Best buddy: an interview with George Adam
George Adam is Paisley’s man at Holyrood. He’s the ‘Big Yin’, the affable SNP MSP with a quip always at the ready, and whose love for the town in which he grew up and still lives is only surpassed by his passion for St Mirren Football Club, for which he led a fan takeover in 2016, and for his beloved wife, Stacey.
Adam is, in essence, the very epitome of the Paisley Buddy. And proud of it. Which he will tell you – often.
As the former SNP chief whip, he already had a reputation in the parliament as someone who could work cross-party as well as do the strong-arming of his own members, when necessary. His humour, well-recognised, is often put to good use when things get fractious.
But there’s a serious side to the MSP and his emotional depth, political grit and sheer loyalty should never be underestimated. Indeed, they are likely the qualities the First Minister acknowledged when she handed him the role of Minister for Parliamentary Business earlier this year.
I’m a just a big daft boy fae Feegie in Paisley that’s now become Minister for Parliamentary Business
And no one was more surprised at his elevation than Adam himself, having believed that as a man of a ‘certain age’, operating in a political world where gender inequality is now not only recognised but acted upon, that perhaps his time had passed.
“I guess I’d got to the stage where I actually thought, like a lot of other males of my generation, that possibly it wasn’t going to happen. And anyway, it’s right that men have had it too much of their own way, for too long, so I accept that things should change. And, as chief whip, I had previously managed a couple of my male colleagues in such a way by saying that maybe we [men] should just be happy with what we’re doing and carry on and not get twisted about it all, like some have. Funnily enough, those same men keep reminding me of those conversations since my appointment.
“And I’m not saying that I’m some reconstructed west coast male because I don’t believe I am. I am what I am. I come from the generation that I come from, and with all the baggage that entails. But I do believe that when you must, you need to lift up your whole ideals and beliefs and do the right thing. I’ve got a very close relationship with my daughter. And when you become the father of a daughter, you start to think about what do you want for them? What kind of world do you want her to live in? And the first thing I said when she was born, in between the tears and all the blubbing, naturally, was that she could be president of an independent Scotland, that she could do whatever she wanted and there should be no barriers. I’ve got a granddaughter now as well, and when you look at it from that perspective, you want to make sure that the world is a place for everyone to have the opportunity to go forward. And we’re at the stage now when we need to get that in place.
“Yes, we’re all ambitious and we want to move forward but I think you need to be happy in your own skin and with what you’re doing, and you know, effectively, I’m a just a big daft boy fae Feegie [Ferguslie Park] in Paisley that’s now become Minister for Parliamentary Business. So, it can happen to anyone, but you’ve got to be careful and not just wish your life away on what could have been.
“Look, in 2001, I stood for election as an MP. I pushed and pushed and pushed and got absolutely thumped in the Westminster election. So, in 2003 it was again, push, push, and push for Holyrood... got thumped again. But that time, I went into the realistic-zone and thought, maybe it’s not going to happen for me, so, I kind of took a step back. I was still involved in the SNP, I had joined when I was 17, did all the activity and everything else, but [I] just concentrated on work and getting on with life. And then out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted to stand for the council in 2007. And from then it’s just kind of moved on. And I find that when I get to that kind of almost zen-like moment of acceptance, things tend to work out for me.
“But this [becoming a minister] was still a surprise. My phone rang and it was a number that was unrecognisable, but I’d seen it was an Edinburgh number and I went to Stacey [his wife] ... ‘Oh-oh, maybe better answer that.’ Worst-case scenario, it could be a double-glazing salesman or something. And I answered it, and the heart started pumping when I was told it was the First Minister’s office...my first thought was like, who’s joking me? Who’s kidding me on? You know, somebody is having a go. And the assistant said, ‘Could you come up to St Andrew’s House?’ And at that stage, when I knew Graeme [Dey] was going in first, and he was my predecessor, I knew parliamentary business was probably on the cards. But still, never count your chickens.”
When the new ministerial team was approved by the parliament, the Scottish Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw gave a speech that revealed an affection for Team Adam, making reference to the central role played by Adam’s wife, Stacey, who has MS, is a wheelchair user, and works for her husband for free, just so they can spend time together, when he said, “I congratulate George Adam and Stacey, The Enforcer, on their appointment to the business management role.”
Adam laughs at the memory but says he credits strong women in his life – his mum, sisters, wife, and daughter – for being the push that gives him the shove to get things done.
Someone said that to me, not so long ago, that I talk the talk of a feminist. But I can’t be a feminist, I’m not a woman
“If I look at my experiences in the workplace, I used to work in a very male-orientated industry [in corporate car sales] then more and more females started to get involved. It changed the workplace entirely, changed the humour, changed the way you talked, changed the whole ethos of a company as well. And I think that’s a good thing.
“And I’m lucky because most of my life I’ve been surrounded by strong women. Maybe that’s why it [gender equality] has been something that I find easier to accept than others.
