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by Rebecca McQuillan
07 October 2020
Catching the wave: interview with Ben Macpherson

Catching the wave: interview with Ben Macpherson

Ben Macpherson didn’t start 2020 expecting to change job a few weeks later, but in a year when the unexpected has become almost ordinary, that’s how it worked out.

Kate Forbes, the public finance minister, had been parachuted in to take over Derek Mackay’s job as finance secretary following his abrupt departure on the eve of February’s budget, and her old job had become vacant.

Did Macpherson, then minister for Europe and migration, think he would get the call?

“I wondered, because I felt I had been very strong in my last portfolio and I was very proud of the work that Fiona Hyslop and I had done building our profile across Europe,” he says.

It is not the easiest brief to master in a hurry. Kate Forbes is a former accountant. What about lawyer, and politics and philosophy graduate Macpherson?

“My legal training helps,” he says, before adding with a smile: “And I do have an A band 1 for Higher physics and a B for maths.”

Perhaps Higher computing science would have come in handy too, since Macpherson, 36, also splits responsibilities with Forbes on all things digital. We meet just as the Scottish Government puts another digital strategy out for consultation, its third in nine years following a 2011 publication and one in 2017.

Macpherson chose to publish another one now “because of the progress we’ve made and the sheer acceleration of change in the last six months”, meaning the huge shift by businesses, public services and employees to digital working during the pandemic.

“This is an opportune moment to reflect on what we need still to achieve from the 2017 strategy and what we’ve achieved already, and build our ambition and our sense of collective endeavour.”

The strategy takes in digital government and public services, connectivity, digital economy and skills, participation and cyber resilience, and the consultation is being led jointly by COSLA and the Scottish Government.

“We’ve tried to push the boundaries and set out a compelling vision and doing it with local government I think is significant.”

There is plenty to be done. Last month, Mark Logan, the former chief operating officer of Skyscanner, published a review of how the tech sector can contribute to the economic recovery from COVID; he made 34 recommendations, all of which were accepted by Nicola Sturgeon.
And there is unfinished business from the last strategy. A year ago, Audit Scotland said that there had been some good progress towards putting digital at the heart of everything government does but that the Scottish Government had “not yet shown the strategic leadership necessary”. It talked of key skills shortages within government and the lack of a clear idea of how much investment was needed to meet ambitions.

Macpherson insists all this has been taken on board.  “We’re currently in the process, including the formation of the new strategy, of how do we live up to those needs for improvement and change.” He and Forbes, he says, are determined to show the leadership that’s required.

The former auditor general Caroline Gardner said as she left office in June that the failure of public sector digital projects had been a cause of frequent frustration for her. Is it daunting for Macpherson to contemplate government undertaking ambitious digital change like this?

“Yes, to be honest,” he replies. “I think it should be, because that’s about prudence and diligence and making sure we’re learning the lessons of the past.” As a backbencher he was on the Justice Committee as it reviewed the failed i6 police computing project and says that in developing systems for the new social security benefits, the Scottish Government took a “bite-sized approach” because of chastening lessons from the past.
“That’s why, as I say, we need ambition but we need realism too, realism about delivering but also that digital’s not the answer to everything though it has a lot of potential to unlock.”

Macpherson believes Scotland has particular advantages, like a highly educated workforce, a reputation as an attractive place to live and net migration from the rest of the UK, the European Economic Area and internationally; he also hails the success of Civtech, which brings together the public, third and private sectors to develop tech for civic use.

He adds that he and Paul Wheelhouse, the minister for energy, connectivity and the islands, are enthusiastic about Scotland’s potential for being a data storage centre, powered by green energy.

Some projections on the potential benefits of digital improvement are eye-popping. A report by Deloitte and the Scottish Futures Trust a year ago claimed capitalising on 4G and 5G could boost Scottish GDP by £17bn, creating 160,000 new jobs.

But there’s a danger people will think such claims overblown. After all, a great deal was made 10 years ago about Scotland’s potential as a wave and tidal powerhouse, but those benefits have yet to materialise.

“I think one of the challenges with wave was that it was potentially overhyped and we do have to be ambitious and have collective determination to realise the benefits of digital but we don’t do ourselves any favours by overegging the pudding,” says Macpherson. He mentions the need for humility and staying grounded.

Being a digital nation means more than just the digital economy. Macpherson is at pains to stress that he is talking about creating opportunity with an “ethical foundation”.  “We’re very wary of the changing nature of work and we need to see digital as an enabler of a better quality of life and social justice, not just as a means to increased productivity and economic performance.”

