Gillian Mackay: Some politicians 'have turned themselves into caricatures'
How did a 31-year-old Star Wars enthusiast from Falkirk, who had never held any aspiration to become a politician, end up not only becoming an MSP, but playing a central role the forging of an agreement that put Greens into government for the first time on these isles?
It’s a question that Gillian Mackay asks herself frequently and part of the answer, she jokes, is because otherwise she might now be somewhere along Scotland’s coastline, freezing and soaked to the bone, researching marine life. She instead chose the warmer option and applied for a place on Inclusion Scotland’s internship scheme.
“I wasn’t particularly political beforehand. My master’s project was about public attitudes towards marine protected area legislation, comparing the Western Isles and the central belt, and looking at people’s views on legislation. I applied for the internship because no one was taking on marine graduates for field work during October in Scotland. It’s cold and it’s miserable. And probably that was partly a diversionary tactic for me not to end up on a seashore somewhere in the driving rain and howling wind!
Too many of the things I’ve done have been accidental
“But the internship came up for Access to Politics for disabled graduates. I applied for it looking to see how the MSPs made, scrutinised and enacted legislation. I didn’t have a thought about which party – well, that’s maybe a bit of a lie. I knew which parties I didn’t want to be with. But other than that, I didn’t really have a thought of which party particularly I wanted to be with because it wasn’t about the politics… I got an interview with Alison [Johnstone, then a Green MSP and now Presiding Officer] and the rest, as they say, is history.”
After the internship, Mackay was so impressed by the Greens that she threw herself wholeheartedly into the party. She held various internal roles and became a candidate at every level of government. From 2014 up until her election two years ago, she worked behind the scenes, latterly for former MSP Andy Wightman.
“A lot of the things, too many of the things I’ve done have been accidental. And had any of those things changed, you do sometimes sit and wonder where you would have ended up. Would you have ended up at this point in your life doing what you’re doing?
“That’s my three o’clock in the morning – when I’m not thinking about the things I haven’t done and the emails I haven’t answered – those philosophical things of where would I be, had I not applied for that internship?”
I ask how she’s found the last two years in parliament, as a young woman and as a Green. “I think I’m still having far too much fun. I really enjoy my job, which is probably weird given the situation we have – we’ll call it that, the situation that we have – on social media, with the way a lot of female politicians are treated.
“I’ve fallen into a lot of big issues that have had a lot of coverage, which has been quite surprising as to how quickly some of these things gather pace. It probably shouldn’t be, having worked in politics for as long as I have, but it’s a bit different when you’re the one taking them forward rather than working on them in the background. So it’s been an awful lot of fun and a big learning experience.”
One of the bigger pieces of work Mackay is pushing ahead with is her Abortion Services Safe Access Zones Bill – otherwise known as the buffer zone bill. It aims to stop anti-abortion protestors from gathering outside medical centres, harassing women as they try to access abortion services.
Bringing forward legislation as a first-term MSP is no mean feat, and Mackay says that decision is “just the epitome of ‘let’s not do things by half’”. She also says she has been taken aback by the level of support from across the chamber.
“That’s probably one of the biggest surprises that I’ve had, that even before there’s a final proposal introduced, before there’s an actual piece of legislation for people to scrutinise, they’ve gotten on board with this issue.”
The positive response has also given her fresh hope that, despite the yawning political divides, the Scottish Parliament is able to come together. “It’s been quite an eye opener that, even in this session when it feels like everybody’s at each other’s throats in the chamber, there are things we can still all unite behind. And that does actually give me hope for the rest of the session – some will tell me that that’s misplaced, but it still gives me hope that for the rest of the session we still can continue to find common ground.”
That said, there is still a long way to go if that idea of a more consensual, nicer politics is ever to be realised. She says: “Part of the state of politics we’ve got to is the fact that folk have turned themselves into caricatures. People have a chamber persona that they would never use outside the chamber. That goes for up here and down south, and I’m sure there’s examples in parliaments across Europe of the same thing.
“But we kind of need to get away from that, to get away from the identity politics that we’ve got on social media and in the media and all those sorts of things as well. And I think folk underestimate the individual power of challenging that and then being able to accelerate that change away from that.”
One thing she personally has been challenging is the accessibility of the debating chamber for people with hearing difficulties. Mackay has Ménière’s disease, a disorder that effects the inner ear and causes hearing loss over time. She and her fiancé are currently learning British Sign Language, but aren’t fluent yet, and while she could use the hearing loop in the chamber, she doesn’t like to use it too often because it cuts her off from speaking to those next to her. But when she raised the noisiness of other MSPs, she was accused of “trying to turn the chamber into a church”. That hasn’t perturbed her though, and she insists she will “keep raising it” if things don’t improve.
Once you dig below that surface of the chamber theatre, we do actually get on for the most part
Despite some of the barriers, the sixth session of Holyrood is perhaps its most diverse yet, with a record number of MSPs from ethnic minority backgrounds, the highest proportion of female MSPs, and several disabled MSPs. I ask whether this has altered the culture in the parliament.
