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John Mason MSP: 'I'm not afraid of getting a reaction'

Photography by Anna Moffat

John Mason MSP: 'I'm not afraid of getting a reaction'

Arriving in John Mason’s constituency office, I start to tell him I don’t know much about him, and he finishes my sentence. “Away from the cartoon and caricature,” he says. And yes, that is what I mean.

At 65 and after 25 years in elected office, Mason is a veteran politician, and yet he is not regarded as an elder statesman. With eight election victories under his belt across council, Westminster and Holyrood, he is a winner, and yet he is an outsider. He has been part of the SNP faithful for more than three decades, and yet his fitness to represent it is frequently questioned. 

All of this is related to his stance on key social justice issues – Mason, who holds pro-life views, opposes buffer zones around abortion clinics, and voted against same-sex marriage and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill – and his untethered commentary on these. 

In March, Labour’s Monica Lennon accused him of “hijacking” the Baby Loss Memorial Book unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon to commemorate the tiny lives lost to stillbirth or miscarriage at 24 weeks or less when he submitted a parliamentary motion making points about abortion and the equality of all life as he saw it. Last June, SNP whips Stuart McMillan and Gordon Macdonald told him he had “brought the parliamentary group into disrepute” and shown a “lack of sensitivity” after he said he had heard from women who had “very bad experiences” at abortion clinics and “effectively found themselves on a conveyor belt”. In 2019, he sparked fury when, having been contacted over the 1971 killings of three off-duty Scottish soldiers by the IRA, he said some considered the armed group “Irish freedom fighters”. “Happy to support all campaigns to bring about justice,” he tweeted before later apologising for the offence caused, “But not taking sides between Irish and British.”

“John Mason has become a running joke in recent years,” The Sun commented on his candidacy for the 2021 Holyrood election, branding him “the ultimate foot-in-mouth politician” and someone seen by senior party figures as “a liability”.

And yet this is the same man who has been returned to the Scottish Parliament by the constituents of Glasgow Shettleston at every contest since 2011, who won a Westminster seat in 2008 which was previously considered Labour’s third safest in Scotland, and who spent a decade in local government before that.

“The Sun, the Record and the Mail are all in that space,” he says. “If you’re in politics in 2023, with the media we have got and Twitter and some of the public, some of it is going to be a bit rough. It comes with the job. People who know me, which includes branch members, are on the whole much more positive.”

So if Mason is not a cartoon or a caricature, who is he? 

A former pupil of private Hutchesons’ Grammar, which also counts First Minister Humza Yousaf and Labour leader Anas Sarwar among its old boys, Mason was raised in Rutherglen. His father worked for Scottish Power, while his mother was a primary school teacher. One of three children, his brother is a vet and his sister works in the care sector. He lives in a modest flat in the city’s Barlanark district, as he has done for more than 20 years, and describes himself as “happily single”.

A member of Easterhouse Baptist Church, he took Latin at school and accountancy at the University of Glasgow, which is again the alma mater of both Yousaf and Sarwar. He is an advocate of camping, on which he recently led a members’ business debate, and he once fancied a job with bakers Greggs. “I thought that would be quite good – lots of free cakes,” he tells Holyrood. “I just missed out and that made me think maybe I should think of a different direction.”

That direction took him to a post with a church-linked charity in London and then onto Nepal, where he learned the language while working for United Mission to Nepal, an NGO involved in housing, hospitals, forestry and more. It strikes me that between these and his political roles, Mason’s professional life has been linked to ideas of service. “I wanted my life to count for something,” he says.

Mason has a reputation as a strong constituency MSP and his urban seat, bounded by the River Clyde to the south and the railway to the north, runs from Glasgow Cross to Baillieston. It was home to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where the athletes’ village and Emirates Arena were built, and it is also home to one Nicola Sturgeon. Touring the constituency in his golden yellow car, Mason and I drive past Irish tricolours flying from lamposts near Celtic Park and by the historic façade of the Calton’s meat market, now mid-market housing, before eventually passing her door. The blue forensics tent and police tape is gone, as are the camera crews which set up outside as officers searched the property as part of their probe into party finances. Glasgow Zoo, which closed in 2003, was once here, and Mason recalls how he used to joke with Sturgeon about her “living in a zoo”. 

The pair worked closely together during his early days in parliamentary politics, he says.

The UK Government’s planned changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act were election issues at the time of the 2008 Glasgow East byelection in which Mason overturned Labour’s 13,500 seat majority and defeated bookies’ favourite Margaret Curran. Mason was “extremely uncomfortable” with aspects of the legislation, including updates to the law on human-animal “hybrid” cells for research purposes. His opposition to what he calls “social abortion” – terminations taken on non-medical grounds – was already known and he says that while Sturgeon “totally disagreed” with him, she recognised that his position was “playing well with the public” in a constituency that was “a bit more traditional” than some others. Indeed, local churches pinned details of the candidates’ embryology bill positions to their noticeboards.

Those were the days when Sturgeon was still the rising star to Alex Salmond’s sun, and it was to Salmond that alarm bells were rung about Mason. “Somebody did say to Alex, do you know he’s a hardcore Christian?” Mason recalls. “He was relaxed about it. Nicola was probably less sympathetic but we worked very closely together. 

