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Daniel Johnson MSP: There is nothing to thank Thatcher for

Daniel Johnson photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Daniel Johnson MSP: There is nothing to thank Thatcher for

Daniel Johnson is a thoughtful politician. He doesn’t answer questions quickly, you can almost hear the cogs turning, and while he offers little in the way of neat little soundbites, his answers, no matter how lengthy, can often surprise. 

He is, by his own admission, “a little unfiltered”, and whether that is down to his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which was diagnosed in 2013, is something we will explore later, but when I ask him if he has found it unhelpful that his colleagues down south seem to be constantly praising Margaret Thatcher, whose reputation does not sit well in Scottish politics, he thinks for an awful long time.

“Let me find a formulation for answering that,” he says with a raised eyebrow, before thinking a little bit more. 

“Well, let’s put it this way…” he ponders. “I think their responses could be, how do I put this…” he muses, “a little more…considered.” 

He then reflects awhile on that statement before adding a self-confirmatory “yes” and continuing.

Thatcher's legacy is a deeply, deeply damaging one

“Look, we need a government with a sense of mission and zeal given the massive problems we are facing, and we need to look at governments that were effective in that respect. But the mistakes made by Thatcher were so extraordinarily considerable that there is nothing there to thank her for. 

“I think the context of the economic and political reality at the time meant Thatcher had a huge amount of good fortune, both in terms of electorally with the split in progressive politics in the UK with the rise of the SDP, and of course you can also thank the SNP for helping get her into Number 10, but she then had the Falklands War, which gave her a kind of particular appeal to some, and controversially, she had the North Sea oil money, which propped up the public finances at the point where they were incredibly weak. 

“So, I think there are lessons to be drawn, but let’s be very clear that Thatcher’s legacy is a deeply, deeply damaging one. And, critically, I think that one of the key objectives for Labour governments ever since the 1980s has had to be to fix the deep damage done by Thatcher, so we have nothing to praise her for.

“And on a personal note, it was Thatcher’s damaging legacy that led me into politics and to the Labour Party. That was definitely down to her.

“And in terms of my current role, I reflect on the fact that Thatcher destroyed the partnership between business and the state. She thought they were in conflict and yet the most successful countries are where there is a healthy interplay between them both. So, she was wrong on that and on so many other things. But then the other element for me was the utter complacency of the [John] Major years. I found that just so appalling. That sort of view that you should be patient, that, you know, the medicine is working and just needs time, so you just need to put up with the waiting lists and the poverty, and all the rest. I can’t tolerate that kind of attitude in politics. So, that misguided zeal of Thatcherite Tory politics, coupled with the complacency of the old-school Tory politics of Major, just drove me into something that actually was a vehicle for change, and hope, and about actually, genuinely, making the different parts of the country work better together, not about creating division.”

Johnson joined the Labour Party in 1995 aged 18 and about to start a philosophy degree at St Andrews University. It was there that he met Jenny Marra who would later become a colleague as an MSP at Holyrood. His background is very typical middle-class Edinburgh Morningside. His parents ran the successful retail businesses Paper Tiger and Studio One. He went to the private Stewart’s Melville College where he said that in every school report card there was a version of ‘if Daniel’s written contributions were as good [and] matched the level of enthusiasm of his oral contributions, he would do considerably better’. And, looking back, he says people probably considered him a bit disorganised and rather day-dreamy. He suspects that no one would be surprised to learn that he was later diagnosed as having ADHD.

“I think people just thought I didn’t try very hard, and I should concentrate more but I did, and it didn’t help, and this is the frustration every person with ADHD will have experienced. I know my mum feels a tremendous guilt about it all, but she shouldn’t because it just wasn’t a recognised thing then.”

That sort of sense of need to help others is quite Presbyterian

Johnson describes his parents as “verging on being a bit hippy-like” in their younger days and believed, early doors, on leaving the world a better place than how you found it. In the 1970s, they travelled about in the archetypical hippy VW campervan, driving to gatherings on the west coast with “similarly minded” friends and he has pictures of them all sitting around the campfire playing music and so on. He also has his father’s vinyl collection of 1960s and early 70s records which confirms a certain artistic bent. He recalls animated debates around the kitchen table with his father and younger brother as they listened to the Today programme and says his father would often take an opposing view, just for the sake of it, and would never let his sons get away with just asserting something, they always had to be able to back up their stance. His drive to fix things definitely comes from his dad as does an ability to debate and shape an argument. His mother’s parents were Church of Scotland medical missionaries who spent more than a decade working in India and Bhutan and as a consequence of their own belief in public duty, left their three children, including Johnson’s mother, behind at boarding school. He says, diplomatically, he can see that level of personal sacrifice took “a certain amount of focus”.

