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Mairi Gougeon: When I was 16 I wanted to be first minister

Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands. Portraits by Anna Moffat for Holyrood magazine

Mairi Gougeon: When I was 16 I wanted to be first minister

Mairi Gougeon’s nickname, given by her closest parliamentary colleagues, is “chicken nugget”.

The moniker is on account of the French surname the Brechin native adopted on marriage. She can’t remember exactly who is responsible – maybe Gail Ross, who stood down at the last election – but Jenny Gilruth, the education secretary, has taken it to new levels, recently gifting Gougeon a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I am a beautiful chicken nugget” for her birthday. Given her self-proclaimed love of food, I ask, when did she last eat one of the battered morsels? “Probably a few weeks ago,” she laughs.

It’s a softball question aimed at opening the minister up. Because after so long in office, she’s still something of an enigma, doing few interviews. One of the most stylishly dressed figures in parliament (today she’s donned a bright pink blazer and gold shoes), it’s often the images of Gougeon that do the most talking, hinting at the personality behind the policies. So who is Mairi Gougeon, really?

At 16, the private school pupil (she had a scholarship for Perthshire’s Kilgraston) set her heart on becoming first minister and set off for the capital to make it happen, netting herself a space shadowing Labour’s Elaine Murray. At 38, she is Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands. She’s responsible for food, fisheries, forestry and facilities for island communities, recently allocating £4.1m in funds from the Islands Programme. And there’s some crossover on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), though colleague Mairi McAllan is leading on that policy.

It is, she says, a “real honour”. But with the SNP leadership contest such recent history, has she given up on her Bute House ambition? “I didn’t put myself forward for that role this time round,” she says intriguingly. “I think it’s just such a hugely challenging role, the role I have in government right now. Quite rightly, it demands so much of you.”

And what of the reports that First Minister Humza Yousaf initially offered Gougeon’s role to Kate Forbes, who had decried many of the policies within the rural affairs portfolio during the leadership bid that left her just 4.2 per cent behind him when all votes were counted. What would Gougeon have been offered if Forbes hadn’t turned the job down in favour of a seat on the backbenches? “Oh, I don’t know,” she shrugs, “it’s just a real privilege, a real honour to be invited back.”

My family has always had my back

If these read like ‘politician’s answers’, maybe that’s because Gougeon has been a politician since the age of 22 when, to her “complete shock and surprise”, she was elected to Angus Council, on which she represented the Brechin and Edzell ward as one of the country’s youngest councillors. She spent nine years in that role, becoming the SNP’s parliamentary candidate for Angus North and Mearns in 2016, when local party members picked her over incumbent Nigel Don. It was the SNP’s history-making third consecutive election win in Holyrood, and Gougeon – then still using her maiden name of Evans – was a name-to-know on the post-election ‘who’s who’ lists of new entrants to the parliament. Ross was another, as was Gilruth. The women are still close, and Gougeon counts Gilruth as her “best friend in parliament”. 

So who, then, does Gougeon count as her political hero? Who inspired her into elected office in the first place? “There are probably a few people,” she says. “John Swinney has always been one. He has respect across the parliament.” 

As with many of the Scottish Parliament’s younger SNP members, allegiance to that party runs in Gougeon’s family. Her parents and her gran had been SNP supporters long before she was, and though she says she was “never pushed” into voting one way or the other, they did support her entry into politics. “My family has always had my back,” she says emphatically. But it was Swinney, rather than any domestic influence, that gave her the “buzz” for what would become her career. “I remember I went canvassing with him along Montrose Street,” she recalls. “That really gave me the bug for campaigning.

“You’re colleagues with people you have looked up to for most of your adult life,” she says of herself. “You’re sitting on the front bench, and you can’t believe you’ve ended up there.”

Gougeon says even her ambitious 16-year-old self would be “surprised” by her achievements. The teenager, who would go on to earn a Master of Arts degree in History from the University of Aberdeen, took herself off to Edinburgh for a week to learn under the wing of Labour’s Murray in the fledgling Scottish Parliament. The Enric Miralles building in which Gougeon now serves was still under construction, as were many of the practices and conventions that now keep our politics running. It was all about opportunity, she says. “I was in St Andrew’s House and so it’s weird now, working along those corridors and thinking little did I know at that time I would end up working there.

“I was absolutely fascinated by the whole thing, being around that environment. You’re kind of awestruck by it. But I was really excited about it all, meeting the people who ultimately could change things in our country. I interviewed Elaine at the end of my time with her and asked her about political speech-making, and if you get nervous, and how do you prepare for that kind of thing.”

