Fergus Ewing: It's profoundly wrong to remove sensible checks and balances with GRA reform
Fergus Ewing was just 10 years old when, on the night of 2 November 1967, his mother, Winnie Ewing, changed political history by winning the safe Labour seat of Hamilton for the SNP in a by-election which even she said she didn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell” of taking.
In fact, Ewing had initially declined the offer to stand on the basis that as a mother of three young children – Fergus, Annabelle and Terry – it just wouldn’t be possible.
But after her husband, Stewart, goaded her into action by telling her that with three men on the shortlist she probably wouldn’t be picked anyway, she characteristically rose to the challenge and the rest is, as they say, history.
Reflecting on the days when his childhood undoubtedly changed course, the now 65-year-old Fergus Ewing, the MSP for Inverness and Nairn and a member of the Scottish Parliament since it was officially reconvened by his mother in 1999, says it was a time of mixed emotions: “It was tremendously exciting – particularly the celebration party and then getting the sleeper to London,” he says.
“But very rapidly I began to realise that my mother was somebody important for reasons other than just being my mother and maybe that was more difficult to comprehend.
“She was pretty superhuman then and has remained so and wherever I go in Scotland very often people come up to me and say, ‘oh I remember Winnie at Hamilton’ or ‘I was there when your mum won’ and so on. She did make an impact on people, far more so than most politicians that you know now.”
For many Scots, Winnie Ewing, now 93, is simply the Mother of the SNP – Madame Ecosse – and for her son, there is no sense that he has ever felt overshadowed by her status as a political icon.
“I always thought it was an immense plus having my mother as a politician because I got to go to places and see people I wouldn’t otherwise have done. I remember when she was MP for Hamilton, she took me on a Highland tour and we went to Wick where she met the Provost. I remember him in all his chains and there was lots of councillors and other bigwigs and I was sort of sitting at the meeting getting a bit bored, quite frankly, but at the end the Provost said to me – I must have been about eleven – ‘Fergus, do you want to be a politician, an MP, when you grow up?’ and I said ‘oh no, that would be much too hard work’ and then I said ‘but I wouldn’t mind being a Provost though’.
“Seriously, it was a tremendous advantage and I always thought of it that way. I honestly never thought of it at all as being anything other than tremendous fun and interesting, and I’d go and listen to her speeches and they were very, very powerful, in a way that very few people before or since can master.”
The Ewing Family is the closest thing the SNP has to royalty. Both parents were ardent nationalists and while Winnie Ewing is better known as an elected member as an MP, an MEP and latterly as an MSP, her husband also stood and was an SNP councillor for some time. Fergus Ewing entered the Scottish Parliament in 1999 at the same time as his mother and his late wife, Margaret Ewing, who had also served as an MP, and his younger sister, Annabelle Ewing, followed when she was elected as an MP in 2001 and then as an MSP in 2011, going on to serve in various ministerial positions before being elected as a deputy presiding officer last year.
Winnie Ewing outside the House of Commons in 1967 | Credit: Alamy
Fergus Ewing is often described – usually in a pejorative sense – as being on the right of the party, largely based on preconceptions about his views. He abstained on a vote to ban fox hunting. He abstained on Section 28, and he voted against equal marriage. He, however, describes himself as a moderate who has “never tried to pretend I am someone I am not” and tells me that his views on same sex marriage at the time of the vote [principally guided by his Christianity] have moved on and that he has a number of friends who are married to someone of their own sex, and he is very happy for them. He rejects any accusation that he is a bigot and says that he is also always cognisant of the views of his constituents and how best to represent them.
As soon as one hears politicians revert to ad hominem attacks, personal attacks, particularly of the sort of slightly nasty nature, they’ve lost the argument, so, I’ll leave that to others and if they wish to call me names, that’s up to them’
And he is hugely popular with that electorate. Ewing was elected in 1999 with a majority of just over 400; today that has swollen to over 9,000. He has served in government under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon as variously, minister for community safety, minister for business, energy, and tourism, and latterly as the cabinet secretary for rural economy and tourism. And in May 2021, having been ousted from government, he returned to his party’s backbenchers where he has been a more vocal critic of his party. He won the ‘backbencher of the year’ award at the Holyrood magazine Garden Party in September.
