Kenneth Gibson: Resilience is important in life, otherwise it can overwhelm you
Since 1999, Kenneth Gibson has been an almost constant fixture on the SNP’s backbenches, sitting in all parliamentary sessions of the Scottish Parliament except the one between 2003 and 2007.
A mainstay of Holyrood’s committees, he assumed the role of convener of the Finance and Public Administration Committee in June 2021, a post he was familiar with, having been convener of the Finance Committee for almost five years between 2011 and 2016.
But his political life stretches much further back. A member of the SNP for more than 40 years, he joined the party on his first day of university, and says almost 25 years on from when he was first elected to Holyrood, he sometimes has to remind himself that for the first 20 years of his party membership there was no Scottish Parliament.
Over those four decades he has watched his party grow from having two MPs and seeing colleagues receive “three and four per cent” of the vote, to being in government for 17 years, while south of the border they became the third largest party at Westminster. He says he has never grown complacent about the progress he has been a part of.
“I take the view that 75 per cent of SNP voters used to vote for somebody else,” he says. “It’s not a tribal vote, not like with other parties where some people vote the way they do because their granny did. So, I always say we have to keep on our toes to ensure we aren’t complacent like the Labour Party was before it was wiped out.”
In 1992 he had his first taste of election success. Chosen to represent Mosspark on Glasgow City Council, he was the SNP’s first representative in Glasgow to be re-elected, and he did that with the biggest majority in Scotland – 78 per cent.
He recalls being the only SNP representative, working alongside 77 Labour councillors, and being told to join the Labour Party because “the SNP won’t amount to anything”. He remembers feeling that council colleagues thought he was “a bit strange” for what he believed in.
“Now the SNP are the dominant party in Glasgow, at Westminster, Holyrood, and local government,” he says buoyantly.
I ask about his party’s position of late, one of relative weakness in the context of the last 10 years, as leading psephologists continue to suggest Labour could make major gains in areas the SNP have found success in over the last decade.
Gibson describes Scottish politics as being “in a state of great flux”, pointing out that his party went from five Westminster seats to 56 in 2015, two years later falling to 35, and at the last general election winning 48 seats.
“I think you’d be a foolish person to predict at this time how well or how badly we are going to do, or indeed the other parties,” he says. “It’s all to play for, I think. A week is a long time in politics, and no one really knows what’s around the corner.”
When we meet, Gibson has just spent three hours questioning the finance secretary on areas of the Scottish Budget – a budget he describes as potentially the toughest since the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament. Later in the week he and the committee will question the UK Government’s Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, on levelling-up funding in Scotland. It’s a busy period for the committee and one he enthusiastically embraces.
With two large lattes in hand, we sit down in the parliament’s bistro, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Garden Lobby. It’s the third time I have spoken to Gibson for Holyrood, and every time his passion for the finance committee is exuberant.
He says that the members of the committee enjoy being on it, there are no prepared questions, and members know the subject matter inside and out. It’s clear he has confidence in his colleagues, allowing questions to flow without an arbitrary limit for its members and never having stopped anyone from speaking in the two and half years since being convener.
He says what is important “is getting a handle on the detail”. As the budget continues to be scrutinised you “must be as fair as possible”, he says.
“You cannot be on the side of the government, nor can you be someone who is there to simply attack the government, you have to look at the positives and the negatives,” he continues. “Look at this budget, one of the things I have asked about is transparency. For example, in the area that refers to trunk roads, where there has been a 41 per cent increase in spending because of the need to ensure safety, why is there a £133.9m PPP [public–private partnership] budget mentioned, but it’s not mentioned in other parts of the budget and there are other areas of the budget where there’s outstanding PPP money?
“We’re looking for the consistency and how it’s been laid out. That’s the technical aspect but, of course, there is the big question; what is the budget trying to deliver? And does the budget match up to what the finance secretary has said it intends to deliver? That’s why she was under the cosh for nearly three hours this morning.”
It’s clear how difficult Gibson thinks this year’s budget has been, pointing out that the Scottish Government “had only three weeks to put together its budget” following Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement, in which he describes the chancellor as “standing up and pulling rabbits out of a hat” without any pre-budget consultation.
“The Scottish Government has to make a judgement, I don’t always agree with that, but it’s about a balance,” he explains. “And what we’ll see when we go to stage one of the budget is members of opposition parties standing up denouncing the budget and demanding extra money for every area that they can without saying where the money should come from. It’s unfortunate that’s how the game is played.”
The committee is currently scrutinising two massive framework bills, the National Care Service Bill and the Circular Economy Bill, headed by Maree Todd and Lorna Slater respectively. Gibson believes there is a problem with these kinds of bills as far as the committee is concerned.
Agreeing the central aim of a bill, followed by codesign which fills out the detail later, is a problem in Gibson’s opinion, and it is an opinion he believes is shared by the committee’s members.
I certainly think it should be reviewed. I think many of things that the SNP government has been blamed for have been because of the Bute House Agreement
“Codesign should be there before you reach stage one,” he tells me. “If you pass a bill and you have secondary legislation, which can be quite significant, then the level of scrutiny is a lot less. There is not the same ability to change the legislation if you are unhappy with the direction. We [the committee] think codesign involving stakeholders is a good idea, but why not have that before you actually go to stage one and indeed put the legislation through the parliamentary process?”
Continuing to discuss the Circular Economy Bill, he stresses the importance of the Scottish Government setting realistic projections within its legislation. Giving the example of the fiscal fines for littering within the proposed bill, the Scottish Government said it expected 100 per cent of fines to be collected.