“I think we have actually come quite a long way since 2014. Some of the conversations we’re having, some of the issues that you’re seeing come up – I don’t know that session four would have come out quite so strongly in favour of safe access zones as session six has, for example. We’re seeing assisted dying coming back as a member’s bill. That’s been voted down previously, it’s coming back this session and the conversation is different.
“People might think that that’s natural with different people being in the building, but I think there is that shift as well in people’s outlooks and the demographics of the MSPs that are in here and I think that’s for the better. But I don’t think we can take that for granted either. We’re going to have to keep working on that.”
Mackay is an exceedingly warm and friendly person, constantly smiling and making jokes as we chat. It comes as no surprise to learn she has made several cross-party friendships. “The minister of parliamentary business [George Adam] and I get on like a house on fire. We’ve got a really good Star Wars based relationship, which is great.
“I’m still finding more people that I can have conversations with about different things even now. I was on the same table as Brian Whittle [Scottish Conservative MSP] for example, at the Burns Supper the other week. We sat and had a very long conversation at dinner, when we hadn’t really spoken to each other because of that interaction of not in the same region, not in the same portfolio. That was nice.
“Paul O’Kane [Labour MSP] and I often have a laugh that we pinch questions that the other one was going to ask. That happens quite a lot, happens in committee as well. So there’s lots of those nice relationships across the chamber. Christina McKelvie [SNP minister] has been hugely warm and welcoming to the parliament to me.
“And that doesn’t include my own group as well, who are phenomenal at keeping each other going and supporting each other… I think once you dig below that surface of the chamber theatre, we do actually get on for the most part.”
I strongly remember as a child being kept up by the roaring and flashing orange lights in my bedroom window from the flaring at Ineos
When I broach the subject of the time when the Green group were not getting along, which ultimately led the resignation of Andy Wightman (to whom she was parliamentary assistant) in December 2020, Mackay carefully sidesteps the issue, saying little.
But that time is also marred by a much sadder life event: the unexpected death of her mother, Audrey. “It wasn’t a particularly happy time in the session for me,” she says.
Mackay didn’t have much time to grieve either – after the Christmas break, campaigning for the election began in earnest. She sings the praises of the support she received from the party, as well as friends and family. And she knows her mum would have been proud of her becoming Central Scotland’s first ever Green MSP.
The election count, which took place over two days, was a nerve-wracking experience. Mackay says she had no idea whether she had been successful until the moment the returning officer read out her name, and her team “just exploded”. “We always hoped. It was difficult, we’ve never had a Central Scotland MSP for the party before. I think that does show how difficult an area it’s been for us, but also the change that we’re seeing in the voting patterns across the country and maybe some of that emphasis that the people are putting on climate,” she says.
The need for a just transition to a net-zero economy is something Mackay is acutely aware of. She grew up in Grangemouth, in the shadow of Scotland’s only oil refinery. “I strongly remember as a child being kept up by the roaring and flashing orange lights in my bedroom window from the flaring at Ineos. My childhood bedroom window still does look out over part of the Ineos complex and part of the port complex. It’s part of the reason it wasn’t really safe for us to cycle around the roads that were close to us as kids, because of the tankers all over the place.
“It’s an interesting place to grow up because it does shape your thoughts of community involvement and things. I remember as a kid, one of those nights where it was loud, sitting in bed going, ‘how did we end up with this? How did we end up with that there? Why was it not another community?’ And then obviously, as an adult, you think of the impact that it would have had on other communities.”
The plant was absolutely central to Grangemouth, though, with many of her friends’ dads employed there. While fewer staff work there now, she says it emphasises the need to “take those people with us” as Scotland moves to meet its climate ambitions. “It’s not their fault that this plant has that massive impact on the environment. We need to make sure that they have jobs, because they have families to feed, they have lives to live… There’s some really heavily industrial and post-industrial communities [in Central Scotland] who also need that just transition and I think that’s probably one of the common threads across my region, how important that just transition could be for all of those communities.”
Another policy area she is particularly passionate about is the National Care Service, the legislation for which has been temporarily paused after a series of committees expressed concerns. For Mackay, the issue is a little more personal than most. Her grandpa – who sadly died six weeks before she was elected in 2021 – had a team of carers, who Mackay describes as “part of the family”.
“They enriched his life, because he wasn’t able to get out of the house. They also meant that we could continue working. One of them sat with him through my mum’s funeral because he couldn’t make it out the house to come to mum’s funeral.
“They are worth their weight in absolute gold. They deserve all the money that we can give them, and obviously at the moment that’s part of the financial constraints that we’re under, without the ability to borrow. I think if we gained independence and the ability to borrow, that’s probably the first thing I would borrow money to do.”
She believes the NCS bill is salvageable, despite its issues, and that it is “still what we need” to fix the problems with social care.
Besides, she made a promise to fix it. “Gramps said, ‘the one thing you do if you get elected is sort my carers’. So that is the promise I am on. And I have no doubt that he will haunt me if I don’t – he would think that was funny. So yes, I am on a promise, I’ll have to sort it.”