He tells me now that he knew instinctively that there would be no place for him in a government that included Green MSPs. He says, “I wouldn’t have been comfortable there at all,” and says it was obvious to him when Nicola Sturgeon agreed the power-sharing deal with the Greens that he would be asked to leave. He says that he and Sturgeon had a “very amicable discussion” where he told her that he didn’t want to make her job of sacking people any more difficult than it might be, and he describes leaving as a “mutual decision”.
However, he also left government with allegations made by civil servants of bullying still hanging over him and with ministers refusing to publish the outcome of any investigations claiming that this may deter future complaints; this remains a running sore for the former rural economy secretary.
He says he “can’t go into the specifics” but tells me that when he is free to do so, he will have more to say, adding: “What I can say is that the vast majority of civil servants are professional, diligent and hardworking, and in the vast majority of cases any relations with them were absolutely fine. Indeed, I have many friends now that I made during the 14 years that I was a minister. I think I got the best out of people on the vast majority of occasions but there are some occasions in life when you just don’t see eye to eye with people and things can escalate and become difficult. This is just as a matter of generality and I will leave it there.”
Since moving to the backbenches, Ewing, who chairs the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on oil and gas, has already made several outspoken interventions at odds with his party in support of the oil and gas sectors. And raised eyebrows when earlier this year he revealed he was among five former energy ministers, including Amber Rudd, from across both the political divide and governments, who signed a pledge calling for the SNP to back the fossil fuels industry and for the UK government to pledge more action on carbon capture technology.
He tells me he believes that Scotland can achieve its net zero ambitions but needs to have “a long transition, and a realistic, practical, pragmatic transition”. He says that Scotland needs to use the skills of oil and gas to achieve and realise the huge opportunities that exist and tells me he has a revolutionary idea that could not only help the country achieve net zero but could also hasten Scotland’s membership back into the EU by becoming a hub for the capture and storage of carbon for other countries utilising our depleted oil wells for that purpose.
“I am presenting this as something which is an exciting industrial opportunity, that will be of enormous value to our European colleagues, and frankly something that they may not be able to do without if they want to achieve their targets, as they say they do.”
Ewing is clearly enthused about the idea that Scotland could lead on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and dismisses the suggestion that this could easily be portrayed negatively as Scotland becoming a dumping ground for everyone else’s waste.
“You can always portray things negatively or positively, I mean, I’m a lawyer, I spent half my life arguing the side that was going to pay me, but I think this is an argument in principle that’s unassailable. The difficulty is, of course, the practicalities of getting CCS going. But we’ve got people like Stuart Hazeldine [professor of carbon capture], who you’ll know from Edinburgh University and other experts.
“We have people in industry, particularly companies like Shell and Equinor who are already doing it in the Northern Lights project, they’ve been doing it for 20 years. Some on the Green side say it doesn’t work. Well, it has been working for 20 years. The evidence is there, and one can read about projects that have taken place all over the world now, so it is starting to take off. It’s very important that in Scotland, and in the UK, we’re not at the coo’s tail on these things. It’s very easy to be at the coo’s tail, it’s much more difficult to be at the vanguard.
“If you take the Extinction Rebellion view, then everyone’s got to stop oil and gas right now, and presumably coal as well. That would mean 38 per cent of the world’s population, which I think is now eight billion people who get their electricity from coal. If we stopped coal production now what we’re saying is that people in China and India should not have any heating or lighting in their homes. I mean, I think that’s quite preposterous. It also smacks to me of some sort of neo-colonialism.
“I don’t really think the public have got an appetite for giving up central heating, electricity, lighting, and going back to some kind of pre–Industrial Age existence. I mean, that’s just for the birds, and why not admit it?
