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Maurice Golden MSP: Rishi Sunak can get the Tories 'back on track'

Photography by Anna Moffat

Maurice Golden MSP: Rishi Sunak can get the Tories 'back on track'

“It’s appalling,” says Scottish Tory MSP Maurice Golden of the Scottish Government’s record on tackling climate change. Indeed, he even goes so far as to say that Scotland “is perhaps the worst performing country in the world” in terms of the gap between rhetoric and action on climate.

When Golden came to Holyrood in 2016, he was quickly dubbed Mr Recycling – known for his passion of all things circular economy and as an expert in the field, having working in the proceeding years for Zero Waste Scotland. More recently, he’s become a friend of the animals, pushing forward his members’ bill to make dog theft a criminal offence. He recently won Holyrood’s Green Giant Award at the annual Garden Party for championing climate action, the circular economy, and the wider environment throughout his career in parliament.

Asked if he’s still as passionate about these issues as the day he was elected, Golden says: “Certainly. I mean, I think now the challenge is far greater than 2016 because there’s so much more that we haven’t done that we now need to do, and we’re quickly running out of time. The interim targets in 2030 are going to be a real challenge to meet, never mind meeting net zero by 2045 here or 2050 in the UK.”

He’s particularly critical of the Scottish Government for failing to make what he says are the easy wins. That said, he’s still somewhat optimistic: “I think Scotland can meet those ambitious targets that have been set. Scotland can lead the world. But currently, it’s only leading the world on talking about climate change.”

He continues: “Three of the last four years, we’ve failed to meet our emissions targets here in Scotland, and if you look at the fourth, it was during Covid. We can’t rely on a whole societal lockdown to meet our climate change targets. We have to broadly be meeting them during normal times and we’re not doing that. Even very easy targets, such as a 50 per cent recycling rate… It gets really frightening – if we can’t do something as basic as that, then how on earth are we going to be able to put in place the very disruptive policies and practices, the risky government decisions in terms of how the electorate will feel, as we go forward.”

Day one of this job in 2016, I basically got everything I wanted. And as is the way in politics, there’s only one way you go from there

Upon his election six years ago, he was immediately brought into Ruth Davidson’s top team as the shadow cabinet secretary for climate change. Later, he launched a policy paper with suggestions and proposals for what could be done. “That document should now be out of date, over five years on. Unfortunately, I could publish it tomorrow and some people would say, ‘these are really interesting ideas, we should be doing some of them’. We should have actually done a lot of them already and achieved it. It’s really disheartening to find that that document is still relevant.”

He accepts that while some of the powers to meet the challenge remain reserved – oil and gas licensing, for example – there is far more that could be achieved using devolved powers. “If I were sitting in the Scottish Government offices on climate change, I’d be looking at everything Scotland can do, maximising that throughout transport, some parts of energy, particularly jobs, housing infrastructure, all the devolved aspects. And then once you’ve got to that, then you can start attacking [the UK Government].”

In particular he’s disappointed with the Scottish Green Party – not for party political reasons, as one might expect, but because he really thought them entering government would push climate change up the agenda.

“I met [Green co-leader] Lorna Slater prior to getting elected. I don’t think I’m doing her a disservice by describing her as quite a radical person, a radical politician wanting to change things up. And within two days of being made a government minister, suddenly we’re back to inertia and delays.

“When a politician, particularly in government, stands up and says, we’re going to have a commission, we’re going to decide on a working group, your face falls flat. You think, what a waste of time – you’ve got an agenda, you’ve got majority in parliament, you can do anything you want.”

Indeed, he says because climate change is not a “dividing line” in politics, MSPs and ministers could be doing so much more. But he suggests the government is caught up in wanting to be seen to be taking action rather than actually delivering it.

“At some point, the legacy of the SNP will be the party that let Scotland down in terms of climate change, because if they do what they did the last session, no one could catch up by 2030. It’s literally impossible. And all the signs are that that’s happening.”

What I want to see from Westminster is a UK Conservative Party that’s more closely aligned to my views… I think with Rishi, there’s an opportunity for that to happen

Taking on the climate change portfolio was Golden’s dream job, and even when he was asked to become chief whip he retained the title of low carbon spokesman to enable him to continue speaking about those issues. Now, though, Golden is no longer on the frontbench.

“Day one of this job in 2016, I basically got everything I wanted. And as is the way in politics, there’s only one way you go from there… It’s quite a change, especially from being chief whip to a backbencher, that’s about as much as a transformation as anyone could go through.”

Of course, it’s not just his own fortunes that have shifted in the last few years. It’s been a remarkably tough time for his party. Now, though, under the leadership of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Golden is relaxed about the future.

