Getting to know you: Sandra White
One of the class of ’99, the Glasgow Kelvin MSP speaks about her two decades in the Scottish Parliament
What was your first day as an MSP in the Scottish Parliament like?
Overwhelming. We were all new, it was a brand new parliament, we did know some people but didn’t know all of them. We were learning the ropes together, so I suppose it was quite overwhelming, getting to know how things operated. One of the things from being brand new was there was far more camaraderie, you might say. It didn’t matter what party you belonged to, you all helped each other out. That’s a bit different to what it is now. But at that particular time we were all on a learning curve. We weren’t afraid to ask each other ‘How did you get on here?’, ‘Who did you contact?’, that type of thing. There was much more of a camaraderie amongst the politicians from all parties trying to find their feet, basically.
Do you feel that camaraderie has been lost?
Yes, it has. When we first went into the parliament we were up in The Mound, the other building. And jings, it was so different. You could go over to the church part where we had our debates and there was a small tearoom there, you would look through the glass and see the debates going on. Everybody had to be in there, you couldn’t go and hide or anything like that. You were always able to have a chat with the other parties. I think possibly because the parliament has grown and we’ve seen all different types of politics and parties involved in it, it’s not the same camaraderie anymore. That has been lost. I still speak to others from other parties, but I think as people retired or left and new people came in, you didn’t have the same opportunities.
What’s been the highlight of being an MSP?
I was really pleased to be involved in the free school meals bill, certainly myself and I’ll give Tommy Sheridan his due, he worked hard on that one as well. That was very enjoyable because that was something pretty close to my heart. I had free school meals when I was young because my dad had a slipped disc, although he’d worked ‘til he was 73 in the shipyards. At that time, you got no help whatsoever, so you got free school meals. I was pleased about that, that we managed to get that through.
One of the ones that I was very pleased about which was pretty recent was pushing through the bill for responsible parking, which had been languishing in the parliament for ten years or something. Ross Finnie from the Lib Dems introduced it first, then he didn’t get reelected. Joe FitzPatrick picked it up and had went with it, then he became a minister and he’d said to me, ‘Do you want to do this bill?’ I’d said, ‘Great, I’m happy to do the bill’. When it came to the parliament, you have lawyers in the parliament and POs, and they said it wasn’t legislatively competent. But I still pushed it to stage one. I said, ‘I’m still having a debate on it. I don’t care.’ We got it to stage one and everyone in the parliament agreed with it. Then the Scottish Government were working through the Transport Bill and they said, ‘Look, why don’t we adopt that bill into the Transport Bill?’ It was great after all the years and all the work to be able to get that through.
What will you miss the most about not being an MSP?
I miss it just now in the lockdown. Being able to get out and about and meet groups. On a Monday and a Friday, I would call it my walkabout days. I’d do surgeries from 4pm. Wherever I was doing the surgery, say it was Maryhill, then I would go up to Maryhill that day, have a walk about, meet with the groups, individuals, then I’d do my surgery. I miss that more than anything.
Are you a bit sad that your last year after over two decades in parliament has been like this?
Absolutely, yes. It’s sad not being able to get out and about and push forward things that I wanted to push forward. It was time for me to retire, I must admit, but because of the lockdown I can’t get out and about in the way I would really love to do.
What’s been your most embarrassing moment in parliament?
Oh God, probably quite a few when you forget the camera’s on you. I was always getting told to stop chewing gum. It became a habit. Then I saw – I don’t normally watch it on the television because you hate seeing yourself on screen – and I watched it and here I am sitting behind the First Minister chewing the chewing gum. You’re like, oh God, you were right all the time! I shouldn’t have been chewing it.
I wouldn’t say it was embarrassing but one of the most enjoyable times – I don’t know if you can print this, Christine Grahame will kill me – but so funny. It was in the museum in Edinburgh, and it was the Russian night. Christine and I went, and we did very well dressing up as Russian women, tsarinas. We came out and we couldn’t get a taxi. Christine had these lovely pointy-toed boots on which were killing her feet, so she’d had to take these off and the taxi rank was way up the top of the hill. We saw one of these rickshaws and says, I wonder if that would take us home, back to Christine’s house. We spoke to the young fella, and he said no problem. We got on this rickshaw and he just went. It was like Tam O’Shanter. Christine and I were hanging on for dear death. It was funny. I suppose if somebody had a picture of it, it would have been embarrassing: two of us dressed like Russian tsarinas, nearly getting thrown off a rickshaw going round a roundabout at the bottom of the parliament.
What’s your best bit of advice to pass on to new MSPs?
First piece of advice is don’t be overwhelmed by going into the parliament. You’re obviously experienced enough, you’ve been elected, enjoy it. Be true to yourself and your ideals and play to your strengths.