“That’s just not going to happen,” Gibson says. Pressing a Scottish Government official on that percentage, he said if people obeyed the law there would be no littering, therefore why would 100 per cent of people pay the fine. He describes seeing “a lightbulb moment” on the official’s face.
“Legislation has to always be realistic, and we try to interrogate that, but that is not always easy. For example, between 2011 and 2016 there were many bills that affected local government. The Scottish Government would say the cost was £50m, let’s say, while local government would say they could deliver it for £150m – we have to try to find out what the reality is between those arguments.
“A way of trying to do that is to do post-legislative scrutiny, whereby some years after a bill has been bedded in you can look to see who was the most accurate.”
I ask him about the relationship between his party and the Scottish Greens. It’s no secret what he thinks about the Bute House Agreement – he’s not convinced. While he is not calling for it to be scrapped, he says it has been easy to criticise the government because of the agreement.
“I certainly think it should be reviewed,” he goes on. “I think many of the things that the SNP government has been blamed for have been because of the Bute House Agreement: the Gender Recognition Reform [GRR] Bill, the Deposit Return Scheme, and even the reduction in grants. The SNP gets the blame.
“There was an announcement that we’re going to look at the abolition of council tax, why was that made by a junior Green minister? Why was it not made by a member of the cabinet or even the first minister?
“I think usually in a coalition the smaller parties tend to suffer, for example the Lib Dems when they were in with Labour, whereas in this instance, which isn’t even a full coalition, it’s the SNP that has come out of it worse. A lot of colleagues feel that. A big chunk wants it reviewed, some quietly, some not so quietly.”
The consultation on ending conversion practices published this month caused another divide in the Scottish political sphere. It was reminiscent of the GRR. Gibson was one of the SNP MSPs who defied the party whip to vote against the gender legislation, and I ask him what his opinion is on this topic. He tells me he hasn’t formed one yet, choosing to “keep an open mind on it” and see what “the consultation comes back with and what the Scottish Government propose to do”.
Following the GRR, the Scottish Government “will be looking for a light touch on it,” he says.
“I’m not convinced it is a priority for the government and the parliament at this time. I have never had a single constituent in all of the years I have been elected, which was 1992, mention it to me personally. So, I am not convinced it’s a huge issue, but I can’t decide my position until I’ve seen any that might be getting proposed.”
He adds: “I am interested to see how representative the consultation is because I think the problem with the consultation on the GRR was it was all interest groups, who always dominate any consultation, but the wider public I don’t think had caught on to what the GRR was until it had already been through the parliament. But that’s understandable, people aren’t always focused on what’s going on in here.”
Gibson isn’t shy to admit that he has sacrificed big parts of his personal life for his job, something he is acutely aware of. He chose not to take a convener role in the last parliament because of the amount of additional time he was spending on it. But he missed it.
Accepting the additional workload, which he says is mostly “unseen”, he spends Saturday and Sunday looking at committee papers and then, after working in his constituency office until 5pm, his Monday night is finished on his own in parliament preparing for the days ahead.
“I’ve not really had a personal life since 1992 when I was first elected,” he says. “I used to have a season ticket at St Mirren, I’d go to the pictures at least once a week, go out with friends, and I just don’t do that any more. I know it sounds a bit sad but it’s a choice you make.
“You don’t have to be like that, a lot of MSPs and MPs have strong social lives, but I don’t mind. I’ve not missed out by not going to the pub one night a week.”
You do get the feeling that Gibson needs to be busy, that his mind needs to be occupied, distracted even. And there is no doubt that 2023 was an incredibly difficult year for him. In April his son passed away and he says it was his parliamentary work along with family support that kept him going, but the sadness in his voice is clear.
“I was told I could take a few months off and reflect but I think what’s the point, you need to get on with life, you just have to work,” he says. “But it’s been difficult, very difficult, stressful and upsetting. You need to work and be with family.
“I remember at the time thinking how important family is, it’s the most important thing. It’s difficult when you have been working for something which I have had an ideological passion about for 45 years.
“It has been very difficult for them. I have lost two sons, in 2009 and 2023. It’s hard. But I am resilient. Resilience is important in life, otherwise it can overwhelm you. But don’t get me wrong, they were very bleak moments.”
Having been front and centre for 21 years of Holyrood’s quarter century, I ask him to reflect on the changes that have taken place throughout that time.
He describes the first session of parliament as being “very fragile”, as people “with vested interests” who were opposed to devolution made the environment “very uncomfortable”. He recalls a quote from Sir David Steel, who referred to “bitch journalism” about anything the Scottish Parliament did being “attacked ferociously”.
He says that has changed quite a lot and “it’s only the SNP that is attacked ferociously”, rather than “the parliament as an institution”.
“I think it has changed in imperceptible ways,” he continues. “The Scottish Parliament has put down quite significant roots, and it is now seen as something that is part of the landscape.”
Gibson is now in his early 60s and I ask him what he wants to achieve during the rest of his career. He makes it clear he has no intention of slowing down any time soon, pointing out that he’s 20 years younger than Joe Biden, who is seeking re-election as US president.
“On a day-to-day basis I want to do the best for the people I represent in my constituency, which is probably the reason I work 360 days a year,” he says. “I don’t know what I would actually do if I had to stop. You get up in the morning and the first thing you do is look at your phone and see what cases come in. I am terrible at delegating. Last year I had two full-time staff, this year I have three, which is a lot less than most members, but every case goes through me, no one else has access to my inbox. If you’re emailing me, you’re emailing me.”