George Foulkes: Nicola Sturgeon pretended she was prime minister of an independent country
Lord George Foulkes openly admits that his continued involvement in Scottish and UK politics is “a bit of an indulgence”. Having spent almost two-thirds of his life in one parliament or another, at 81 it’s still not something he’s willing to give up.
As we chat in the living room of his home in Edinburgh, Foulkes warmly speaks about his colleagues – both past and present – and it is clear he has spent his life doing something he truly loves. Age won’t stop him.
“The other thing is if I retired and sat at home reading, I don’t think my mind would have kept as active,” he says. “I’m not young and to keep my mind working, I do the Guardian quick crossword, these kinds of things. But as well as going down to London, keeping up with legislation as much as I can – it keeps my mind going and keeps me a bit more sane.”
Officially, he is Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, having been made a life peer in 2005. That followed 26 years as an MP, including five in government, and before that almost a decade in local government. While that amount of experience in any other walk of life would qualify him to speak freely and for people to listen respectfully, even if they disagree, that is not always the case in politics.
Some of the people who have never been in favour of devolution have said this proves devolution is a failure. Well, it doesn’t – it proves that devolution can be misused
The self-professed Twitter addict says he frequently receives ageist abuse on the platform. “Prejudice for older people comes in, in the comments I get from some people,” he says. “Some are okay and argue the case, and I argue back, but others just are rude. And the interesting thing is what they say. They attack me for incontinence… I won’t go into any details, but if it was true, why is that anything? Why is that relevant? And it’s an ageist, awful thing for people to use.”
Ironically, improving the lot for older people has been another one of Foulkes’ lifelong passions. He was the first director of Age Concern Scotland in the 1970s (and would return as chair four decades later), joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ageing and Older People when he became an MP (a group he still jointly chairs today), and tried to bring in legislation against age discrimination in the 1980s.
“This is a sad thing in a way,” he says, “because when I was doing it professionally in the seventis, I was doing it from theory, thinking older people should be dealt with in such a way. Now I know exactly what it’s like from my personal point of view. Ageism is a big thing in terms of you could only do such and such up until the age of 70. You can’t be a magistrate and you can’t do lots of other things.
“And the other thing is, people don’t listen as much. I mean, I’m lucky because having a seat in the Lords, I’ve got a platform. But almost all the people that I talk to say, ‘people don’t listen to me anymore’, whereas other societies have got more respect for older people and think that maybe, having gone through life, they have experience.”
Foulkes attending Labour conference in 1991
Still, Foulkes can point to some victories. Free bus travel is the biggest, which he describes as “revolutionary”. There’s also the triple lock on pensions, which requires the UK Government to increase the state pension by either average earnings growth, inflation or 2.5 per cent – whichever is highest.
“So far, we’ve managed to get the present government to stick to it,” he says. “At the moment one of the things we’re doing is trying to make sure that both main parties put that into their manifestos, to keep the triple lock for pensions.
“It’s a terrible thing that there’s a sort of intergenerational fight, with some people saying, ‘well, pensioners are not doing too badly. The people really suffering are families with young children’. And they are, many of them.
“But to set one relatively poor group against another, it’s just disgraceful… We can, with a proper tax system, look after pensioners and young families with children.”
In addition to his time in both Houses in London, Foulkes can also add one term as an MSP to his CV – though he admits he was “elected by accident”. Asked by then leader of Scottish Labour Jack McConnell to organise the party’s campaign in Lothian for the 2007 election, Foulkes was placed top of the list – but McConnell assured him that there was “no way” he’d be elected. At that point, Labour had never had a Lothian list MSP.
As the SNP fall apart, day by day, it’s the MPs who lose their seats
But then the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill and Angela Constance won two constituency seats from Labour. Foulkes – who hadn’t even attended the count – was in. “So I did four years. It was interesting. That was when [Alex] Salmond was first minister. He used to use ‘Lord’ as a term of abuse, ‘Lord Foulkes’. But I found it very interesting – having argued the case for the Scottish Parliament, it was nice to be in and see it working. Or not working, to see it operating.”
That difference between ‘working’ and ‘operating’ is notable, because it belies one of Foulkes’s major issues with the current iteration of the parliament. He has repeatedly and often accused the SNP of misusing devolution “as a vehicle to campaign for independence”.
“Devolution has been hijacked,” he claims. What started with Alex Salmond, he says, continued under Nicola Sturgeon, who “pretended that she was prime minister of an independent country” while ignoring issues the Scottish Government and parliament has power over.
“She’s a very able politician and a very effective communicator but wasn’t good at running the Scottish Government and all the areas that she should have been running,” he continues. “That’s the one thing I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about… They should be required to stick to spending the money they get, by whatever means they get it, on devolved areas.”
It’s a source of huge disappointment for him, as one of the early campaigners for a devolved parliament. Back in the sixties, when Scottish Labour was against the idea, Foulkes brought forward a resolution at conference backing devolution. “I got four votes. The others were John P McIntosh, Donald Dewar, and Jim Boyack.”
Of course, the argument was ultimately won within Labour and then in wider Scotland. The Scottish Parliament celebrates its 25th year next May. “And for a while, when there was a Labour-Liberal Democrat controlled Holyrood, it was working,” Foulkes says. “In fact, I was Minister of State for Scotland for a year, Helen Liddell was the Secretary of State, and I did relations with the Scottish Parliament. And it worked very well. I met a Scottish minister every week and dealt with them.”
Whether the Scottish Government has overstepped the boundaries of devolution has become something of a hot topic. Attempts to reform the Gender Recognition Act, the establishment of the deposit return scheme, and even the creation of a minister for independence are all examples of how the lines of the devolved settlement have become blurred.