“There’s also another point, and this might be a bit more controversial, but the fact is, Britain produces one per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, Scotland produces one tenth of that. So, we’re responsible for one in a 1,000 of carbon emissions in the world. So, if we think about it for a moment, what can we do that actually will make a difference on that world stage? Well, we’re doing great things, ministers are working hard on this in every portfolio, but just stand back a bit, the one thing that we could do that would make the biggest difference is give a lead in carbon capture and storage, because that wouldn’t be something that we’re doing for us, it’d be something we’d be doing for the whole of Europe.”
Ewing faces questions from journalists at Holyrood amid allegations of bullying | Credit: Alamy
The co-leader of the Scottish Greens and now a government minister, Patrick Harvie, has already accused Ewing of using “right-wing language” to describe the policies of the Greens in regard to the oil and gas sector as “extreme”. Ewing tells me his arguments are in the middle ground and rooted in rational argument, evidence and logic.
“I don’t want to get into personalities, and I’ve always felt this genuinely in politics, that the man that plays the man, not the ball, does so because he’s losing the game. As soon as one hears politicians revert to ad hominem attacks, personal attacks, particularly of the sort of slightly nasty nature, they’ve lost the argument, so, I’ll leave that to others and if they wish to call me names, that’s up to them.
The idea that we should be removing any checks and balances and allowing people in their teens, when they’re 16 or 18, to make such a momentous decision as legally change their sex, is just profoundly wrong’’
“What I’m increasingly confident of just from speaking to people, because I speak to a lot of people, not just in rural Scotland, but you know, in around the place and particularly, you know, in business, there is a huge level of concern about the approach that the current Greens are taking. I was on the rural committee in the first session of the parliament with Robin Harper. And in those days, when Robin was the voice of the Greens, the face of the Greens, the scarf of the Greens, if you remember, exuding the bonhomie and good cheer, well, I don’t think it’s too negative to say that those days seem to be well and truly in the past for the Greens.
“And looking at what’s happening in Germany is very instructive, because there the Greens who are in government, are recognising that difficult decisions have to be taken to keep the lights on. And these include extending the life of nuclear power stations, and I believe, reopening coal-fired power stations, because the consequences of the over reliance on Nord Stream and Russian gas are now manifest for all to see.
“The views I am expressing are absolutely in the middle-ground. And you know, there’s one thing that disappoints me about politics at the moment is that we gave a great gift to the world of rational analysis and yet the Scottish Enlightenment seems to have been sort of jettisoned in favour of making decisions based on non-rational analysis which very often appeals to emotion or populism or fear and I think this is profoundly wrong. And rational analysis will win out in the end.”
However, while Ewing may have fundamental disagreements with the approach the Greens have to the economy, to the pace at which the oil and gas industry can pivot to a just transition, and also on his campaign to have the A9 and A96 fully duelled – he has personally lost friends on the road that has claimed hundreds of lives – it is on the subject of sex and gender that he has found the most animus directed at him.
For despite his clear loyalty to the SNP and the cause of independence, Ewing was one of nine SNP MSPs, including a serving minister who had to resign as a result, who refused to be whipped into voting for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill earlier this month during stage one. He is yet to discover what sanctions the party might take against him, which could include suspension, but he is already feeling the cold shoulder of party colleagues, some of whom he has worked with for over two decades.
“I voted against the GRA reform bill because I believe profoundly that it’s wrong that we should be removing sensible checks and balances from young people who may in some cases have difficulties, special needs, complicated emotions, going through puberty, going through a very difficult time where they’re learning about themselves, about their lives, their bodies, their relationships.Everything is new and exciting at that age, but challenging and worrying, far more so than to us as adults when you are what you are.
“And the idea that we should be removing any checks and balances and allowing people in their teens, when they’re 16 or 18, to make such a momentous decision as legally change their sex, is just profoundly wrong in principle, in my opinion. And in addition to that, the second main argument is that there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there are a number of predatory males who will take advantage of any loophole, any means of advancing their nefarious purposes, and if they can do that by posing as women and changing their sex, legally, lawfully, with an entitlement by virtue of that change of sex under the law, to enter private spaces, notably toilets, but also other places such as women’s changing rooms, women’s prisons, health wards in hospitals, women-only spaces, then this seems to me to be absolute folly.