“It was a really difficult 44 days with Liz Truss in charge. When she announced her mini-budget, I publicly said that I disagreed with that. Fortunately for me, I was backed up by the IMF and most major economists. And that was clearly a really unfortunate and bad time for not just the Conservative Party, but the nation as a whole.

“I think Rishi now has a lot in his in-tray, but he can provide that economic stability. He has an opportunity to build credibility for the Conservatives on the economy again, because that’s consistently – previous to two months ago – what the public trust Conservatives most on. There is an opportunity to get that back on track.”

Asked if recent months have been tough for a moderate in the party, Golden replies with a firm “no” – largely because of the separation between the Scottish and UK parliamentary groups. “But clearly, what I want to see from Westminster is a UK Conservative Party that’s more closely aligned to my views, for very obvious reasons. And I think with Rishi, there’s an opportunity for that to happen. That’s why I supported him in the summer and was delighted that he made it to become prime minister at long last.”

He’s supportive of Sunak’s approach to Scotland, too. The Prime Minister, during the leadership campaign over the summer, pledged to be much more hands-on in Scotland, overthrowing the ‘devolve and neglect’ mentality and choosing to invest directly through local councils. “It does make sense to pursue an alternative approach so that, to put it bluntly, people in Scotland see the value of the investment from the UK Government,” Golden explains.

While most of the turmoil has involved his colleagues south of the border, not all is well in the Scottish party either, with serious questions about how it responded to UK Government decisions and rumours about Douglas Ross’ future as leader.

“I can’t speak for Douglas Ross about how he’s feeling about being in this place, or indeed down in Westminster. You’d need to ask him about that. But I think that, you know, this session is quite different to when I started. In 2016, we were all the children of Ruth. Ruth had delivered the best result in our history in the Scottish Parliament, more than doubled our MSPs. Everything was possible. I think that Douglas has maintained that – you might suggest against all the odds.”

Asked whether he’d ever consider going for leadership of the Scottish party himself, Golden simply says: “There’s no position open so it’s not something to consider. Douglas could very well be here for a long time – he’s a similar age to me, he could be here for another 20 years.”

Party issues aside, Golden is still very much enjoying being a parliamentarian. He describes getting a members’ bill through as being on his MSP “bucket list” and he loves being able to represent the north-east of Scotland this term (previously he was a regional MSP for west Scotland).

“For me, it’s been really important to represent an area where you live. I know lots of politicians don’t mind about that, but for me, growing up in Dundee, moving away for work, and then being able to come back has been fantastic, because I think you do pick up a lot, whether it be from family members, communities you know, just through all those years, all those experiences, and it’s really good. And my granddad still cuts out the articles in The Courier and things like that, and marks it up, marks ‘Maurice’ on the top, just in case I don’t know who I am.”

His grandad, and indeed the rest of relatives, were – as you might expect coming from Dundee – a staunch Labour family when he was growing up. He even leafleted for Ernie Ross, the former Dundee West Labour MP. But while he suspects he was probably the first Scottish Tory in the family (something he realised while attending Dundee University), he says most of his family are now on side too.

“Probably the general journey was Labour, give SNP a chance, and then, for a variety of different reasons, around 2016 most of them then became Conservative voters. In 2021, whether they were still Conservative voters or not, they all – or at least they told me this – voted for me on the regional list.”

Were those the halcyon days? Things change a lot in politics

And he’s not unused to being a member of the Conservative Party during tough times. Indeed, he joined as New Labour was dominating not just Scotland, but all of the UK. “I must have been one of the only new members that year,” he jokes.

But it was Tony Blair’s policies which persuaded him and his dad to make the leap. “My father had his own business and I think he saw some of the policies that Tony Blair was executing weren’t working as well or had knock-on consequences. He also was a postmaster as well and some of the changes to the contract were really poor under Labour.”

It would take him a few years, though, before he decided to stand for election as a Tory. And then, it took him a few attempts. “I can’t remember how many elections – too many, seven, maybe – it took for me to finally get elected. It’s been a journey.”

That, he says, is largely down to Ruth Davidson, who he says was “a breath of fresh air for the party”. In the years just after the 2016 election, he says the mood in the party really felt like “we were going places”. “We thought there would be a chance in 2021, we could get low-40s seats, maybe have an opportunity to get into government, get somewhere where we could actually influence things far more directly than making a few amendments to some legislation.”

He adds: “Maybe there’s a bit of nostalgia creeping in. But were those the halcyon days? Things change a lot in politics and, you know, we were talking about it earlier, at the moment we’re 30 points down. It’s not impossible that by the time this magazine goes to print that that’s 60 points down or we’re back up. Things can change and collapses also occur. I don’t think you can ever rule anything out.” 

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