“I think there are aspects of our society that have been unhealthy that are a legacy of the past – wasted commuter time, pressure that urbanisation has created around house prices, the difficulties that creates around urban Scotland particularly for the younger generation, the challenges that the previous way of doing things put on inward migration around Scotland which is causing depopulation in some parts of Scotland and pressure on others.

“The capacity of this moment, combined with digital, to re-examine and redesign collectively how we undertake work in the most nourishing and also the most productive way, is a real opportunity.”

Improving work-life balance, reducing carbon emissions and reimagining city centres are questions he says “we’re wrestling with in government on a daily basis at the moment”.

Digital affects everything, but at its most basic level, it keeps people connected and during the pandemic that has been vital. Macpherson shares responsibility with Aileen Campbell for Connecting Scotland, which aims to provide a digital device, training and 12 months’ unlimited data to 50,000 households that are digitally excluded, by the end of next year. The scheme, launched in spring when the pandemic hit, has already connected 7,500 people.

It has been delivered in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), a collaboration which Macpherson is enthusiastic about: “[It] has really made sure we are delivering these policies around the people who need it and not just making announcements and big idea statements; it’s about how do we actually empower people who really need it.”

Macpherson, who retains responsibility for migration alongside public finance, is MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith, and grew up in what is now his constituency.

His parents are now in their 70s but his mother, from Worthing in Sussex, was a geriatric physician in the NHS for 30 years and his father, from Crosshill in Ayrshire, ran his own design consultancy. “Both grew up in deprived circumstances, worked hard, were bright and benefited from free education,” he says. “So they had done well but they always brought me and my brother up to believe that the world needs to be a fairer place and we need to create opportunities for other people.”

Macpherson is a fifth generation vegetarian, on his mother’s side, and has never once eaten meat or fish, though insists he has nothing against people who do. Formerly a keen footballer who played briefly on the same team as one-time Scotland captain Darren Fletcher, Macpherson has become a keen runner during the pandemic and fuels himself on his go-to dish of spicy vegetarian spaghetti. “I’m fitter now that I’ve been in 10 years.”

He went to Flora Stevenson’s Primary and was then privately educated at George Heriot’s before going to the University of York, graduating in 2006. “I decided not to go to London and work in the City, and to come back to Scotland and find an avenue to affect social change, and that’s what I was determined to do.”

In the next few years, he worked as a bartender, for a wave energy firm and became a clerical assistant at James Gillespie’s High School. 
He considered becoming a modern studies teacher but instead turned to law, working for the firm Brodies: “I decided to study law because my view was that if I want to effect change, it’s good to understand how power is structured.”

He says it taught him that every contribution in an organisation is important in success (“photocopying or leading a deal, I did it all”) and he also gained “a real commercial feel for all parts of the economy”, working in pensions and employee benefits, project finance, energy, construction and banking.

Macpherson was initially involved in the Labour Party, doing work experience at 16 for Malcolm Chisholm whom he would eventually succeed as the local MSP.

But the Iraq War and a feeling that Labour wasn’t doing enough on social inclusion left him “disorientated” with the party and he left in 2003. It wasn’t until then that he considered independence.

“As an idealistic and determined 20-year-old I walked from Edinburgh to London in 2004, for charity, and that experience of meeting people – obviously it was all anecdotal – made me question the UK as the best model for political change for Scotland.”

Those of a Conservative political persuasion, he felt, were more prevalent in England and he came to feel that independence would allow the people of Scotland to bring about a more social democratic, centre left society. He joined the SNP in 2005.

Macpherson thought he was the first in his family to convert to the cause of independence until he found out about his maternal great-great-grandfather, the Rev Walter Walsh (1857-1931), a Scottish peace activist and preacher who promoted vegetarianism in the early years of the twentieth century and supported Scottish independence. Active in the Independent Labour Party, and a prolific writer, Walsh knew Keir Hardie, with whom he opposed the Boer War – an unpopular stance at the time. Walsh described inviting Hardie to address a meeting on church premises “which was stormed in advance by students and others, bent on wrecking them”. He had to flee back home with a South African visitor and his home too was later attacked.

Macpherson is proud of the connection. “It’s motivating to know that around 100 years ago one of my relatives had such conviction, passion and determination to help create a more just society and a more peaceful world.”

Other people’s stories are a source of fascination for him: during time off, Macpherson loves the cinema and will sometimes go by himself  (favourite movies: Amazing Grace, Selma, the Matrix and the Dark Knight Rises). Like everyone else, he now faces the prospect of not being able to visit friends or family indoors. Is he daunted by the thought of winter?

“Yeah, well, I’m single, I live by myself, so it’s nothing compared with what other people are facing but there will be an element of loneliness amongst the hard work.”

With digital at the heart of the recovery and Brexit approaching too (with an anticipated impact on the public finances), work won’t be in short supply. •


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