Exclusive interview: Ian Blackford on the journey from young rebel to SNP Westminster leader
Ian Blackford - Image credit: Paul Heartfield/Holyrood
Tempers were running high at the Dam Park Pavilion in Ayr 1982 as the SNP gathered for its annual conference.
Dissent from both the left and right was threatening party unity and Gordon Wilson, the then leader, wasn’t having it.
“I’m now convinced that the party will not recover its unity until all organised groups are banned,” he forthrightly opined from the conference stage.
“Those of us who put Scotland and the party above narrow personal or political obsession cannot and will not tolerate behaviour which is divisive and harmful.”
As Wilson’s oratory increased in fervour, a small group of delegates stood up and began to march out.
One of the organised groups which Wilson referred to from the stage was the 79 Group – named after the year it was formed – which had, for the previous three years, been pushing for change within the SNP.
Its aim was to create a Scottish socialist republic but, as Wilson made clear, he would hold no truck with splits and the left-leaning splinter group, along with any other fringe associations, was to be banned.
The 79 Group’s leading exponents, Kenny MacAskill, Stewart Stevenson, Roseanna Cunningham and Alex Salmond, expressed their disapproval by walking out of the hall.
Emotions were understandably raw and although the mists of time have blurred the absolute accuracy of the details of the subsequent fracas – I have had at least four different versions of the same story – notable figures such as Owen Dudley Edwards, Stephen Maxwell, Colin Bell and Alex Salmond were all at a packed STV-hosted lunchtime fringe event when a clearly pumped up Gordon Wilson came into the room.
Winnie Ewing was talking loudly about the damage that could be done to the party and according to one source, at that point “all hell let loose”.
A young 21-year-old nationalist, Ian Blackford, who had been taken under the wing of both Jim Sillars and his wife, Margo MacDonald, was standing next to Sillars when party president and ‘father of the party’, Doc Mac (Dr Robert McIntyre), who had been the first ever SNP MP to be elected, joined in the fray and somewhere along the lines, a glass of wine reportedly went flying.
Sillars wisely suggested to his young acolyte that they should leave.
In the weeks that followed, Salmond defended the 79 Group in the pages of the newspapers.
But when it emerged that the group’s executive, which included Salmond, MacAskill and Maxwell, was planning to establish a Scottish Socialist Society outside of the SNP, the party moved to expel them along with five others.
Roseanna Cunningham only avoided expulsion by declaring she was not a member of the interim committee of the Scottish Socialist Society, while Margo MacDonald pre-empted action against her by resigning from the party – admittedly, before she was pushed.
The historian, academic and longstanding party member Owen Dudley Edwards wrote of the expulsions that the SNP had just “committed intellectual suicide”.
And while young Blackford, who was a member of the 79 Group but not on the executive committee, escaped being kicked out, he resigned anyway and flounced off to join the Labour Party.
It was a short-lived experiment. And one which, he tells me, he almost instantly regretted.
“I had previously suggested to Gordon [Wilson] that he should commission an enquiry into all the groups in the SNP about their roles and objectives.
“Clearly, a lot of people were very concerned about the impact that the 79 Group members were having, and it all came to a head at that conference in Ayr.
“Discussions became very rowdy and there were a number of accusations flying around and, as a result, Gordon had decided in the morning of his conference speech that he was going to announce that he was going to disallow any such groups.
“I forget the exact wording of the motion, but it obviously covered things such as the 79 Group.
“I had tried to broker a compromise, Gordon rejected it out of hand and I resigned.
“There have been two occasions over the years that Jim [Sillars] and I have fallen out – once was over his views around the Scottish Convention – but this was the first time we had really disagreed because he basically told me how stupid I’d been because I hadn’t consulted anyone.
“And perhaps I had behaved rather rashly when I resigned.
“That was on the 7th October, to be precise, and I joined the Labour Party immediately.
“Yes, yes, I know, but it’s there if anybody wants to look it up!
“I do remember going along to my first Labour Party meetings and I did sit there thinking: ‘What on earth have I done, what have you done, Blackford?’
“So, I wasn’t in the Labour Party very long. It was months, I recall. I certainly didn’t renew my membership the following year.
“It’s a long time ago, Mandy, I was 21, but funnily enough, I remember well that even they thought I was just impossible, which I probably was at that stage!”
It was also a move that attracted stinging criticism from both Salmond and MacAskill, who saw Blackford’s actions as opportunistic, which did their cause no good, and they regarded it a sell-out when Blackford joined Labour.