As a member of the Lords’ constitution committee, Foulkes has raised the matter often – including with cabinet secretary Simon Case, the head the UK civil service. “He did admit that his predecessors had just let the Scottish Government get away with it, and the time was now, there needed to be some control,” Foulkes says. Indeed, Case is soon expected to publish fresh guidance for civil servants in Scotland.
When I get up now, I’ve got my own views, but who am I speaking on behalf of?
That has gone down poorly, as one might expect, with the SNP. But Foulkes is also concerned about ultra-unionists using recent issues to support their argument against the Scottish Parliament entirely. “Some of the people who have never been in favour of devolution have said this proves devolution is a failure. Well, it doesn’t – it proves that devolution can be misused, but if it was used properly, it isn’t a failure.
“And also, we’ve now got the UK Government moving into devolved areas. I raised this at the Lords last week and said this is just as bad as the other way around. Each should be doing its own thing, and working collaboratively.”
He also believes it was a mistake to stop the devolution of power from Westminster and says the last Labour government should have gone further with more powers for the regions of England. He points to Andy Burnham’s success in Manchester as evidence of how it could work. And he backs the replacement of the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions.
That he wants to get rid of the very house he is a part of may seem unusual, and he jokes that view is “not popular with all of my colleagues”. But he explains: “When I stood up in the Commons, I felt I had the authority of my constituents and the fact that I’d been elected and kept on getting elected. I used to go back every month to constituency party meetings in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and report to them and get their views, and then go around and talk to various groups. And so I felt I had some authority. When I get up now, I’ve got my own views, but who am I speaking on behalf of? It’s not the same.”
Foulkes shakes hands with Jack McConnell, then leader of Scottish Labour, in 2007
Last year, Keir Starmer pledged to reform the House of Lords if Labour wins the next general election. That plan is informed by the work of former prime minister Gordon Brown, as part of the Commission on the UK’s Future. The paper also recommended the broadening of powers held by the Scottish Government.
Foulkes disagrees with that recommendation. “The one thing I don’t agree with Gordon on, and I’ve told him this, is part of his proposal is to give more power immediately to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. I think that would be unwise. I think they’ve got enough at the moment and they need to show that they can use those effectively. They haven’t been doing that.”
And Foulkes even says he’s a bit baffled by the SNP’s approach to government. “This has been their downfall in many ways. If I’d been a nationalist and wanted to convince sceptics that independence was a good thing, what I would have attempted to do was make devolution work really, really effectively, and done things in the devolved areas that were different and exciting and said, ‘Look, if we can do this in the devolved areas, how much more could we do if we’re independent?’
“It would have been difficult – there would still be arguments against it – but it would have been more difficult [to argue against independence]. But what they did was instead just use it as a campaigning tool and ignore the devolved areas. And things have gone terribly wrong.”
It’s clear he feels some sympathy for the SNP MPs – many of whom he holds in high regard – who will bear the brunt of those woes at the next general election. “The SNP MPs in London are really shit-scared, if you’ll excuse the expression, because they’re going to be the sacrificial lambs for what’s happened here. And as the SNP fall apart, day by day, it’s the MPs who lose their seats, a lot of them, half of them, maybe more.”
In Scotland, we will probably get more seats than the SNP
The one level of government missing from Foulkes’s own scorecard is being an MEP. He laughs when that’s pointed out and is quick to highlight his role as part of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “Although I never got in the European Parliament, I got on the Council of Europe. I’ve been going to Strasbourg four times a year,” he says.
That leads on to what he describes as his biggest disappointment during his decades-long career: Brexit. “I’m a strong pro-European, and I campaigned in the referendum in 1975 – I actually was working on it and organising the distribution of leaflets around Scotland. I was so delighted when we went into Europe, and it was so successful. We had 40 years getting better and better…
“[The Brexit referendum] was an awful campaign, on both sides. So many people on our side, including the SNP, were complacent about it, did very little.
“And on the other side there was corruption, there was influential Russian money coming in, and they were surprised to win it… It’s been a disaster, a total disaster. And it’s going to get worse, unless a Labour government gets in.”
Foulkes backs rejoining the European Union at some point in the future, but he accepts it’s not a priority for now. “I can see why Starmer is not wanting to [rejoin the EU] for two reasons. One, not wanting to alienate the people who voted for Brexit – although it’s difficult to find people who will admit they did now.
“But also, he doesn’t want to have the first term of a Labour Government preoccupied with that. There are so many other things to do in terms of the economy and the national health service and so many other areas.”
Foulkes is hopeful that one day his party will change its position, though. “The thing about rejoining is it won’t be on as favourable terms that we had. We won’t have the rebate, we may have to adopt the euro – although I think that’s arguable – but I think what we should look at is a Swiss-type of arrangement… I think we can start moving in that direction.
“But ultimately, being a member would be ideal. I certainly would argue that case, I think it will come eventually. And more and more people are coming around to it within the Labour Party now.”
Naturally, I ask for his prediction for the result of the next general election. “I think it’ll be a Labour majority of about 50. And I think in Scotland, we will probably get more seats than the SNP.
“There’s a tipping point in the opinion polls round about 30, 31, 32 per cent. If we go over that, get one or two per cent more than the SNP, we start moving from winning 12 seats to winning 24 or 25. And I think that we’re going to get to that tipping point through a combination of a good Labour campaign, good Labour candidates, and the SNP in total disarray. And as we found out in Rutherglen, people are turning out enthusiastically for us.”
And while he’s buoyant at the prospect of Keir Starmer entering Downing Street, he’s mindful of the tough job that awaits the next government. “We can only ever do anything when we’re in a government… I’d be much happier having someone who has got a reputation for being thoughtful and stable and sensible – even if boring! As some of my colleagues said, it’s time for boring. It won’t be easy, but we’ve faced that before.”