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by Mandy Rhodes
21 May 2024
Fiona Hyslop: The feeling of unity is already palpable in the SNP

Fiona Hyslop photographed for Holyrood by David Anderson

Fiona Hyslop: The feeling of unity is already palpable in the SNP

Like Scotland’s new first minister, Fiona Hyslop is one of the original ‘99ers, an MSP elected to the first Scottish Parliament under devolution in May 1999. Unlike John Swinney, Hyslop has served in every SNP cabinet since 2007, working closely with Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf and now Swinney himself. She is the only current cabinet secretary to have done so and in terms of breadth of experience, she has had her hands on a variety of key policy areas including education, culture, and the economy.

And her experience shows. Unlike some ministers, she doesn’t sit with a pile of notes, preprepared answers, or rely on a civil servant lurking at the back of the room to correct stats or add comment. There’s no doubt, she knows her brief and over the course of an hour manages to touch on every aspect of transport policy without shying away from some of the challenges, as well as reflecting on her 25th anniversary as an MSP.

As we explore her longevity in the SNP, in government and the parliament, she admits that her own party is coming through a difficult time but is convinced that John Swinney is the man to get them through. 

“I am more hopeful than I’ve been for some time,” she admits. “I think the message of unity from John is a strong one and the reality of unity is already palpable. I don’t need opinion polls to tell me things when I’m doing as much door knocking as I do in my constituency.

“And I told John this story, which he referred to in his acceptance speech, about someone in my constituency who had said to me, voluntarily – and you also know when people volunteer something that it’s something that has obviously penetrated – and basically he said he had been a bit worried about the party but that he could now see we were getting our act together. So, there’s that sense already, that’s out there. And I think that we’re in a good space to face forward.”

I ask Hyslop what she thinks was the cause of any disunity, given that externally the message up until very recently was very much in support of Humza Yousaf as first minister.

“I think genuinely that leadership contest last year was problematic for the party,” she says candidly. “And it didn’t need to be that way, but it was that way, and I think the legacy of that has stayed as a shadow over us for a long period of time.”

I presumed that Hyslop was referring to the bitterness that came during the contest when Kate Forbes referred to the ministerial record of her leadership rival, Yousaf, in his various roles in transport, justice and health as being wanting. And given Forbes has now entered Swinney’s government as both deputy first minister and economy secretary, I wonder if that will start to heal any acrimony.

“I think it genuinely will,” she says. “I’ve worked very well with Kate. We were constantly working together during that period of the pandemic in terms of trying to support our businesses, getting them reopened and so on, and so I know Kate reasonably well. Ivan [McKee] was also deputy to me and I’m pleased to see him back in government. He’s a strong and effective performer as a minister. I think people like to see us when we work well together, and equally they’d like to see politicians of different parties working well together, but they certainly like to see the one that is in government working together and we will.”

I remind Hylsop that Swinney’s previous stint as party leader from 2000 to 2004 was not a happy one for the party electorally, and ultimately ended badly for him when the so-called men in grey kilts forced him to step down. She rightly points out that 20 years have passed since then and not only has time moved on but so have people. 

“This is a different time and I also think John’s more comfortable in himself. He has more experience, for one, but it’s how you use your experiences, and it wasn’t until I came out of government [Hyslop stood down as culture secretary in 2021 ahead of Sturgeon’s reshuffle] that I realised all the experience that I actually had accumulated and realised that, ‘gosh’, I knew all this stuff – how you tackle problems, find solutions, and how you drive things forward.

“And in terms of the type of politics that we’re in right now, I was also never one of the adversarial ones – you know, the kind of Nicola Sturgeon or Shona Robinson-style strong debaters. I think I was always better at bringing people together and getting things done and, I hope, giving confidence to areas like the culture sector. In that role I was effectively Scotland’s ambassador for 12 years, in terms of the external affairs side of the brief, setting up the Dublin office, Paris and also Germany, and planned for the one in Copenhagen. So, there’s a sense that coming out of government for a while, like John did too, that you have time to realise your abilities and the experience you have gained in terms of how you approach things, which is why I think I’m always looking forward, because actually, you don’t have that much energy to keep looking backwards when you’re full throttle in a government role.

“And John’s changed; we all grow. We hope we get a bit wiser and more circumspect. But you must never ever lose your passion for what you believe in. And I think you’ll see that John’s still got that passion.”