“Let’s be brutally honest, it was a mistake on my part.
“There was a naivety that I thought I could push the Labour Party to support constitutional change for Scotland in a more robust manner, but I went along to my first Labour Party meeting and I found it to be extremely reactionary.
“I lived in Blackhall, so it was the Drylaw branch and Lesley Hinds was the convener.
“She was very friendly and all of that, but it was a mistake, and it was all done in a fit of pique because Gordon had rejected my suggestion for change and I didn’t like it.
“I have to say that Gordon and I became good friends later, he was always very gracious, and he recognised it for what it was, a fit of youthful pique.”
So much water has flowed under the bridge since those heady days, but almost 40 years on, Blackford, now the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber since 2015 and the SNP group leader at Westminster since last year, reflects on that difficult time in the early 1980s as being seminal for both him and for the SNP.
“It was just an incredible time to be involved in the party. It was stuffed to the gunnels with talent and the intellect was just phenomenal.
“Here I was, a very young activist, albeit very much under the wing of Jim Sillars, and yet these big figures, like Jim, Owen Dudley Edwards, Stephen Maxwell, Alex Salmond… all big thinkers, larger than life, and they were willing to have you there in the room discussing politics with them and not be looked down upon. What an education… what a time.
“Of course, the negative was that it was also a party at war with itself and it was thrashing out all kinds of issues but the positive was that it came together, and I look back at that time as being a pivotal time.
“It was when the seeds were being sown for the party it would become and one that would eventually take us into government.
“We had to make the transition from a movement to a serious political party and I feel privileged to have been part of that.”
Blackford paints a not altogether flattering picture of himself as a youth as a politically ambitious but impetuous hot-head.
He admits to then being a little full of his own self-importance and others concur that there was certainly a precocious conceit in his own abilities.
He was, however, a thinker and a young man confident enough to go against his father’s wishes and not go to university.
It’s an almost rebellious picture which contrasts sharply with the quietly spoken, self-contained and quite considered character that he now presents at Westminster.
Although glimpses of a more mercurial Blackford, such as when he led the SNP’s infamous walk-out from the House of Commons, hint at a more radical nature that belies his conservative demeanour.
And maybe that’s why he always looks as if he’s sharing a wee joke with himself.
He’s benefitted substantially, both materially and intellectually, from a 20-plus year career in the City and has come late and through many hoops and hurdles to the parliamentary career that he first set his sights on as a youth.
Blackford remembers sending one of his SNP friends, Geoff Lockhart, a postcard from London with a picture of the House of Commons on the front and a message on the back that read: ‘I bet I get a seat in this place before you do’. The date was 1980; Blackford was just 19.
“It’s funny because in the SNP, certainly at that time, it wouldn’t have been the done thing to admit that you wanted to be elected to parliament. I’ll be honest and say I did.
“I wanted to be an MP and I actually believed I would become an MP.
“Joining the Bank of Scotland instead of going to university was, I thought, just a way of making a bit of money until that happened.
“It’s fair to say that my father wasn’t best pleased, but I went through the Royal High and when you went to the Royal High at that time when Farquhar Macintosh was the rector you were exposed to all kinds of thinking and possibilities.
“I did actually think that I would go and join the bank for a while, do what I needed to do in the party and then eventually, I’d be elected as a member of parliament.
“That’s what I thought as a teenager, if I’m being brutally honest, and of course, life doesn’t always work out quite like that.
“One of the things I do remember about working for the Bank of Scotland, is that I got dragged up to the staff department and this file was brought out with press cuttings and a picture of me at conference and I was asked, not very subtly, if I wanted a career in the Bank of Scotland… it was very obvious to me that this really wasn’t going down well and after what happened in 1982, there I was at 21 thinking, ‘What have you done? You didn’t go to university, things aren’t great for you with the party and you’re in a place of work where, quite frankly, there’s a limit to where you can go’.
“Geoff Lockhart comes back into the equation, funnily enough, because Geoff saw an advert in The Scotsman for Wood Mackenzie, so I joined them as a clerk in Edinburgh and then I moved down to London with them in 1984.
“Then it was a question of what you do next. I ended up working for Mercury Asset Management in the back office, basically doing the admin and financial support for two unit trusts and that was my lucky break because the fund manager took me aside and said I should really be a fund manager.
“She then spoke to the head of the European team and then in April the following year, 87, I moved from the back office to the front office.