It was one of Gougeon’s own speeches that made headlines recently. The minister was speaking to the Scottish Skipper Expo in Aberdeen when, the Daily Express reported, she was “heckled by raging fishermen” when she left HPMAs out of her address. The Tory Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid told the paper that “fishermen were right to heckle this pathetic attempt by Ms Gougeon at trying to pull the wool over their eyes by not addressing the elephant in the room, a policy which threatens their livelihoods” and the paper described her not just by name but as “clueless Mairi Gougeon”. The minister gives a shake of the head when we discuss it. “I mean, it didn’t happen,” she says. “I was the one giving the speech and I’m pretty sure I would have been aware [of heckling]. You wouldn’t have to take my word for it, we had other members of the press there – the BBC, the Press & Journal. I did interviews immediately after and that wasn’t raised. I didn’t hear anything and I’m sure it would have been reported on, had that been the case.

“I think what I get probably isn’t unusual and probably for women MSPs, I think we can be a target for a lot of that,” she says of the flack directed her way. “As the years have progressed, I think things have become a lot more toxic. You do develop a thicker skin.” Gougeon is more active on some social media platforms than others, preferring Facebook and Instagram to Twitter “just because of the nature of how that discourse can go”.

Lately, she has been trying to get people talking about food security. A new dedicated monitoring unit has been set up to watch supply chains for potential disruption and aims to protect against “future shocks”. The unit was a key recommendation of the short-life taskforce put in place in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Gougeon warns we must be ready to respond to supply chain issues likely to result from increasing volatility in the weather, linked to climate change. “I want to ensure we are able to anticipate and adapt to shocks as much as possible,” the minister says, “because while we develop policies to try to mitigate them and reduce their likelihood” it is “not possible to predict all impacts”.

And she’s far from impressed with the UK Government’s post-Brexit trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, which has just come into force, calling it “rushed-through” and detrimental to Scottish growers and producers. Scottish secretary Alister Jack, on the other hand, has hailed the deal – struck by Liz Truss – as “fantastic news for Scottish farmers and food producers”, highlighting projections of a £120m boost to the Scots economy through the opening of new markets. The deal contains safeguards to support “sensitive” parts of UK agriculture, including the gradual removal of tariffs over 15 years, the UK Government has said. However, its own calculations also suggest the deal will barely move the needle on the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP), lifting it by just 0.08 per cent, or £2.3bn a year, by 2035. Beano comics were amongst the first products shipped out under the deal.

The free flow of imports of products like New Zealand lamb into the UK market has “completely undercut” Scottish producers, Gougeon says. “These are the concerns we have raised,” she goes on. “The UK Government was in a rush to roll up to trade deals; the work they should have done, they didn’t do, in terms of impact assessments. It’s been really frustrating.”

Other governments will see what Australia and New Zealand have been able to achieve and use that as a starting point for trade deal talks in the future, Gougeon argues. “They ended up signing a bad deal. We need to have that movement of goods but not at the expense of our own domestic sectors.”

Can she think of any occasions where she’s stood by a Scottish Government policy she didn’t agree with? Gougeon says she can’t, but that doesn’t mean tough choices haven’t been made. “We have collective responsibility; we do have to take difficult decisions that we all abide by.”

So what about HPMAs, a policy which has provoked a chart-topping protest song comparing the fishing restrictions proposed as a biodiversity measure to the Highland Clearances and stoked the feeling in rural communities that the Edinburgh administration doesn’t ‘get’ the countryside or islands? The backlash has been so pointed that Rishi Sunak, who has his own HPMAs planned for England, has sought to make political capital out it, urging the SNP government to U-turn. While five sites were proposed for England, that’s now been dropped to two following community outcry. Meanwhile, Scottish ministers have yet to determine where their HPMAs may be, but the programme comes under the Bute House Agreement that brought the Greens into government and will see at least 10 per cent of Scottish waters become no-take zones by 2026.

Gougeon points out that while rival parties have criticised the HPMA plan, all had such measures in their manifestos. “We won’t take any lessons from the UK Government,” she says. “To think of themselves as a competent government, given the period of change, the chaos caused during the short time Liz Truss was prime minister...”

A keen runner who uses the sport to clear her head, Gougeon considers her portfolio the perfect fit, given the economy and geography of the area she represents. But it might not have been this way – she had “other options” than to become a politician, she says, and could have drawn on her history degree instead.

She took a job with heritage charity National Trust for Scotland (NTS) while still at school, working across its Angus properties and becoming a senior assistant. The last book she read was The Interloper by Violet Jacob, the Victorian novelist whose family owned the House of Dun near Montrose, which was recently reopened by NTS after a substantial restoration.

Gougeon’s love for her region is palpable, so what’s the best thing about being from Brechin? Her face lights up. “There’s so many good things about being from Brechin. I absolutely love it because it’s such a historic city and just a really beautiful place to live. We have the Victorian centre, all the history and heritage, a proper ancient cathedral and we still have a steamer, the Caledonian Railway.” It seems, then, that the MSP can’t choose. It’s another politician’s answer, but we’ll give her it this time.

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