"It’s been a long road. There were times you’d ask what you were doing it for" - SNP campaigners on lessons from the past
“I was so run off my feet dealing with the problem that I lost a stone in weight in a single week. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I was just utterly, utterly exhausted. Hence, when I was on Newsnight, being interviewed, I was a bit inadequately briefed, and my blood sugar was so low I wasn’t performing at the standard I should.”
For Stewart Stevenson, the winter of 2010 offered one of the most significant lessons of his time as a minister. Scotland had experienced a huge snowfall, dragging transport networks to a standstill, and as the then transport minister, Stevenson had found himself working around the clock.
“Whatever you might do,” he said, “you ought to be sure you are fit enough to do it, and that you aren’t saying yes to whatever people want you to do. There will always be more that people want you to do than is seriously possible. If I learned anything from 2010 it’s that I need to think carefully about my own physical and mental preparedness for things that come along.”
That time as Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change saw Stevenson take the SNP’s first act through parliament – the abolition of tolls on the Forth and Tay Bridges – as well as leaving him responsible for steering the climate change act through shortly afterwards. A minister from 2007 to 2012, and an MSP since 2001, Stevenson now holds the record for most speeches in the Scottish Parliament – currently sitting at over 838, comprised of more than 670,000 words. But his time in the SNP stretches back much further, to a party meeting in November 1961, after a friend brought him along to a local event in Cupar, in Fife.
“There were around 40 of us that ended up at this meeting and if memory serves then about 25 joined the party that night. There’s an important lesson in that: most people end up in a political party because someone took them along and invited them. The number of people who sit down and rationally decide they’re going to join a political party is comparatively modest.
“That’s one of the important things about it, when you join a political party – and I think the SNP in particular – you create lots of social connections that are part of your political life, whether as a volunteer or an elected member. The first conference I went to, I think was 1975. That was also the first conference I spoke at, 45 years ago. Even now, when SNP conferences are orders of magnitude bigger than the one I went to in 1975, you still find yourself bumping into people you haven’t seen since the last conference, and chewing the fat with them and having debates that are personal, social and of course political.”
The party’s conferences offer a snapshot into the changes the SNP has seen over the last few decades, with the years since 2007, and particularly post-2014, characterised by a huge growth in its membership and reach, alongside a drive to professionalise. Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Stevenson and his contemporaries became accustomed to meetings comprising a couple hundred people at most. Fast forward to the post-indyref years and the scale is barely recognisable, even if Stevenson also emphasises that some aspects remain the same.
“We have more resources – human resources and financial ones – to draw on in campaigning, so we are quite different in a sense to how we were. But even so, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that we kind of all know each other, and that’s very important.
“When you go to conference, no one gets protected from anyone else. Anyone who goes along on a day pass, if they aren’t a delegate but are just visiting, doesn’t feel discouraged from approaching anyone. You see many of these conversations taking place, and that has always been the case. It’s one of the best things about it.”
Richard Lyle joined the SNP in 1966, following a meeting of his local Uddingston branch. He was 16 at the time, and threw himself into local campaigning, before eventually standing for the council elections in 1974. “I got soundly beat”, he told Holyrood.
But perseverance and his connection to the local area eventually paid off, and he won his first council seat, through a by-election, by a majority of 169. Then, in 2011, he made the jump to the Scottish Parliament as part of the SNP landslide win, and after a total 45 years in office he has become the longest serving SNP politician.
Still, it feels a long journey from the political fringes to the dominance the party enjoys now. He told Holyrood: “We’re talking about darkest Lanarkshire here, the first time I turned up at a vote the guy turned to me and said ‘what are you doing here son, we could weigh the Labour vote’. And it was true, they could. Lanarkshire was the fiefdom of the Labour party. We actually got stoned out of Chapelhall once, people were throwing stones at us. It’s been a long road. There were times you’d ask what you were doing it for.
“But what we have to remember is that we got here because of the work done by giants – people who steered our party and the people still steering it. It’s been hard but we have to remember who put us there: the electors.
“We’ve seen a tremendous surge. You know, I was the first in my seat to win a deposit back. It’s been enjoyable but it’s also been long and hard. And with the greatest of respect to people who’ve just joined us, remember how we got here. Always remember that you are only as good as your last result. From the 70s to the 80s to the 90s, I’ve been there. I remember ‘a penny for Scotland’, ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on’, all of it.”
Clearly the party has come a long way since the days Lyle was scrambling to sell raffle tickets to raise local funds, but despite the progress made in the push towards independence, the Uddingston and Bellshill MSP is one of a sizeable group of experienced names to announce they will stand down at the next election. Stevenson too has stated that he will not run in 2021, alongside Maureen Watt, Mike Russell, Roseanna Cunningham, Alex Neil, Linda Fabiani, Gil Paterson, Gail Ross, Bruce Crawford, Angus Macdonald and Aileen Campbell.
“I’ll be 71 next year”, Lyle said. “In 1976 I told my wife, ‘it’s alright hen, I’ll get beat next May, I’ll only be in the council for six months’. Then, 45 years later she goes ‘aye, right’. She believes me now though. My kids grew up with me being a politician, they’ve never known anything else. I think it’s time to do something else, and I want to spend time with my grandkids. I want to give time back to my wife and to them.”
Maureen Watt, meanwhile, is another planning her retirement at the next election. A former minister, she joined in May 1974, immediately after an SNP conference in Elgin, on the advice of Winnie Ewing. But while the decision not to stand was a difficult one, as far as she is concerned, it’s time for others to step in.
“I think some people are making a big thing about this,” she said. “I wasn’t in [the parliament] in 1999 and Roseanna [Cunningham], I think, has been the longest serving politician – not including council, like in Richard Lyle’s case – both in Westminster and here. She had her 25 year anniversary in the past year. But it’s just people retiring, and thank god people in the Scottish Parliament don’t feel they have to go on to their late 70s, then stand for leader, like in America. People are retiring at an age, thinking that there are other things to do in life, besides politics.
“For some people it was quite certain – they definitely wanted to do it – and I know Roseanna and I hummed and hawed for long enough. But yes it was a very difficult decision. To have seen us take Scotland so far along the road to independence, it’s now up to others to take us over the line.”
Yet clearly that loss of those names will have consequences. Parties rely on new blood to stay relevant, but, equally, in the world of politics, experience counts. So what advice would Watt give to a new member, with ambitions of being elected?
“It’s really important you come to politics with something to give, in terms of experience, and work experience. It’s important people have worked or have a deep interest in something else, rather than just wanting to go into politics, because it is a deeply insecure job.”
Stevenson too, cautions against going straight into elected politics at a young age. “The single most important thing that someone has to have to survive in politics is a good understanding of yourself,” he said. “Many of the things that will be said about you will, in other circumstances, be deeply hurtful, and you won’t recognise them as being about you. You need to have that innate sense of who you are, so you’re not hurt by things that are said by other people, or by journalists. I would say to any activist, don’t go into elected politics until you feel you know yourself, because otherwise you will be listening to other people’s descriptions of you, and not enjoying it very much.
“I wasn’t conscious of learning that. I stood for parliament in 1999 and didn’t get elected, then when I was elected in 2001 I was 54. So I probably had reached an age where I had worked out who I was. Not necessarily consciously, but in a way that meant I could shrug my shoulders at some of the things people say.”