Johnson says he can clearly see in his parents the principles that have then shaped him and his desire to serve and to make things better.

“I’m not religious, but I think that sort of sense of need to help others is quite Presbyterian. That whole ‘do unto others, as you’d have done unto you’ is a principle that is really deeply rooted in my psyche, as is that sense of community and belonging, and that’s probably where my politics emerged.”

Elected in 2016 as the MSP for Edinburgh Southern – a constituency which runs along the bottom of the garden of his childhood home – the now Shadow Secretary for the Economy, Business, and Fair Work, has his eyes firmly set on 2026 and the Scottish Parliament election.

He believes the SNP’s Achilles’ heel is the economy where he says their messaging is “incoherent”.  And certainly after 17 years in power, even the SNP first minister acknowledges that his government’s relationship with business needs a reset and the Scottish Labour Party is taking full advantage of that breakdown. One very tangible illustration of how the political momentum is moving is watching the way the business community is engaging with Scottish Labour. The annual Winter Gala dinner in Glasgow last November was sold out with over 50 tables filled compared with the previous year, when the party struggled to attract half as many and led to the deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, quipping that four years before that she would have been able to host the dinner in her own kitchen (which is small). Over the last 18 months, Johnson, along with the party leader, Anas Sarwar, have stepped up the so-called prawn-cocktail offensive, meeting with thousands of individual businesses. Johnson also hosted a business day at party conference for the first time which was attended by 150 paying delegates. I ask him what businesses are saying they want.

“First of all, stability, they are worn out by shocks and surprises, economic shocks from the UK Government but also things coming out of thin air from the Scottish Government – the alcohol advertising stuff was a really good example of that which seemed to just drop out of the sky and they can’t cope with that.

“Secondly, they want genuine engagement and partnership and what is pretty clear to me is that the reset ain’t working. It’s just been another round of talking shops. There doesn’t seem to be any genuine empowerment or any sense of urgency and frankly, what you are starting to see is we are just at the stage where business leaders are just dropping out of that. Businesses are also complaining about the SNP’s approach [that it] is not joined up, with one minister saying one thing, with ministers in other portfolios pulling in opposite directions.

It's a decade of failure

“The final bit is the real need to look at the fundamentals and that is around connectivity and skills and ‘connectivity’ is a bit of buzzword but it is about a sense of some of the things thwarting business being about basic infrastructure, road, rail, public transport, for instance, they can find the workers but the workers can’t travel from where they live to where they need to work. 

“The ferries is the most conspicuous example of that because it isn’t just about the ferries that haven’t been built, it’s a decade of failure where we now have islands where whisky is being produced but they can’t get the whisky off, or they can’t get the people there to put the investment in and it’s just too difficult to get improvements to key infrastructure and the ferries is emblematic of what is happening elsewhere. You see the same thing with road building and the problems with the A9 are pretty clear and the way I would put it is, we export 44 bottles of whisky a second from Scotland, 1.5 billion bottles a year and only 100 million to the UK domestic market so when the A9 closes, you are literally causing the mother of all bottlenecks.

That point about infrastructure and connectivity, likewise, our digital connectivity is the same. I hear factory managers talking about running up a hill to try and get an internet connection or strapping a mobile phone to a robot to get the connectivity and that is not good enough.

“Fundamentally, this is about creating stability for business and ending chaos and surprises and a genuine partnership and not just talking shops and focusing on fundamentals like real infrastructure, road, rail and things delivered by pipes and cables and skills – and that is not complicated, they should be obvious fundamentals of an economic policy. 

“I think the overarching thing is that what I have been surprised about is how relieved businesspeople are about having an open and frank conversation with us. They all start off fairly diplomatically, approaching what they think might be a difficult topic, and I think it is a long time since they have felt they could have an open, collegiate and sensible conversation with politicians.”

With all the polls indicating that Labour will win the forthcoming general election, Johnson dismisses the SNP’s claim that there is no point voting Labour because, according to the first minister, they have already won.