“But I am seriously uncomfortable at being called a feminist, Mandy. Someone said that to me, not so long ago, that I talk the talk of a feminist. But I can’t be a feminist, I’m not a woman. It’s like I can recognise the problems that a person of colour goes through in life, but I don’t fully appreciate it because I’m not a black person. So, it’s the same with calling me a feminist. I’m not a woman, I can’t actually feel the pain you feel because I’ve never experienced life like that.”
Unwittingly or not, Adam gives me a natural segue into what has become an extraordinarily toxic debate around the reform of the Gender Recognition Act and more specifically, whether anyone can self-identify as being of a different sex. As Minister for Parliamentary Business, it will be his job to get the bill passed.
I put to him that while he says he is not a woman, does he think he ever could be?
He deftly avoids directly addressing my question, provocative as it is, and says that his job will be focused on getting the bill – which he says should be published early next year – through.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he says, recognising how divisive the debate has already been. “But I enjoy a challenge. My dad was self-employed all his life and he always said when things went wrong, ‘No one said it’s going to be easy, son’ and while I’d like it to be easier now and again, you know, I relish a challenge. I think we just need to deal with the debate. And if we can all get ourselves in a place where the debate is less toxic, on both sides of the argument, we can have the discussion, and I’d be a lot happier. But as I say, my job is just to make sure it goes through the parliament.”
Adam was elected MSP for Paisley in 2011, alongside his close friend and fellow Renfrewshire councillor, Derek Mackay. And there is no hiding the pain that Adam felt when Mackay, the then finance secretary, was forced to resign on the eve of last year’s budget when The Sun exposed the fact that he had been inappropriately texting a 16-year-old boy.
Tipped as a future leader of the SNP and potentially the next first minister, Mackay’s fall from grace was as swift as it was brutal. Sacked from one of the most senior jobs in government, out of the party that he had previously described as his “family”, and although, controversially, he stayed on as an independent MSP until the election in May of this year, he all but disappeared from public life.
[Derek Mackay] was a big part of my life, and he was always there. He was in my working life and now he’s not. And that’s it… I just felt disappointed
Adam and Mackay were a double act, thick as thieves in the parliament and beyond. Both had been councillors in Renfrewshire Council together, which Mackay led, before entering Holyrood together in 2011. Adam talks about them loosely having a grand plan for what would happen next. This was not in it.
He is visibly upset talking about what happened last year with Mackay but unlike other politicians, he doesn’t try to erase him from his history.
“We were always very close. We had something in common in our backgrounds and although there were a few years difference in age, I was like a big brother to him, and we just worked well together, you know, it just worked. He was a big part of my life, and he was always there. He was in my working life and now he’s not. And that’s it…
“I just felt disappointed, you know, just real disappointment and loss. And I really can’t say anything else other than that. I’m just disappointed. I still feel that. It was just such a shame. But you know, whatever has happened, I still feel for him. He’s got a lot of... you know, demons, and things he needs to deal with. And that’s up to Derek. But as I say, it’s gone from someone who is fully a total part of your life and then suddenly, he’s not there. Not in it. Gone. That’s hard.
“But I think you can see from my own life that I know only too well how things can change, that fortunes can be reversed, and things can turn, as you say, on the head of a pin. I could be sitting here now, saying, ‘Look at what could have been…’ but life isn’t like that. Life has its ups and downs, and you must also take responsibility for things that do happen and that you can control. But overall, I was just so disappointed …just the whole thing. This wasn’t part of the plan.
“It’s true, that we kind of thought, at one point, that yeah, he would be the next leader of the party and all the rest of it, but we are where we are, and we’re just gonna have to move on. And Derek needs to go on with his life, and we need to go on with ours.”
We stop for a moment and then I ask Adam, who is clearly shaken by the events of last year, what he said to Mackay when the news broke.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t say it to him, but I did just say, ‘What the fuck?’”
“I didn’t get an answer.”
Despite the gravity of the conversation, there’s something very sanguine about Adam’s character. Inevitably, he makes light of any drama and I ask him if that is an essential qualification for the job.
“I always say I’m the Minister for Mayhem and Chaos, mainly because when things go wrong, I’ve got to be there to fix it, and to make sure we can get things [legislation and parliamentary votes] moving. And it’s not just politics all the time, you know. People will assume that is the case because you’re involved in the political side of things, but nine times out of 10, it’ll just be a misunderstanding from a committee over an SI [statutory instrument], or maybe something has not been worded correctly. And I just need to process that. A lot of my job is process. And I’ve often said all the conveners of the committees, and everybody else in the parliament including opposition as well, that we’re all going to fall out over so many things, so let’s not fall out over the actual process of the parliamentary business. So if I can fix it, I will. So, it’s genuinely just fixing a lot of stuff, which kind of runs in the family because my dad was an engineer and repaired electric motors. This seems to be my way of fixing things.”
Despite many references to his father – who died in 2012 – throughout the interview, their relationship was difficult and complex. And it’s one that clearly defines the man Adam now is. Basically, he wanted to be everything that his father wasn’t.