Hyslop joined the SNP in 1986 and has had a bird’s eye view on many of its changes. She stood unsuccessfully for Westminster twice, once in 1992 and against Alistair Darling in 1997 and at the time very heavily pregnant. She campaigned hard for the Scottish Parliament and was elected on the list in 1999 before winning the Linlithgow constituency seat in 2011, which she has retained. She has served in every SNP cabinet as education secretary, Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, and economy secretary, and has also held a variety of ministerial posts across a number of portfolios. As one of the SNP’s most experienced politicians who is literally married to the party – she met her husband Kenny in the SNP – and who has seen its leadership up close and personal, I wonder why Hyslop didn’t consider throwing her hat in the ring this time around.

“I didn’t think about putting myself forward because I think I’m best as the supporter of anybody that’s gone in. I think you need to know what your strengths and capabilities are, and I recognise the talent that’s there and have supported actually all first ministers from early doors. I was part of Alex Salmond’s leadership campaign back in 1990. With Nicola, and she’s younger than me, but I always thought that she had a stellar kind of future ahead of her. Humza kindly referred to me as a mentor because when he first came to government he was a minister with me, so I’m glad that he felt I helped support him. And John and I have known each other for a very long time and at different positions in the party. He knows that he can rely on my counsel, advice, and support.

“I am the only person that’s been appointed to the cabinet of all four SNP governments. And in terms of the experience of working for those four different first ministers, well, they’re all different. I think Alex liked to talk quite a bit. So, he was more discursive in how he did things. Nicola was more detailed and prepared and was then able to take a more hands-on approach in some portfolios – not in mine, but in others. Humza, I think, brought a warmth and a generosity of spirit that actually took people along with him in an enthusiastic and positive way.

“And John, well, John’s quite distinctive. I don’t  know if you heard the speech from him when he was appointed, which was very special in how he expressed himself on a personal basis. He’s far more comfortable in his own skin these days, you can see that. And I think he will be focused and forensic, but he will also use the responsibility of office to be generous of spirit in terms of how he works with different parties.”

Hyslop’s political career and the devolution journey can be bookended by babies. She was elected in 1999 as a young mum and is about to become a young granny. She says that has allowed her to view government policies through a particular lens.

“I can see how devolution has changed Scotland through the lives of my own children in terms of policies and with the 25th anniversary, I reflect that when I first came into the parliament I had a three-year-old and an 18-month-old, and then I had another baby along the way.

“There is a photograph in my office which shows my youngest on the day that the journalists were first allowed into the new building and he upstaged Mary Scanlon [former Conservative MSP] on a tour of the brand new parliament building because when the photographers heard the baby who was only nine weeks old at the time was in the building and instead of taking Mary’s picture, I’m afraid the baby’s won out and that was the front page of The Scotsman the next day. So, I kind of plot the journey of the parliament with my children’s lives. 

“And it’s interesting, looking back about where we were and where the parliament was on things like early years education and childcare. You may remember that you were lucky in Edinburgh to have your four-year-old in nursery. But now you’ve got three and four-year-olds everywhere in nursery. In the education brief, I piloted free school meals and I ensured that children of asylum seekers who have been here for five years got free university education – I did that the first few months I was in government in terms of abolishing backend tuition fees, and my children benefited from this, as others have. Curriculum for Excellence was something my younger kids went through and I saw first-hand the difference that made.

“When I first came into the Scottish Parliament, people and employers and businesses would complain about young people that were coming into the businesses and them not being properly equipped for working life. I never, ever hear that now. So, I think in terms of that well-rounded individual in Scotland, that’s a good space to be in. 

“And in other areas like transport, the Queensferry Crossing has made it much easier for my own family to travel for work in different parts of the country. The same could be said about the Bathgate to Airdrie line opening up in my constituency, and that made a huge difference for the lives of friends, family and constituents. And you can see directly what opening up a rail line for instance can do to generate areas that were former mining areas and had suffered from a lack of investment.  

Fiona Hyslop and John Swinney served under Salmond and Sturgeon | Alamy

“These are things that have changed people’s lives. You can plot the journey of devolution by seeing it through the lives of others, and the changes have been marked. Some of it was obviously delivered by the first administration, the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive, and then the Scottish Government from 2007. Things like the smoking ban, things that seemed so radical then but that are natural now. And people do take things for granted because they’ve always been that way for them. 

