… The one thing that I’ve often said about defence – and it applies to war defence capability, but it certainly applies to nuclear capability – it’s not something you can have a bit of. You can’t have a sort-of defence. You either have it, designed to work, to deter, to deliver on the business of seeing off illegal aggression, in dealing with self-defence, or you have nothing at all. There is nothing in between.”

Goldie was made defence minister by Boris Johnson, having spent three years as a junior whip for Theresa May in the Lords. She was made a peer in 2013, though only participated in a handful of debates between then and her retirement from Holyrood in 2016.

I didn’t get elected to parliament to sit in my corner, being a pure Conservative

She speaks warmly of Johnson. “Life occasionally throws up some extraordinary people, and I say that in the positive sense. Boris Johnson was one of these. Boris Johnson is a man of huge intelligence, combined with vision, and you don’t often get that. Sadly, he is also somebody who is characterised by flaws – flaws, I think, that he would fully admit to it. And in life, you are judged according to whether on the whole your contribution is regarded as positive or do the flaws start to eclipse the positives, and I think they have, tragically, in Boris Johnson’s case. He was dogged by flaws of judgement that eventually just made political life unsustainable for him.

“Now, there will be people who will dismiss him as a buffoon. He’s not. There will be people who will be disparaging and denigrate him as a character, and that is up to them. My attitude is one more of sadness, because I see an extremely talented man who, when I did work with him, had an energy and a vigour and a strategic eye that not many people possess.”

She also has a great deal of faith in his successor, Rishi Sunak, whom she supported during the Conservative leadership contest last summer. Chief among her reasons for this is his response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Because of his intelligence and financial innovation as chancellor, he absolutely recognised what had to be done to preserve the foundations of economic activity,” she explains. “We had to be certain that as we began to come out of Covid, there were businesses there to reemerge and start functioning. I thought that took a particular skill and a particular understanding of macroeconomics to achieve – and he did it.”

Goldie herself is an experienced political leader, having been at the helm of the Scottish Conservatives between 2005 and 2011. She stood down from that role following disappointing election results, but prior to that she enjoyed some success in pushing forward her party’s agenda – by working with the SNP.

Reflecting on that period, she says: “At that time Alex Salmond was leader. Now Alex Salmond has many critics, and I will very frequently be one of them, but what I would say is Alex Salmond was a highly intelligent man, he was a seasoned politician, and he’s a pragmatist. And Alex Salmond knew, when in 2007 he had more MSPs than any other single party but he hadn’t enough for an overall majority, that if he wanted to form a government and advance a programme of government, he was going to have to have support from other parties. And he did have a discussion with me.”

Goldie had a decision to make, and so she turned to the respective party’s manifestos and found an “amazing number of points of convergence”. “So I said to Alex Salmond, look, I am a Conservative and a Unionist, but I’m first and foremost an MSP in the Scottish Parliament. I didn’t get elected to parliament to sit in my corner, being a pure Conservative and at the end of four years say ‘I am unsullied, I’m still a pure Conservative – achieved absolutely nothing, but I’m still a pure Conservative’.

“I said, I’m elected to parliament to see if I can do something to improve life for people in Scotland. If I can achieve that by working with you on policies where we agree, I’ll do it. And I’ll not apologise for doing it, because the important thing is the outcome, have we between us produced something that makes life better?”

Ultimately the two parties did work together, passing a number of budgets which included an increase to police numbers, a business rates relief scheme and Scotland’s first drug strategy.

“Now, where the Conservatives – and I take the blame for this – were not terribly astute was these were all really good policies only made possible by a supportive Conservative Party, otherwise they weren’t going to be delivered, but the SNP managed to take the credit for all these policies and the Scottish Conservatives were given zilch recognition for their contribution. I have to take responsibility for that. At the same time, do I regret, politically, helping to deliver these improvements? No, I don’t.”