“To be honest, it was a bit easier in a way having done that from, say, having been a graduate because you kind of knew an awful lot of what was going on, so I ended up managing money quite quickly which was quite unusual.
“Then the crash came which was disastrous, and I got moved to the UK team which I hated.
“Funnily enough, the day I was going to resign, I got a call from UBS who said they needed a Dutch analyst because one of theirs had just resigned and I said I’m just about to resign so if you can see me now, we’ll have a chat.
“I went to see them and 20 minutes later, I’d accepted a job.
“I became the only number one rated analyst in the firm, which was quite something.
“The Sunday Telegraph did a profile on me and I remember the journalist put his pencil down and said, ‘So you’ve just become number one Dutch financial analyst and you haven’t studied accountancy and you don’t speak Dutch’. I guess it was quite something.”
While Blackford’s career continued to go from strength to strength with a series of high-powered and very lucrative financial roles, including running Deutsche Bank’s equity operations in Scotland and the Netherlands, he remained in a political wilderness as far as the SNP was concerned.
Because he had resigned so publicly in 1982, coupled with his short foray in the Labour Party, when he tried to get back in to the SNP, his application went via the readmissions committee and then to National Council.
Yet, despite a motion moved and seconded by Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill respectively to readmit him, the motion was defeated by 110 to 90 and he was barred from re-entry to the party he had originally joined when he was just 17, having already been active as a younger teen in the 1974 October general election, when the party increased the number of its MPs from four to 11.
However, not to be thwarted by such rules, and in true Blackford style, he now reveals that although he was no longer a bona-fide member of the SNP, he was attending London branch meetings and even going to conference.
He was eventually allowed to officially re-join the party in the late 1980s after Gordon Wilson, ironically the person who had paved the way for his dramatic exit in 1982, did some work behind the scenes to smooth the waters.
His readmission did, however, carry the unusual caveat that it was conditional on him remaining a member of the London branch. Another rule he later broke.
“I was down in London until 1993, so that kind of limited, to some extent, what I could do for the party up in Scotland, although Jim did phone me in 1988 and said, ‘Get yourself up here, something has happened’.
“So I managed to get myself up for the last week of the Govan by-election and helped in the campaign to get him elected.
“The funny thing was, I still wasn’t officially an actual member of the party, but no one asked.
“I then moved back to Scotland in 1993 and I then became much more active.”
In fact, Blackford stood unsuccessfully as the SNP candidate for the Ayr constituency at the 1997 general election and later that same year, stood in the Paisley by-election where he was again unsuccessful, with the contest having had the lowest turnout at a by-election in Scotland for thirty years.
He was elected party treasurer in 1999.
And while it is fair to say that there wasn’t exactly a queue of other contenders for the position, having someone with a financial background taking hold of the party’s purse strings was an eminently sensible one given the size of the apparent debts.
However, it was this move that sowed the seeds of a long-running and acrimonious feud with Salmond, who was then party leader.
Moves to rein in spending, particularly by Salmond, and to bring transparency over donor sponsorship – so there could be, what he described as, no “jiggery pokery” – basically set Blackford on a course of action that would bring him into brutal conflict with Salmond.
The whole episode was very personal, but some believe Salmond’s beef with Blackford has always been a proxy for his difficult relationship with Sillars and that Blackford’s closeness to Sillars just made him a convenient punch bag.
To cut a very long and now confused story of who did what to whom and when, Blackford was suspended as treasurer, had a vote of no confidence against him upheld and along the way, threatened Salmond with a writ for defamation.
It was an ugly and unedifying episode in the SNP’s history, but it’s fair to say that Blackford’s mistake was firstly, in underestimating the popularity of Salmond and the size of his power base and secondly, in committing the cardinal sin of washing the party’s dirty washing in public and not keeping it ‘within the family’.
The episode was a bruising one for Blackford and has clearly left some scars which he doesn’t wish to pick over.
But the upshot was that he was absent from the party front line during a period in its history when its electoral star was in the ascendency.
And then came the independence referendum.
“For a whole host of reasons, I’d actually shut the door on the idea of ever standing again.
“Obviously, I had a well-known fall-out with Alex Salmond, so that was part of it, but I just decided at that time that I would just leave all of that alone.
“I remained within the party, I played an active role within the party locally, but I didn’t express any desire to stand for elected office again but the referendum and my involvement in that really opened that door again.”
Blackford, who lives on Skye, where his second wife Anne’s family come from and he also has ancestral roots, was selected as the SNP candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to fight the 2015 general election.
