Liz Smith MSP: Getting to Know You
What is your earliest memory?
I think I have two. They are about four months apart. The first was the opening of the Forth Road Bridge (above). My father took me at a very young age to see what was happening, I was probably about four, and it was a thick mist, one of Edinburgh’s very special haars.
It was very difficult to see, but I did get a glimpse of the Queen’s car going across the bridge. That was very special.
Just a few months later was Churchill’s funeral. And I can remember watching it on an old black and white television set. My mother explained to me why the cranes along the River Thames had all been lowered. I knew very little about what a funeral was, but I can remember through my parents’ understanding that it was something very big and very special.
What were you like at school?
You are probably better asking my teachers and my classmates, but I loved school from my very earliest days right through to my sixth form. I hope that I was a very conscientious student, I was reasonably academic, and I just loved the games field, and all the extracurricular activities. School was very good for me in lots of ways, I made a huge number of friends, and I was very privileged to have a lot of very fine teachers.
What subjects were you most interested in?
In particular, I liked English, I had a wonderful teacher who was also an actor. They were just phenomenal. As were my economics and history teachers. It was probably those three where I felt most at home. At the time when I was choosing my subjects, I was at George Watson’s College, and the two schools, which were all-boys and all-girls, were merging. Economics was not a subject that had featured on any curriculum with the girls’ school. I can remember my headmistress querying why I wanted to do economics and trying to persuade me that it might be a better option to go down one of the science lanes. But I was quite adamant that I wanted to do economics.
I am delighted that I did do it because that was my degree and it led into politics and philosophy.
How many girls were in your economics class?
Precisely one. It was very entertaining at times. I had a lot of friends that were boys who I played with on the games field, so it didn’t bother me. It may have bothered some of them that they had a girl in the class. But it was tremendous, and I thrived on it.
Can you tell me about your journey from economics to politics?
Economics and politics go well together, and when I became a teacher, I was teaching modern studies as well as economics. I am much more of a social science economist than somebody who is an econometrician or a statistician. I enjoyed the social side of it.
I went to university to do economics and economic history; after my first two years, a new degree, economics and politics, was coming in. I asked if I could be switched to that and I could, so I was the first person at Edinburgh to graduate with economics and politics.
What is your greatest fear?
Being seriously ill. I have always had a fear that if you end up with a very debilitating illness, that changes lives in a way that you wouldn’t want. So, I try to keep myself as fit and healthy as I possibly can. I have to say there are some horrible diseases around and when you see other people suffering from them, I think it sends a very powerful message to you.
How do you keep fit?
I run probably between 15 and 20 miles a week, I do quite a bit of swimming, and I am very much outdoors, in the sense that I climb lots of hills. I finished the Munros in 2012 and I am back helping others who are wanting to climb Munros. I also still coach cricket. I don’t quite feel right if I am not doing something outdoors.
What is your most treasured possession?
I went to the Himalayas in 1995 and we were at basecamp near Nanga Parbat, which is the ninth-highest mountain in the world. We weren’t climbing the whole mountain, we were doing a lower range just across from Nanga Parbat. When we came back to base camp my colleagues and I set up a basic game of cricket. All of the villagers came around and started to play.
At the end of that, I had a very inexpensive digital watch. These small boys, who could have been no older than ten or 11 kept pointing at it, and I thought I’m going to give them this. They then disappeared because they were so fascinated with the thing. Then back came one of their fathers and he was holding what looked like gritty pebble-type things. I saw a red stone and one of my colleagues, who was a geographer, said, “I would take that if I were you”.
When I got back, I went to a jeweller in Edinburgh and the jeweller told me that it was a ruby. It had a slightly difficult cut because it had been roughed up.
What did you do with it?
I asked him if he could make it into a ring. So, I have this wonderful ring and I only realised several weeks or months afterwards that it would have been my parents’ ruby wedding on that day. It is a wonderful coincidence.
What is the worst pain you have ever experienced?
I have been very lucky not to have physical problems. I found the death of both my parents difficult to cope with. I lost my father when I was only 18. He was a headmaster and died very suddenly in school. He was in Malta, working with Spitfires during the Second World War and the conditions that he had to endure at the time of the Second Siege of Malta were just horrific. I have been out to Malta a couple of times to see what they had to put up with, the rations that they had, or didn’t have in some cases. I don’t think that helped him physically. That was a big shock.
My mother coped with it extraordinarily well, and then she died just a few years ago. I was very close to my parents; we were a very tight-knit family. They were probably the most difficult times.
What is the best piece of advice that you have been given?
I was very privileged to work for both Malcolm Rifkind and David McLetchie, and they both gave me the same advice; in politics, you have to win over people with your ideas and your debating skills. Not to play the man, you play the ball.
What I don’t like about modern-day politics is its toxicity, its division, sometimes beyond repair, and the lack of tolerance. By all means, disagree, but I find politics at the moment very divisive. It shouldn’t be like that, and it worries me.