I genuinely like both Anas and Keir

“So, maybe somebody has to sit down and explain to them what the point of an election is. And the question is, who would you like to form the next government? If you would like Labour to form the next government, the best way of ensuring that is to vote Labour. To argue anything other than that is just nonsense.”

Johnson is also convinced that only Labour can fix the economy and he says the party north and south of the border is united on that main mission.

“Between our front benches at the moment there is a very similar perspective about the economy needing to be front and centre of any incoming Labour government. There are deep-seated economic problems, and you also need a deep sense of pragmatism and realism to tackle those. That doesn’t always happen and there are different strands of our party and people who take different views on those points, but I think it is interesting that right now, across our two front benches, you have a very shared sense of what the problem is and the broad approach of how to tackle it.

“I have a decent relationship with Rachel Reeves [Shadow Chancellor], but my main counterpart is Johnny Reynolds [Shadow Secretary of State for Business and Trade] and we speak at least once a month, it is a really good relationship, and our teams get on very well. I have developed a good relationship with Darren Jones [Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury] and we spend quite a lot of time talking – mainly about similarities between Bristol and Edinburgh, funnily enough. I speak regularly to Pat McFadden and to Wes Streeting [Shadow Health Secretary]. Darren singing to Things Can Only Get Better at conference is probably one of the best times I have had out with Wes because it was just such fun. It is not just a working relationship; it is a friendship. There are personal connections now between the two front benches that, frankly, had been a problem since the start of devolution. I don’t think there was that level of trust and commitment back then and there is a recognition from them that this is a partnership and Scotland needs their attention and they need to understand it and engage with it and I think we have seen that from all of them but Rachel in particular has spent quite a lot of time thinking about Scotland and that is a necessary and important one, I think, that reflects not just changes here but the changing nature of politics and of devolution in England. They recognise this isn’t a pyramid and to successfully govern, you need all the constituent parts of the UK, whether that’s metro mayors or devolved administrations, you need a strategy that works through all of these. 

“There will always be differences, that was the whole point of devolution, that is not a bad thing, and we are not always going to be identical in terms of policy. If that’s what people want, then go back to the old Scottish Office set-up but that is not what I want.”

Since being elected, Johnson has worked under three different leaders of the party in Scotland and with two down south. I ask him whether you have to like your leader to make the party a success.

I was, in retrospect, in a very depressed state

“Interesting…I don’t know, because I genuinely like both Anas and Keir on a personal level…”
I remind him that he has had other leaders. “Ah, let’s not go there…let’s just say, this is the most comfortable I have felt with the leadership… but then, that isn’t quite true either, because I really liked Ed Miliband and I was on his Scottish campaign team. That is how Jenny Marra and myself got reacquainted having been good friends at university and then lost touch. In a sense, I have been on a bit of a journey myself, politically. I recognise that there was something about Ed’s politics that wasn’t quite right, on that pragmatism bit. You really need people to trust in your prescription when you are taking too big a big leap and that was Ed’s fundamental failure. Ed wanted to push too far to the left and that was an issue. Politically, on the pure politics, that was the most comfortable I have been but why I feel so comfortable now is the fact that I am able to feel that common sense of an economic mission which was always my starting point in politics. You need to fix the economy, you need to make it fairer, make the outcomes more equal and by the same token, you need that pragmatism to make it work, to carry people with you, and the party is as clearly in that space than I can ever remember it and what is more, being so clear about that partnership with business that we must have.

“Business at its best is all about change, making things better, making progress, and I think too many people in politics across the spectrum make the mistake of thinking business is only about making profit. That is not true as a starting point for most successful businesspeople. Normally, it is about an idea and it’s about people. That ability to marry that sense of enthusiasm for change through business, and change through politics, is something I have not experienced in my life in professional politics. But even before that and even under Blair, I still think there was that tension and a fundamental belief that we [politicians] will get on with governing and you [business] get on with the economy, which is what was being said to business but now, on both sides, we are saying we need a partnership, we are saying we need economic policy that is engaged with business, developed with business, and has a clear and shared endeavour in a shared project. 

“And critically, over the last 24 months or so, businesses are increasingly saying this too. That as a result of the chaos and instability of the last three or four years but also because of the scale of change that is required, because of the three big challenges of climate change, demographics, and technology, if government and business are pulling in different directions, you are just not going to make progress. And for me, personally, this feels very, very good and I feel I have the right mindset, at the right time, in the right party.”

