Granny knows best: An interview with Meghan Gallacher
Meghan Gallacher’s politics could have been so different.
Born in the shadow of Ravenscraig in the same year the steelworks closed down, the Conservative councillor and MSP started off life in a community that was not only steeped deeply in the left-wing ideologies typical of Scotland’s industrial heartlands but that had a strong distrust of Conservatism too.
It was under a Tory government, after all, that the UK steel industry had declined, and the people of Motherwell and its environs held the party entirely responsible for failing to save the local plant
Yet it was while studying politics at the University of the West of Scotland that Gallacher – who was elected to Holyrood last year and will represent the Motherwell West ward until the local elections in May – came to a realisation.
Far from despising the party so many felt had wreaked havoc on her local area, she had an affinity with it. More than that, she felt it was the Tories – not Labour or the SNP – that held the key to the region’s future prosperity.
“I did my dissertation in my final year of uni on the decline of the Conservative Party from Margaret Thatcher to the present day and the impact [then Scottish Tory leader] Ruth Davidson was having on the Scottish Conservatives,” she recalls.
“My gran and I always discussed politics. She was a member of the Conservative Party and stood for some elections when the Conservatives were really unpopular in North Lanarkshire. I had to gather evidence to support my argument and my gran said come along to an association meeting – she convinced me eventually.
"They were discussing various bits and bobs and after I’d gone along a few times I realised that I am a Conservative. I realised that my views aligned and I joined the party shortly afterwards.”
Gallacher with her late grandmother, Elizabeth McLeod
From carrying out research for her dissertation Gallacher knew public opinion had not shifted much in the years since 1992 and that many in the local area still hated the Tories for – as they saw it – inflicting so much damage on their lives.
She took the opposing view, though. Yes, it was a Conservative government that led the country while Ravenscraig declined and eventually closed, but other parties had had a chance to improve things for the area in the years since. That they hadn’t managed to do that, she says, showed it was time for radical change.
“I very much liked David Cameron and the idea of one-nation Conservatism, that we’re all part of the union and it’s the union that keeps us going,” she says. “That sort of thinking led me onto thinking, you know what, everything I’m hearing from people in this area [about the Conservatives] isn’t my perception of the Conservative Party now and it’s something I really wanted to change.
"When I was growing up it was Labour and the SNP, but with the best will in the world not much had changed in this area. Why hasn’t anything changed and is it time to bring in something new? I thought Conservatism was something I really supported.”
The path to getting elected was reasonably straightforward, thanks in no small part to the Conservative women – her late grandmother Elizabeth McLeod, the late North Lanarkshire party stalwart Marjorie Borthwick and former Central Scotland MSP Margaret Mitchell – who nurtured and supported her. She unsuccessfully contested Westminster and Holyrood seats in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but was elected to North Lanarkshire Council in 2017 and entered the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP last May. Being a councillor prepared her to some degree for life as an MSP.
“It’s been an interesting experience because I’ve still got my councillor hat on as well – I’ll stand down from the council in May,” Gallacher says.
“As a councillor you are so local to services, to the community and everything that is going on in the local area. When you’re a regional MSP you expand that vastly. You deal more with the legislative side of things rather than bins, education, the NHS and all the rest of it. I was only getting so far as a councillor before getting stuck on the legislative side of things. I wanted to see if I could influence the legislation.”
The reality is a little different to how she imagined it, though, with the structured way in which the parliament operates meaning there is no quick fix even when it is agreed that existing legislation is lacking.
“Being a councillor and going to committee meetings there is the opportunity to go off piste; in the Scottish Parliament the committee discusses one item on one day, two if you’re lucky,” Gallacher says.
“One thing I’ve hit my head off a wall on is antisocial behaviour. I don’t think legislation for councils is strong enough to deal with antisocial behaviour in lots of communities and coronavirus has exacerbated that.
"The police are under so much pressure to get stuff done that they aren’t always able to respond to people. The other one is NHS waiting times. That’s always one that I get so angry about. You want to be able to say to that person ‘you’ll get your appointment next week’ or ‘you’ll be going for surgery next month’ but you’re not always able to give them a timeframe.”
Nor does she envisage things getting any easier in the months ahead, with parliament gearing up to discuss reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and the SNP government putting a second independence referendum firmly back on the political agenda.
Gallacher says she expects debate around GRA reform to be fraught, not least because First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears to have second guessed the outcome by last year saying some women’s concerns around gender self-identification were “not valid”.