He said at the time that he was “ready for the challenge”, but given that mission was to oust the longstanding and much loved Lib-Dem MP Charles Kennedy, it was never going to be easy.
It was, by all accounts, a dirty campaign.
Blackford’s team used a #wherescharlie hashtag and there were references to Kennedy ‘bottling it’ over meetings he was absent from, which were interpreted as cheap shots at Kennedy’s battle with alcoholism.
When Kennedy died less than a month after his defeat to Blackford, from a haemorrhage linked to his alcoholism, there were many that blamed the SNP MP.
However, in an interview published last month with The Times, Blackford appeared to imply that he, and not Kennedy, had been the victim in the bad-tempered and deeply personal election campaign.
The article provoked a furious response from political allies and friends of Kennedy’s.
I go back to Blackford for an update on our interview – which had been conducted sometime before the one in The Times – but he doesn’t wish to comment further.
And while I can see clear hypocrisy from some quarters in their vitriol against Blackford, there are no prizes to be won in defending yourself against a dead man, particularly one who was so popular, so Blackford is wise to now keep his own counsel.
I ask him how it felt entering the House of Commons knowing he would have to sit with his old adversary, Salmond, a man he hadn’t spoken to for 15 years?
“Fine. It was good. We actually met up before the election.
“We agreed that we would meet, we met twice actually, and we did a public meeting together during the election campaign on Skye and I will admit it was difficult to get someone to agree to chair it and actually, what happened in the end was my wife, Anne, did it.
“But it was fine, and we later had dinner. I think we both accepted that it was time to move on, that there was a lot of water under the bridge and we should just get over it.
“I have to say, as a new MP, I found his assistance invaluable.
“He was particularly helpful to me over the Brain case [an Australian family living in the Highlands that were threatened with deportation].
“So much so that when I went on holiday in 2016, he took the case on while I was away.
“The two of us used to sit together regularly on the benches and perhaps for people who knew the story, they would say, ‘Look at those two, I thought they hated each other’s guts’.”
“I don’t hate Alex. He has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.
“To win two elections as first minister, and to win an election where we became a majority government was quite exceptional, so we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Alex.”
Time clearly does mellow, and while the irony of Blackford’s rise to SNP group leader might have been at the expense of his old sparring partner, he appears to take no real pleasure in Salmond’s absence from the political stage.
“He’s a first-class operator and a tremendous campaigner and I hope that there’s a role that Alex can play in assisting the government and the party in its move to the future.
“Alex has got to make his own reflections on where he is now, but he is a man that’s capable of great things.”
Blackford tells me that on the day that he became group leader and was walking over to the House of Commons to respond to the Queen’s speech, the last person he spoke to before he rose to his feet was another former party leader, Gordon Wilson – the man who had first prompted his exit from the party.
“It was strange, Gordon and I had long made up any differences, but I just got a notion that the one person I wanted to speak to at that moment was him.
“He was in hospital, and in fact he died three or four days later, but we had a good chat and I just needed to hear his voice before I spoke in the House.”
Given their early history, I wonder what Wilson would make now of Blackford’s so-called guerrilla tactics in disrupting parliament and, as some would see it, seeking grievances rather than finding consensus?
“Look, we’re not here to be a bunch of troublemakers, but I will seek to use parliamentary procedure to best effect where we can.
“A good case in point is what happened with the so-called walk-out.
“I basically had a range of different options, but I knew that I would have to react to what the Speaker did and I think when I got up after the PM had dismissed me, as she always does, I was actually quite respectful and reverential, so when the Speaker acknowledged that I had the right to call for an immediate vote but I might do it later, he almost made the situation, as much as anything else.
“I think we must always remember why we are here. And that is to stand up for Scotland, and I think the way that Scotland had been treated was appalling and it was my job to put that across to government and get them to recognise what was wrong.
“They had undermined the devolution settlement.
“I expressed in the chamber that this was not about the SNP, this was not about the Scottish Government, this was about those that voted for devolution in 1997 and they know, whether they understand all the intricacies of it or not, that there’s something intruding on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and so we had a responsibility to make that point and I did it in a way that was respectful and dignified.
“The walk-out wasn’t planned because, actually, the other MPs didn’t know what I was thinking, it was much more organic.
“I think there was a quiet dignity to the way they did it and I think it got the message through and people then started speaking about the power grab.
“What we’ve done is clearly said to Westminster that from now on, it won’t be business as usual from the SNP.”