The assured Daniel Johnson of today, who has a clear direction of travel, is a very different Daniel Johnson to the one of early 2010, pre-ADHD diagnosis, who was struggling to cope both at home as a husband and a father, and at work as the managing director of the family retail business.

He was argumentative, had developed nervous tics and was failing to keep up with work and with home life, leading to feelings of guilt that compounded his already turbulent mental health.

“I was, in retrospect, in a very depressed state,” says Johnson, “and that led to a lot of anxiety, and being very argumentative.

I have a bit of a magpie brain

“At one point, I had just walked into work, and I started berating myself. I realised I wasn’t just thinking it, I was actually saying it.”

Things were equally chaotic at home, leading to lots of tension between him and wife, Jackie, with whom he has two little girls. 

At his lowest, Johnson harboured fleeting, dark thoughts about not wishing to live, but says he was never in a position where he might have acted on those thoughts.

It was Jackie who finally persuaded Johnson to seek some help, which eventually led to his diagnosis and medication.

I ask him whether in a political world where we seek nuance, and where everything isn’t (and shouldn’t be) always black and white, whether being neurodiverse is actually an advantage. “There are those in the neurodiverse community that talk about it as a superpower and there is definitely an element of that which is true because it gives you a different perspective and a different way of looking at the world. 

“I have a bit of a magpie brain and that is totally ADHD. I will start looking at one thing and then that leads to another and another and then I start wondering whether one thing happens because of another, and it is all about joining up the dots, and in public policy terms, I think that is really good. 

“Likewise, having a little issue with impulse control can be a useful thing, just in terms of speaking up, and I have got myself into a little bit of bother a couple of times in the chamber where I have literally been shouting what is in my head. I am a bit noisy and partly that is because I do struggle to keep a lid on those impulses but equally, that lack of impulse control helped when I did speak up about my ADHD and people kept saying I was really brave, but I felt I just had to get it out there. 

“Don’t get me wrong, and there are people that say they don’t like the final ‘D’ in ADHD, as in it’s a disorder, but it is, as far as I am concerned. I am quite lucky in that I am pretty well functioning – most of the time. I have brilliant support around me, and I have managed to develop coping skills and strategies and so on but there are still quite a lot of issues. I don’t always pick up on subtleties and in politics, that can be a bit of a problem when you are not picking up on subtle cues and the stuff that is implied and the stuff that is implicit, but then that also means you ask the basics, so yes, there are definite benefits but I do quite a lot of second guessing and I have trusted colleagues who I can ask if I am on a total flyer on something or whether there is something in what I am thinking. Michael Marra and I have a very close and frank relationship, and Anas has been good and Jackie is next door to me in Holyrood and I will often just pop my head around her door to bounce things off her. If I didn’t have trusted colleagues like that in that way, I would have a bit of a problem and I think it would be very easy for someone with ADHD to become quite isolated, quite quickly.

I know a lot of politicians with undiagnosed ADHD

“Some people will describe ADHD as being like a racing car without brakes but that is not what it is like for me. It’s more like a broken record where the needle might get stuck in a particular groove and other times it skips all over, and trying to get that balance between that complete hyper focus, which in my previous life in financial services was fine, I love Excel sheets, I can sit with Excel sheets for hours putting together financial models and things like that, so it’s finding that balance between skipping all over the place and then having that tunnel vision. That is quite challenging and actually, politics by and large, is a good line of work because sometimes, you do need tunnel vision and at others, you do need to just skip around and test things, but you just need to put a bit of structure around that and some safety nets.

“I am not going to name names, but I know a lot of politicians with undiagnosed ADHD. I think people with ADHD are drawn to being entrepreneurs, actors and performers, there are a lot of comedians that have subsequently had an ADHD diagnosis, which is interesting, and I think politics is the same. My wife, rather uncharitably, talks about politics being ‘showbusiness for ugly people’ and there is something in that because there is quite a lot that is performative, and that sense of social affirmation is also there. Politics is a strange business where you have a lot of freedom to go after issues of all kinds but there are also strict guard rules too about what you can and can’t do in terms of turning up and voting, clear and explicit rules about what you can and can’t do in parliament, and so on, and that’s quite a useful combination for someone with ADHD.”

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