“It’s been cool with Nicola and with some others as well for a while,” he reflects. “There’s been a number of issues. Nicola has been very strong on this progressive, liberal approach, whatever you want to call it. I’m very isolated on abortion.

“The SNP was a big tent. That’s what I want it to be. I continue to push for that but amongst parliamentarians and people on the National Executive Committee, it would appear to be that’s now a red line.”

There can be little argument that Mason is out of step with his party and indeed the Scottish Government it leads on abortion. Humza Yousaf has given his “unequivocal” support to Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay for her members’ bill which seeks to create a 150m buffer zone around clinics to keep pro-life campaigners away from the women using services within. He has also pledged to bring forward proposals to fully decriminalise abortion during the current parliamentary term. 

Mason accepts that only a “tiny minority” of fellow MSPs share his stance. Only Tory MSP Jeremy Balfour signed his motion welcoming the Baby Loss Memorial Book, which noted the use of the term “foetus” rather than “baby” in the case of pregnancies ended by abortion and stated that parliament “hopes for what it sees as more equality for all unborn babies in the future”.

Monica Lennon said Mason had tried to “undermine abortion rights”. I ask Mason what he was trying to achieve. “What I’d like is to get people to think about things, and if there’s an inconsistency,” he says. “It struck me as a little bit ironic that we were making a commemoration for babies under 24 weeks whose parents wanted them and had had a miscarriage or stillbirth, when on the other hand, if I said in an abortion debate that a baby under 24 weeks was a baby, I will be shouted down and told that I shouldn’t even call it that.

“I’m not afraid of getting a reaction, I just feel on some of these subjects somebody has to speak out. Although I would rather it was a woman speaking.” Mason cites former Labour MSP Elaine Smith as an example of such a woman. Smith was criticised in 2018 for inviting a US academic who linked abortion to mental health issues to speak at an event in the parliament.

“Labour have squeezed all those voices out,” he says. “Some people want to do that with the SNP as well. I scraped through selection last time. Two people stood against me and I got 51 percent of the vote. They said I wasn’t being inclusive enough,” he says of his challengers. “I would say I was more inclusive.” So will he stand again? “I’m 65 now; I’ll be 68 at the next election. I think that may be time to retire. I’m almost certain.”

On our tour we pass a Romanian restaurant, a Turkish café, a gastropub and multiple areas of wasteground waiting for development. Mason points out the refurbished Olympia Building at Bridgeton Cross, chosen as the site for the British Film Institute’s first Scottish Mediatheque facility, and shows me where to get “the best coffee in Glasgow” at a hipster café across from the Gallowgate’s Lodging House Mission, which supports homeless people. This is an area of contrasts and which has long been called ‘up and coming’, and while there are clear signs of gentrification in some places, the ascendancy is taking longer than was anticipated. Housing problems remain the bulk of Mason’s caseload and he is struck by the gratitude of constituents who finally find someone will listen to them. “It’s not even always success, it’s trying for them,” he says. “Sometimes you do get success which can be lifechanging. For that family, that’s the most important thing.”

And what of that gentrification? What would that mean for the people whose families have long stayed in the east end? “There’s not an easy answer to that,” says Mason. But he tells me repeatedly that “good things are happening” and he is “positive” about progress in the area.

He praises the housing associations, the small businesses lining high streets and the new builds in Barlanark, where once “nobody would have thought of buying”. But he has concerns about provisions for the local community of Showpeople, which is “probably larger than anywhere else” and is being “squeezed out” of sites. Walking along the street, a woman stops him. “Mr Mason, what’s going on with this party?” she asks, telling him that she left the SNP over its stance on gender recognition reforms. She wants the party to unite, she says, and she’s worried about the prospect for independence. He reassures her, and the man she is with calls out “Freedom!” as they depart.

But independence support is not universal, and there are “some people you just can’t talk to”, Mason says. “You get emails and social media messages just insulting Nicola, me, the SNP. The last two Conservative councillors in Glasgow are in the east end. That’s not because the people support the Conservatives’ economic policies, it’s because of the unionism, Orangeism, loyalism.” Mason says he has “genuine concerns” about sectarianism. “We need to accept it as an issue, but people get nervous about it,” he says. Glasgow Shettleston is no stranger to tensions around Orange parades and last year a Scottish Government working group concluded there is “no present need” for a Northern Ireland-style Parades Commission in Scotland to deal with the issue, but Mason says there is a need to limit the number of such events. “There’s threats and counter-threats as soon as that is suggested,” he says.

When he does leave parliament, Mason would like to get a dog and volunteer at his church, or perhaps with the credit union he is a member of. For now, he would “rather the headlines were all about John Mason being a hero, as they were in 2008”. “I’m not saying I would defend them word for word, but they are all serious points,” he says of the statements which have caused controversy. “I’m open about myself and my beliefs.”

Heading away from our interview, I ask a taxi driver his opinion on Mason. “I don’t think much of him,” he tells me, “but I’m not from here.”

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