Ben Macpherson: Constitutional change is coming at the British government whether they like it or not
Ben Macpherson welcomes me into his office at the Scottish Parliament with all the manners you’d expect of a good public-school boy from Edinburgh. Throughout our chat, he’s unerringly polite, referring to his superiors by their titles or honorifics – and that level of reverence is how he approaches politics more broadly. Here’s clearly honoured to be here at the heart of it.
“To me, it’s a total privilege to represent the area that I live in, and I was motivated, first of all, to do that job well, and to continue doing it well,” he says. “To then be stepped up and asked to serve in government came quicker than anticipated, but I embraced it, obviously. And I have been glad to do all these different roles.”
He was first elected to represent Edinburgh Northern and Leith in 2016. Two years on, he entered government, holding a number of different portfolios, and is clearly regarded as a safe pair of hands. In May last year, he became the social security minister, tasked with delivering devolved benefits as they pass from Westminster to Holyrood.
I have just felt this degree of satisfaction just to be doing what I feel I'm best at
Despite the swift climb, he didn’t enter politics with any “burning ambition for position and status,” he says. In fact, he spent his 20s “very determined to make a difference and impact social change”. “How you do that is quite an open question. I had quite a lot of stress and anxiety trying to work out what was the best way to do that and the best road to take,” he admits.
As a result, Macpherson had quite a potted career before becoming a politician. He’s worked in data processing, in public affairs, as a volunteer teacher (and toyed with the idea of becoming a Modern Studies teacher), and latterly as a solicitor. But when he ultimately decided he would make the biggest difference by entering capital-P Politics, he pursued it with a dogged determination and spent about five years preparing. “I wanted to be ready to stand for election when the time was right. And then I got elected. I have just felt this degree of satisfaction just to be doing what I feel I’m best at.”
Much like his career before it, his time as an MSP has been mixed too; he spent some time as a backbencher on the social security and justice committees, before being asked to take on the role of Europe minister, then public finance minister, and then natural environment minister. While he says he learnt a great deal from each of those, it’s his current portfolio that he is truly excited about because it “really gets to the heart of what drove me into politics”.
It is with clear pride that he speaks about the social security changes the Scottish Government has made since the Smith Commission recommended those powers be devolved. We speak not long after the Scottish Child Payment was fully rolled out to all under 16s, providing a much needed £25 per week per child to struggling families. That should lift an estimated 50,000 families out of poverty.
Macpherson is acutely aware of the inequalities plaguing Scottish communities, representing as he does an area where some of the most deprived neighbourhoods sit alongside some of the wealthiest. He recalls being able to tell one constituent, a mother with two children between six and 16, that she was entitled to more money. “To hear from somebody saying, ‘oh, I’m going to be able to get another £200 a month’ and to see on their face how much of a difference that’s going to make, to provide support for essentials, support for activities – because we want to build that wellbeing Scotland, and that’s about making sure that there’s enough resource in households to be able to not just survive, but to thrive.”
The transfer of welfare powers hasn’t been plain sailing, though, with Scottish ministers having to delay the process and leave some benefits with the UK Department for Work and Pensions five years longer than planned. Macpherson is relaxed about that decision, insisting it was the right one under the circumstances. “We are right to go as quickly as we can, but not compromising safe and secure delivery. Disabled people have told us that and other user groups have told us that, because of the experiences they’ve had in the UK Government social security system. In an ideal world, if we could have stood everything up in a year, of course, that would have been wonderful. But that’s not the reality. These things take time, it takes time to build good systems, it takes time to recruit staff, it takes time to make sure that the right culture is developed.”
Naturally, he is nervous about the coming months as bills rise. “I am worried that these cost pressures and increases are not only putting pressure on family budgets to an extent that they have to make really difficult choices with what they spend, but also I worry about the knock-on impact to wellbeing, mental health, physical health, productivity in the economy, all these changes that can then be repercussions from people being in a heightened state of anxiety and not being able to afford the basics in life. That’s why we’re so determined to pull the levers and allocate the resources that we can within our limited devolved resource and power to help people at this time.”