I think the Scottish Government has found that being in government is not easy. I think the Scottish Government has found that although it craved more powers… the exercise of these powers has been very challenging

That SNP-Conservative alliance, in the current climate, now seems impossible. I ask why she believes that to be the case. “Well, it takes two to tango. There’s not much point one person saying, we’re ready to do a tango and the other person is saying we’re only interested in doing a conga!

“But it’s a serious point. There has to be mutual respect if people are to engage, and I think one of the difficulties has been that the Scottish Government has been so in thrall to its political objective of independence that it has really excluded all other lines of communication with Westminster in a meaningful sense, because it feels in some way that is weakening its credentials as a party seeking independence.”

When Goldie announced her decision to stand down from Holyrood in 2016, she spoke about how the parliament had managed to translate “the spirit of devolution into substantive Scottish achievements”. “Politics is a rough trade but we have built a strong parliament in Scotland of which we can all be rightly proud,” she added. Does she still think that?

“I think it’s very important to separate out the institution, which is a parliament, and the activities of the occupants,” she says. “Now, the institution of the Scottish Parliament is a solid and honourable one. It is a product of what people in Scotland voted for. It was designed by architects with experience of how the political system works. I think the Scottish Parliament as a parliamentary presence is a very good institution and a very good advertisement, and I would praise it separate from the activities of the elected politicians, and very particularly the activity of the incumbent government.

“Now, that’s an entirely independent entity from the institution of the parliament. I think the Scottish Government has found that being in government is not easy. I think the Scottish Government has found that although it craved more powers for the devolved parliament, and was given more powers, the exercise of these powers has been very challenging and very problematic. And it is now finding, because it has been the devolved government for 16 years, that voters are asking questions about the health service, about the justice system, about ferries, about transport, all these essential public services on which people in Scotland rely, and people are clearly making their own judgement. That’s what democracy is about. I think the Scottish Government is finding that is a very uncomfortable judgement.

“Obviously, internally the party has not had it sorrows to seek and these are matters I wouldn’t comment on, these are for others to resolve. But what I think is almost more corrosive for the Scottish Government is to explain to Scottish voters how after 16 years of delivering things, with a lot of new powers granted to the Scottish Parliament to help them with the delivery of essential public services, why there is such universal public dissatisfaction in Scotland with these public services? I hear that, and I think you can see the polls are now reflecting that.”

I wonder what she makes, therefore, of the Scottish Parliament’s scrutiny role in all of this. She says that it’s an “important question”.

“I think if I were the MSPs I would want to, with the administrative secretariat of the parliament and the presiding officer, be looking at within the existing structures, how can you improve scrutiny? How can you improve scrutiny in an intelligent, objective sense, so that the incumbent government knows it’s getting non-partisan advice? And can then work out, is this a sensible thing to do?

“If you look at the recent deposit return scheme, it seems to me that that is a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It seems to me that there was the embryo of a perfectly good idea in there, but instead of sitting back and saying this is more than making a political judgement and delivering a political decision, this is absolutely about what the drink industries in Scotland can cope with.

“Now, had there been a more measured approach, it would have been clear from the outset this is going to be difficult to do in a Scottish-only way. What we really ought to do is, let’s discuss with the UK Government, what’s the best way we can achieve a scheme that works across the United Kingdom, but will work well in Scotland?”

The UK Government’s intervention on the deposit return scheme has, naturally, been used by the Scottish Government as evidence that Scotland needs independence. Goldie says this is a “fake debate” and describes accusations of democracy denial as a “completely artificial construct”.

But I wonder what her opinion is, having taken part in the Smith Commission back in 2014, on the current devolution settlement and the balance of devolved and reserved powers. She says: “I think that many people in Scotland are completely unaware of just how powerful the Scottish Parliament is. The Scottish Parliament is actually one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world.

“I think the question the people of Scotland want to ask, given the chance of a Scottish Parliament election, will be: what are you doing with the powers?”

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