“In saying that, I understand the view of the proponents of the bill, and I respect that. I understand party policy is against me in this, but I do think there must be in politics, room for people like me, who express their own personal views, their conscience, on social matters. And I do not think the public expect that the party whip should extend beyond the administration of the economic affairs of the country, in fact, I think, it’s the opposite of what they expect. I think the public expect that their representative should display some independence of mind. As Edwin Morgan put it in his great poem written when the Scottish Parliament reopened its doors, what the people don’t want is a phalanx of forelock pullers.
“And that’s not to criticise those who voted with the bill because presumably they all believe in what they did, and they saw, and they knew in advance, the example that nine of us were either going to abstain or vote no. But having said that, I have not campaigned on this issue – and maybe that’s cowardly on my part – but I’ve set out my views on what I’m going to do, and I will cast my vote against this bill, and in favour of any amendments which ameliorate any of the risks within it, but I will vote against it. I have explained that to whips, and whilst I have said I’m not going to be campaigning on this, I don’t think this is campaigning, this is simply explaining my position.
“I do feel strongly that in Scotland, people want parliamentarians that have a certain amount of freedom on matters of conscience, whether it be this or whether it’s the end of life bill that is coming up quite soon, I honestly think that the people do not want the party whips to control the outcome. I do think this should have been a free vote and I’m not going to speculate the reason for why it wasn’t, but I hope that there will be a free vote at a later stage.
“There hasn’t been any disciplinary action taken yet but you know, as Henley [William Ernest] said, ‘no matter how strait the gate, no matter how racked with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate. And I am the captain of my soul’. So, if the scroll is particularly racked, then that’s something that I’ll just accept, because I’m going to do this. I’ve already explained that there’s nothing and no one that will persuade me otherwise. And that’s the way it is. And I’ve been inundated with good wishes from all over the country, but most particularly from my constituency. I haven’t received more than a handful of letters to the other point of view, but I’ve received screeds of good wishes, cards, emails, letters, from people that just are pleased that somebody has spoken out.
“And to be truthful, I do feel that in the case of the GRA reform, I’ve absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the overwhelming majority of my constituents are concerned and the more they learn about it, the more concerned they become. And I would also conclude that given my mandate, that if people felt that I was a bigot, transphobic, or whatever the TERF thing is that is thrown at me, if people felt that I was that kind of person, I don’t think I would have been voted back in or sustained the level of support and trust from the people my constituency that I have.
“It’s also true that having a 14-year-old daughter has given me pause for thought and I’ve heard a lot of my colleagues who’ve got daughters in particular, saying that they are looking at it from the perspective of their daughter, or niece, or sister, or wife, or partner, or mother, I don’t think these worries really become any less acute, it’s about the safety of women. Fiona and I are very fortunate, and Natasha is a great joy forever, and my goodness me, she certainly has her own views and they very often don’t coincide with dad’s views, but so what, it’s good fun and we try to have discussions without it ending up in shouting and door slamming – we don’t always succeed – but we discuss things which is the important thing and I have to say that in this, having a daughter of Natasha’s age does change your perspective.
“More generally though and looking towards the referendum, people are saying, what do we want from Scotland, for our future, for our children’s future, and I think they want a pluralist Scotland, a Scotland which can have many voices, where people can agree to disagree without it becoming incredibly unpleasant and personal. So I think that what I’m doing is, well, it’s the only thing I could ever conceivably do, but quite apart from that, I think it’s also something that, in my perspective, is actually advantageous for us as we approach possibly a referendum next year because it rebuts the argument that we are all just willing supplicants and that we will vote like sheep with the party irrespective of what we might believe in, and I say this instinctively as a loyalist, a supporter of the party as the main engine for the cause, and so I’m not best pleased about the place we are in on this, but I basically don’t have any other choice. You sometimes must have the courage of your convictions.”