“And I think what’s interesting, again, about the generation of young people today, is that so many of them have never known anything other than the Scottish Parliament being here. I was of a generation where we campaigned for it. I carried a banner in 1992 during a big demonstration campaigning for this.

“Actually, I hadn’t realised that I’d actually broken my wrist the night before, so I was carrying that banner with a broken wrist. But you know, the point is this:  I go back that long in terms of my campaigning support for this place, so I’m very proud of it. And I’m very proud of the institution in its entirety. It’s why I think the committee system is really important and I think how we behave and treat each other, and actually raising our game, is important. John Swinney as the new first minister – I mean, that’s what he does as an individual, but I think as a leader, he’ll help this parliament realise its full potential in how it acts, how it carries itself, and how it relates to others outside this place.”

Hyslop has hinted a number of times at the current divisive nature of political discourse and I ask her why she thinks things are so polarised right now.

“I think there’s lots of different things that are making politics generally, not even just in this place, toxic. I think there’s a sense of – I would use this word – entitlement. That people think their point of view, whatever it is, is more important than somebody else’s point of view.

“And I think that’s the difference. It can be expressed in social media in a way that it never used to be because previously you’d have to be in the same room as people. We didn’t have video conferencing then, for instance. So, that remoteness of people talking face to face, as we are, on a one-to-one basis, that’s absent. The human side of it has been lost.

“And it’s easy to be anonymous in a space where you don’t need to actually eyeball somebody. Certainly, with my own team, I would always say to staff to never put something on social media that you wouldn’t say to someone in person to their face. I also think in this place, which is quite regrettable, is that when we first came back in 2021, because of the pandemic, we were remote, we had to come in a third at a time. I thought then that the Westminsterisation of the place by a few politicians, I would say, of all parties who had previously been at Westminster didn’t help.

“You know, using particular language or posturing in a way that they did it at Westminster. And then you also had a lot of intake from people who had never been in parliament, who said, ‘oh that’s how you are meant to do it’ because they thought these others sounded very important. I’ve got to be careful with my words here but basically that was a subtle change that happened. So, I actually saw that from everybody, but I think Neil Gray has softened, which is great, as has Paul Sweeney. I think the other ones haven’t. And actually, how you behave matters.” 

Hyslop returned to government in June last year after just short of two years on the backbenches. When Kevin Stewart stepped down as transport minister citing his mental health for the decision, Sturgeon asked Hyslop to step up. I mention to Hyslop that I had bumped into the former MSP Stewart Stevenson on my way to meet her. Stevenson resigned as transport minister himself back in 2010 following a particularly bad snowstorm when thousands of motorists were stranded overnight. I suggest that having eight or nine transport ministers since 2007 could have contributed to some of the current transport travails.

“Possibly. I think having some kind of continuity is good. And I reflect that when I became the external affairs and culture secretary, I was number 10. And that was in 2009, so 10 in 10 years. I then stayed in that role for 11 years. When I came into the transport brief I related that story, not threatening to stay for so long but to reflect on the fact that there have been a significant number of changes. I’m very pleased to be reappointed and I do think that it’s very helpful in such a big, broad brief, that there can be that kind of a significant length of stay so that you can understand the issues and get across them.

“I honestly did not intend to go back into government. It was because Kevin Stewart stood down, and I honestly want to compliment him for being upfront and talking about men’s mental health which is so important. So actually, the circumstances were very specific. 

“I had previously said to Nicola Sturgeon, I think back in 2018, that I was ready to come out of government if she wanted space for everybody, and again, circumstances prevailed, and when Derek Mackay stood down in 2020, I took on the economy brief and Kate took on the finance brief. Three weeks later we had lockdown. So that was an interesting period and, honestly, by the time we got to 2021 I was more than happy to come out of government. I really threw myself into being a backbencher. And I really enjoyed my time as deputy convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, which put me in a good place, I think, to step into this area in government when asked. 