“Concerns about the GRA are coming in thick and fast, particularly from women’s groups,” Gallacher says. “If there’s one thing the Scottish Government must do, it’s listen to the concerns of women’s groups. Those concerns are valid. The Scottish Government needs to change its tack on this and make sure they are listening to all groups and that all issues are being considered, then hopefully they will be able to come forward with legislation.”
Speaking to people, it’s not Boris Johnson that causes fly tipping in the local area, it’s not Boris Johnson that causes the issues they want to address with their local representatives
The focus on another referendum is, she adds, a distraction at a time when she feels the focus should be on areas such as education.
“Last [month] we had a debate in the Scottish Parliament about exams and why they might not go ahead in May [it is now expected that pupils will sit in-person exams, Covid-permitting],” she says.
“It shows that government priorities are all wrong. When I’m out talking to people on the doors it’s not independence they are talking about. There are other things that the government should be focusing on but they just aren’t.
"I don’t believe they have a mandate for it. If they won with a majority it would be a different argument entirely but they are using Green colleagues to prop them up when there’s no appetite for it. When you look at the polls the appetite is very, very low for independence. People don’t want to be dragged down the road of another referendum.
"If a vote was held tomorrow and the vote went no you can bet your boots the SNP would start again. We were told [the 2014 referendum] was a once in a generation vote and here we are still talking about it all these years later. It will never not be the focus of the SNP. It’s their one priority and one main aim and it shouldn’t be.”
Given the recent happenings at Westminster, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains embroiled in controversy over the Covid rule-breaking that went on in Downing Street under his watch, it feels a little incongruous to hear a Tory politician criticise any government for being distracted from the job of governing.
Yet, like Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who has said on multiple occasions that the Prime Minister must resign if he is found to have misled parliament, Gallacher was quick to voice her concerns about Johnson’s reported behaviour. Equally, like Johnson, she is adept at downplaying what the implications of the scandal are for conservatism and unionism both in Scotland and the UK as a whole.
“I’ve been out on the doorsteps and, speaking to people, they are quite clear that they are supportive of what Douglas Ross has said, but it’s not Boris Johnson that causes fly tipping in the local area, it’s not Boris Johnson that causes the issues they want to address with their local representatives,” she says.
“For me, my focus will always be on local issues and what matters to people on the ground. As far as I’m concerned, when people talk to me it’s not about party leaders. It’s more about what matters to them – education, the health service, their bins getting collected – and if bins don’t get collected, my goodness, you know about it.
“We do go through times when there are difficulties in the party, but for me it’s not necessarily about getting into spats. Douglas Ross has been clear on that and I fully support him in terms of what our focus is as a party at this time. For me, it’s always been about the job at hand; it’s always about why were you elected. We’ve got a job to do and that’s to hold the Scottish Government to account.”
Gallacher with fiance Graeme McGinnigle
Not that Gallacher is necessarily going to be able to do that for the entirety of the term she has been elected for. She and fiancé Graeme McGinnigle – a Conservative councillor on East Dunbartonshire Council who she met at a Tory party reception – are expecting their first child in July.
While she is determined that her pregnancy be seen as a force for good – to normalise the fact that many women want to enter politics and that many of those will also want to become mothers – Gallacher says she may take some time away from work once her baby is born.
If the parliament continues to operate in the hybrid way it has been since the onset of coronavirus that may not be necessary for long, but in any case Gallacher wants maternity – and paternity – leave for politicians to be seen as the norm. Unlike the Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has repeatedly highlighted how outmoded parliamentary employment practices discriminate against breastfeeding mothers, she does not want to have to bring her baby into the Holyrood chamber in order both do her job and make a point.
“I’m discussing maternity leave with my fiancé and the party,” Gallacher says. “If there’s one thing I want to happen, and this is for all MSPs and parties, it’s for women having babies to be normalised in the parliament. We’ve seen other politicians go through pregnancies while in parliament – Ruth Davidson was one – and we need to normalise this. If young women are going to be involved in politics there could be an expectation that they might want to start a family – that’s up to her and her partner to decide.
"There was a recent survey for MSPs on childcare. What really annoyed me was that they didn’t include pregnant women – I couldn’t fill it out even though it will affect me. It goes for men as well in terms of paternity leave.
"It’s a really normal thing to do, start a family. If we stay hybrid I’ll be able to participate [in parliamentary business] online. If that’s not there I’ll have to look at maternity leave. I love my job and don’t want to take much time off. I don’t think I would take the baby into the chamber. For me personally it’s not something I’d want to do. For me, I’d like to be able to have that home-life privacy then be able to come in and do my job when I return.”