And while he laments the fact the Scottish Government does not have all the powers to do what it would wish to, he also acknowledges more can be done. “We’re still developing our social security system in a safe and secure way, so there are processes that need to still take place. Once we get to the end of those processes, we will have more discretion as to what we’ll be able to potentially deliver within the financial context.
“So, for example, the case of transfer of disability assistance – now we’re delivering child disability payments since November 2021, adult disability payments since August 2022, but we still have a case transfer process that’s well underway to complete. Our ambition is to do that in 2025 and have those hundreds of thousands of cases in our system.
“Once all those people are in our system, we can consider if there are changes that we wish to make in the future. Right now, I can’t make a lot of change with adult disability payment – although we are delivering it in a very different way and we have made some changes where we can – but also I have to be conscious that there are many, many people in Scotland who are on personal independence payments, and I can’t have a disparity between those people as we undertake the case transfer process. We can’t have a two-tier system. It’d clearly be unfair.”
I remember it being very unsettling, in that I had a very strong British identity and I felt that fading away from me
Like many SNP politicians and pro-independence supporters, the reason he backs secession from the UK is because he believes it’s the best way to make Scotland a better place for everyone. He is keen to stress that he doesn’t support independence for independence’s sake, but because it will provide the government with the power to do things differently.
He wasn’t always so pro-independence, though. It was a growing dissatisfaction with New Labour in the noughties (he was a member at the time) combined with discussions he had while attending the University of York and during a walking trip from Edinburgh to London that really made him reconsider his position. “It was quite life changing for me. I remember it being very unsettling, in that I had a very strong British identity and I felt that fading away from me,” he says.
Indeed, it is because of his former “strong British identity” that he readily acknowledges that many of his pro-Union colleagues in the parliament are there for the same reason as him: improving the lot for Scots. He thinks that overarching aim often gets lost among the constitutional and political arguments, though.
“Too much of our politics is about opposition for opposition’s sake, to get media coverage and to get social media amplification. I worry about that a lot. We need to have much more emphasis and focus, together, on constructive dialogue and on the issues of mutual concern.”
I ask whether he is concerned about the polarised nature of political debate in Scotland nowadays, with so many issues often coming down to Yes versus No. “That’s something I think about a lot,” he admits. “How we go about constitutional change in Scotland is so important. I’m part of that very, very large group of people who’ve come from being Labour voters to being SNP voters, because they think that constitutional change is required to initiate greater social change towards social justice.
“That ambition for change is there. It’s only going to become more pertinent as the younger generations grow up. Constitutional change is coming at the British government whether they like it or not. Actually, what we need is an approach where different perspectives on the constitution talk in a way that’s about, how do we progress? And part of that is about letting the people decide, and respecting the view of the people, but also respecting the emotions on both sides – actually, I try not to use ‘sides’, both perspectives.
“The most important thing for me is that Scotland becomes a better place to live, because my commitment to constitutional change is about how do we utilise that constitutional change to make our country better, fairer and an even more just society. And the process of how we go about that, that debate is really important.
“Actually, we need to get into more of a mindset about thinking, how do we build a better future? Because a lot of the short-term party politicking, if that’s a word, trying to get a headline, trying to get retweets from your base, that might provide short-term satisfaction but the effect it’s having on our society and our democracy is potentially going to be even more detrimental in the longer term. And I include the media in that. It’s about everyone.
“I try to be a constructive force in all of this, and try and understand those from a different perspective. If you go back and you see the first speech I made to this parliament, I talked about a unifying hope of a better Scotland. I said that in my first speech because I believe it, that everyone does want Scotland to get better, we just have different ways to ensure it gets better. And the responsibility of this place and of our body politic is to work through the views we have in a respectful way.”