“I think it’s extremely important that transport is now a cabinet role. I think if you talk to the sector themselves, and also to previous ministers for transport, it can make a real difference being in cabinet because you can read across track, and transport affects everything. I’m trying to get transport to move from being perceived as an invisible necessity to being a very visible essential. So therefore, it is important that it is supported across government. And we can contribute to lots of different issues. For example, if you’re trying to tackle child poverty and you’re trying to improve the situation, particularly of working mothers, having accessible, rural transport, particularly in some constituencies like my own, really can make a difference to people’s lives – they can get access to jobs and they can get better paid jobs. So everything is connected to people. 

“You don’t start with a blank page, you’re inheriting an existing system, and care and maintenance is essential on everything, whether it’s our roads, whether it’s our fleet, the trains, whatever it is. At the same time, you want to develop more so actually what capital is available for what might be your long-term projects is quite a challenge. And also in government we have a pipeline of what we know we want to do and what we need to do – we’ve got the Metro, for example, in Glasgow, we’ve got big schemes – but actually when you have budgets that can be as variable, not least because of what’s happened with the UK and budgets in recent times with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, et cetera, you’re having to react in the short term when you’ve actually got very long-term plans.

“I think when you become health secretary more people talk to you about their health conditions and similarly, of course, people talk to me about transport and by and large they want to tell you they’ve had good experiences. For instance, I’m constantly being told about the staff at ScotRail, and how very helpful and supportive they are. I know that because I experience that myself as I do travel on the train on a regular basis into parliament. But people are quite happy to share their difficulties too and also give you early intelligence about things that could potentially be resolved.

“And again, everybody champions their own area. So that’s what MSPs do. They’re elected to serve their constituents. Every single MSP has a transport issue that they want to pursue for the betterment of their constituency. Not everything can be done and not everything can be done all at once, which is why I’m always trying to help them get the best business case so that when resources are available we may be able to pursue them.”

I remind Hyslop that her Westminster colleague Pete Wishart once tweeted “ferries, ferries, ferries” in relation to the opposition being obsessed with them. I ask her if she regrets what people living on the islands have faced because of the ongoing problems with ferries.

“I certainly regret the difficulties that people on the islands have faced over a number of years and in different places and at different times. The vast, vast, majority of ferry journeys are carried out successfully. Again, a lot of the disruptions tend to be about weather. But now we’re seeing more on maintenance. And that is why six new ferries by 2026 will make a big difference. We’re not there yet because they have yet to arrive, but that will make a significant difference.

The new Glen Sannox ferry at Port Glasgow | Alamy 

“And also, the small vessel replacement programme will bring in seven new ferries as well on top of that. It is challenging when you are dependent on tourism, it is challenging when you yourself need to get healthcare, and a touching experience I had as part of the committee’s ferry inquiry that I was on was talking to the South Uist cancer support group because obviously for people who are getting treatment, disruptions and delays have more of an impact if you’re obviously in a physically vulnerable situation. So, again, this is about people. I think the CalMac staff have done and do as much as they can to try and flex and accommodate in these circumstances.

“And that’s why the new ferries contract is really important because the new ferries contract with Clyde and Hebrides is going to be written in a different way to have different performance measures, the resilience of the fleet combined with the better improved contract which will allow more flexibility to suit islanders and does charter a better way forward. But obviously we will see that in the coming year and coming years. 

“There will always be challenges because that’s where I think the weather issues become increasingly an issue, particularly for berthing. So, I’ve also in this post realised that the investments in ports and harbours are as important as the investments in the vessels themselves. So I’m sure we will be able to get to a situation where disruptions are minimised and we can promote – and I’m very keen to do that working with other ministers, again, across government – that our islands are open for business and to promote tourism, although certainly it seems anecdotally, that people continue to want to travel to our islands. They’re very special.”

The transport secretary recognises she does not have her troubles to seek with the ongoing ferries debacle and the dualling of the A9 along with trying to square the circle of tackling climate change with the demand for increased transport connectivity, but with the imminent birth of her first grandchild, there is perhaps one transport policy that she is particularly keen to champion.

“I was talking to young people at the Wester Hailes Education Centre recently and they were telling me how they benefited from the use of the free bus pass for under 22s. They were doing more sporting sessions, they were getting to work, they were going into the centre of town, but the one thing that really struck me was the young people that said ‘I’m going to see my granny more often’. Now, if you can get a public policy to work that means that more people see their granny more often, I think that’s a vote-winner, certainly with me.” 

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