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Getting to know you: Tommy Sheppard

Getting to know you: Tommy Sheppard

The SNP MP for Edinburgh East talks to Holyrood about his school days and his box set obsession

What’s your earliest memory? 

I can’t really remember much before about three. I remember being three and getting a little tricycle and I remember losing control going down a hill and crashing into a wall at the bottom and my parents being mortified that I’d nearly killed myself at the age of three.

What were you like at school?

I remember my first day at primary school. My mum had made me a piece to take with me and for some reason, I don’t know why, she’d made me cheese and pineapple and I had foolishly left my lunchbox on a radiator, so when I came to eat them at lunchtime, they were absolutely horrible, congealed, warm, pineapple mush. That put me off pineapple for many years! At the age of six, we left Coleraine [in Northern Ireland] and moved to a little seaside town called Portstewart and I went to Portstewart Primary and that was a very happy time. I remember that time fondly. One of my greatest influences of my entire life was the primary school headmaster. He was a real liberal firebrand and he used to come in and tell you, ‘never stop asking questions’.

Quite unusual for that period of time….

Yeah. He never had school uniforms, he really railed against convention. I wasn’t aware of it then but looking back, he must have been quite a cheerleader for radical teaching methods. He inspired me always to question authority.

Who would be your dream dinner date?

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. He was the president of both the independent Labour Party and the first president of the SNP. 

You’d have plenty to talk about then…

Well, yes, indeed! It would be interesting to have a discussion with him about how things turned out.

What’s your greatest fear?

My greatest personal fear is health, I think, becoming really sick and either dying or being incapacitated. My greatest fear for society at the moment is the growth of intolerance and of people losing their human essence and losing their sense of human solidarity. I still think we are in the middle of a process with how we communicate as human beings in the digital age. It could be liberating, or it could be the means of our future repression, depending on how it turns out. My greatest call to arms is the need for vigilance about intolerance. 

The situation we are living in at the moment is a real test of that, isn’t it?

A crisis always brings out the best and the worst in people. There’s been some wonderful examples of people trying to help their fellow human beings, and there’s been good examples of that in the commercial sector as well. Then there’s been these people charging £400 for a private test that they’re buying for a tenner. The rampant profiteering. If the government is going to take emergency powers, it needs to act against people profiting from the misery and anxiety of others and send out a really strong message. But the majority response has been really good.

What’s the worst thing that anyone’s ever said to you?

I’m pretty thick skinned to be honest. People say things that could hurt you all the time if you let them. I try not to let it, and I move on. But if it’s not just about being abused, then the thing that really floored me was when I got the call from my sister-in-law to tell me my father had died. I just remember literally going weak at the knees.

What’s your most treasured possession?

I’m not that materialistic. I’ve still got the Aran cardigan my mother knitted for me when I was 14, but if I lost it in a house fire, I wouldn’t cry about it. 

What’s made you keep it all those years?

Sentiment, I guess. I don’t wear it! A few years ago, I might have said my DVD collection. I had a massive collection of box sets, that’s my guilty pleasure. And a year ago, I gave them all to a charity shop because I got a new laptop and it didn’t have a DVD drive and I realised I had nothing to play them on anymore! So, I embraced the digital age. 

What’s your favourite box set, then?

Crime dramas, thrillers serial dramas. The thing I’ve probably watched end-to-end more than anything else would be The Sopranos. I’ve probably watched every episode of that about four times.

How about films?

I like films, I try and go to the cinema about once a month. I’m a greeter, by the end of the film I’m usually crying. The one I cried most at over the last few years is Pride. 

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

It would have been quite incredible to be politically active at the end of the 18th century. There was Thomas Muir, who was the Scottish leader of the Friends of the People organisation, which was agitating for universal suffrage, and there was also Thomas Paine in England and [Theobald] Wolfe Tone in Ireland, and there were stories of them meeting in about 1793/94 in post-revolutionary France coming up with a plan for three independent republics in the British Isles  - Scotland, England and Ireland. I’m afraid there was no-one there from Wales! I would have loved to have been involved. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’re ever been given?

Always question. The advice from my primary headmaster.

What’s the last book you read?

I just read a couple last week – crime fiction is pretty much all I read. Mark Billingham’s latest. I can’t remember the name! Deadly Lies or something? I never look at the title! I’m very much into my Tartan Noir, everything that Val and Rankin have ever written. 

What’s the best holiday you’ve ever had?

No one single one stands out – I could give you a top ten – but one of the places I’ve been to repeatedly, which is probably a good sign, is Soller in Mallorca. It’s on the least developed bit of the island. It’s lovely because it’s a nice scale, quite a small town, great bars and restaurants and the nearby walks are just fantastic. The combination of good food and drink, climate and the ability to have long walks in beautiful scenery is pretty hard to beat.

Binary Politics 

Salt and vinegar or salt and sauce?

Salt and vinegar

Cats or dogs?


Pub or wine bar?


Early bird or night owl?

Night owl

Continental or full Scottish?

Mostly continental

Tea or coffee?


Fame or fortune


Book or film?


Night in or night out?

Night out

Couch or gym?


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