I do remember saying to him that he should pat himself on the back because I’d become the man he desperately wanted to be. That must have been hard to hear
He paints a picture of a childhood punctuated by his father’s business peaks and troughs, of a man who was always looking for the ‘big one’, who occasionally drank too much and who had extra-marital affairs. Adam pinpoints a time when he was nine when his father’s business went into receivership and the family went from living in a large house with garden to a caravan.
“There were a number of events that stick in my nine-year-old head from the time. He was under extreme pressure, the two of them – my mum and dad – were fighting all the time, the atmosphere in the house was horrible. He started drinking far too much and it just was a horrible place to be. We went from this idyllic life of two holidays a year, September in Blackpool for the weekend, to, I’ll be honest with you, living in a little caravan. You know, me and my sisters, the five of us, all in a caravan. And the only thing they had was this god-awful, big white telly. It was huge and it sat at one end of the caravan. And we used to watch Dallas on it – it took up half the living room – this huge white telly. We lived like that for just under a year.
“He left us twice. And I remember once when I was nine, I can remember my mum saying to me that I was now the man of the house, and I can remember thinking that I needed to deal with the situation we were in. I feel as if I kind of grew up at nine, you know, and I decided I had to be more responsible and get on with things, sort things. But, yeah, I was only nine.
“I remember another time, before he lost his business and life was actually pretty stable, but he had been away for two weeks. My mum was sitting crying in the kitchen, and I brought through this god-awful tan leather coat that he wore at the time – it was the 70s – and he loved it. I handed it to him and there’s this wee lad saying to him ‘you need to go dad; you’re upsetting my maw’. Well, he broke down, my mum broke down and they decided to try and make a go of things again.”
In about 1980, following another spell of bad luck in business, the family moved to South Africa for a “fresh start”. As an 11-year-old, there had been talk of Adam having the potential to be picked to play for St Mirren youth team and he remembers just feeling angry that his life was being turned upside down because “their [his parents] life was so screwed”. In the end, they only stayed in South Africa for two years when yet another business venture of his father’s turned sour, and they were left penniless in a country with no social security and no home. They came back to Scotland and lived for a time in his grandfather’s small flat. Adam didn’t care that he was sleeping on his grandpa’s sofa, he was just glad to be back in Paisley.
“I did try to speak to him [his dad] about it all as I got older, but I was probably quite arrogant about it at the time, and I do remember saying to him that he should pat himself on the back because I’d become the man he desperately wanted to be. That must have been hard to hear but I’d seen what he had put my mum through when I was a young kid, with the affairs, the plans that didn’t work, and the drinking, and I vowed that I would never be that man. That’s never going to be me.
“I loved him. He was great company; he was a laugh. If he walked in now, you’d like him, but the problem was, you couldn’t rely on him, because he had his own ideas and his own way of dealing with things. And it just became quite difficult for me as I got older. I worked for him between the ages of 17 and 19 or 20, but I got to the stage where I just thought, I’m not going to live this life anymore because I’m going to end up living the same circle as him and it’s going to be up and down. And my big thing is stability and loyalty. That’s what I have.
“I think he was just always trying to gain what he lost in the ‘70s and be the big man. He had employed 200 people at one point. He was literally the boy that had failed the 11 Plus, went on to get a trade, build a business, make money, and did the whole bit. But the funny thing is, it was never enough. When you look at it, everything was going rosy while my mum was there, the company secretary, until she was pregnant with me, and my sister and she moved away from the business so wasn’t around and then the affairs and everything else started. When mum got pregnant again, just before he lost the business, he would call our Jennifer the receiver’s baby. Everything was a joke. He made me a director of the company at seven years old.
“At the end of the day, mum and dad were so successful in life, that we ended up paying for both their funerals…
“There’s a point where if you actually ask yourself, how do you want to live your life and what kind of husband do you want to be, what kind of father do you want to be, then he was a good role model, from that perspective, because I knew I wanted to be nothing like him. But it’s funny because my kids ended up seeing their papa as this older man where a lot of stuff in life had kind of mellowed him and knocked the stuffing out, and they’d just see this old funny guy that used to put a sweetie tin or toffees out and watch a DVD with them. And that’s good because we’ve all got to move on from that stuff in the past…and they don’t know about all that…and they, hopefully, don’t read Holyrood magazine.”
Adam is an interesting guy who clearly has thought deeply about his own upbringing and how rooted his own story is in the twisting fortunes of the town he represents. And it’s Adam’s passion for Paisley’s story that ultimately drove him into politics. He describes a town and its people hollowed out by the Thatcher years. He talks about men being thrown on the scrapheap of unemployment; the hope being sucked out of the place and recalls friends and peers who disappeared from the town looking for work, or others who got lost in the spiral of drug abuse. He says he joined the SNP to make Paisley better and he still believes that it’s only independence that will finish that job.
I ask him when he believes that will happen and he smiles and says that is above his pay grade but that recently, in a meeting of the committee clerks, one of the clerks had casually asked, “When is the next independence referendum, Minister, we are just trying to organise parliamentary business”. “Oh, good try,” he replied. “Good try.”