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Michael Matheson: Politicians sometimes don’t have the answers

Michael Matheson: Politicians sometimes don’t have the answers

“I suspect that climate change wasn’t in the schedule of excluded areas in the Scotland Act back in 1998 because climate change wasn’t on the agenda,” Net Zero Secretary Michael Matheson says. “That’s the danger of having a list of things that are reserved – if something changes, it might not be on the list. So I suspect it was actually more by political fault, you know, just a lack of knowledge about climate change at the time that it wasn’t in the original reserved list.”

Matheson, who has been an MSP since 1999, took on responsibility for climate change – rebranded ‘net zero secretary’ to reflect the statutory target to reach that milestone by 2045 – following the 2021 election. I’ve just asked whether he remembers the moment he realised that climate change would be the biggest issue of our time.

“I think it became much more apparent to me during the time when we brought forward the first of the climate change bills – 2008, if I recall correctly. At that time, Stewart Stevenson was the minister who was responsible for taking it forward. I think that was the first time, for me, politically, where the issue of climate change registered as, this is going to be an important part of future policy, political policy.

“But even back then, the 2007/2008 period, climate change didn’t dominate the political narrative to the extent that it does now. Now it’s a defining issue within the politics. It’s probably one of the most unifying policies as well globally, because it is an issue of responsibility for not just us here in Scotland, or the UK or Europe, but it is a global challenge.

There’s a generalised sense just now that people get quite frustrated and feel the politicians aren’t doing enough

“It’s one of those things that is actually – as I found at COP26, which was my first COP event, in Glasgow – probably one of the few things that brings the world together, collectively, as an area of policy that politicians need to take action on in a way that doesn’t happen for any other policy area. So, it’s not just a key point of policy priority within Scottish politics. It’s a defining policy issue in the body of politics internationally.”

He’s clearly enthusiastic about the portfolio and, asked if he ever finds it daunting, he says that’s not the word he’d use. He instead acknowledges that the sheer size of it – he’s also responsible for energy and transport – requires “a lot of mental gymnastics”.

“It’s one of these portfolios which will play a central role in our politics for many, many years to come. Tackling climate change is going to be an issue which will have to be addressed by our generation, and it will be a central focus of politics in the years ahead. I actually think it’s an area which is growing in terms of its importance… but I very much enjoy it. It’s got great diversity to it, but it’s also got huge challenges. But as I always say, huge challenges also bring huge opportunities.”

One of these opportunities is within the renewables sector. Just a couple of days before, Matheson had published the government’s long-awaited draft energy strategy which puts the scaling up of clean, green energy at its heart. It also, somewhat controversially, proposes a presumption against any new exploration licenses for North Sea oil – quite the change for a party that once campaigned with the slogan, “It’s Scotland’s Oil.”

He explains: “That doesn’t mean, as some have tried to present, it’s a ban. What that means is that the responsibility is on anyone who’s seeking to go for an exploration licence to demonstrate the need for that and that there is a requirement for it. That’s a change in the threshold.

“It means exploration will still be able to take place at times, but the presumption is that it shouldn’t take place… It places the onus on the oil and gas sector to demonstrate need and justification.

“In my view, given the impact that fossil fuels have on our climate and our environment, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable proposition to put to the oil and gas sector: you have a social and environmental responsibility to demonstrate the requirement for a new licence for either exploration or for production.”

While climate change and the race to net zero has altered the political discourse, Matheson says it is in classrooms around Scotland that he’s noticed the biggest difference. He says that when he does Q&A sessions at schools, while once justice issues dominated, now it is climate change.

He says: “The younger generation recognise the whole issue of our environment and tackling climate change as being a key priority for them, because they’re much better informed about it and it’s an issue which they are growing up with and understand in much greater detail than when I was growing up, when it wasn’t an issue. They get that and it’s important that politicians get it as well and recognise that.”

Matheson first entered politics in a time of great optimism, with the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament helping to bolster that feeling of hope and progress. Fast-forward to now, climate change, a cost-of-living crisis, war in Europe, and rising distrust in politicians has altered the mood of the nation entirely. Has this changed how he approaches his job?

“It’s important that, from a politician’s point of view, we remain optimistic in being able to improve things, about policy we can take that will help to improve people’s lives. I don’t want to sound as though I’m some altruistic individual or something, but, you know, most people who come in politics do come into it with the right intentions and that is to try and help people. I think it’s a politician’s responsibility to try and make sure that they remain committed to that.”

But his optimism doesn’t stop him from acknowledging the problems. “I do think that as a climate just now, it feels as though it’s a post-pandemic climate. I don’t think it’s peculiar to Scotland, or the UK, I think there’s a generalised sense just now that people get quite frustrated and feel the politicians aren’t doing enough.

“I think it’s been exacerbated here because of some of the financial challenges which we have as a result of Brexit and also the Trussonomics that we’ve just come through as well, that has left a significant impact on public finances.

“But I think the danger is that during periods when there’s some uncertainty and people are anxious, it’s important that politicians try to provide reassurance where we can. At the same time, I also think it’s important that we don’t rush to think we have to change everything in how parliament operates and how politics operates because that’s the only way to answer these things. I think it’s much more complex than that.

“At times we also need to be honest that politicians sometimes don’t have the answers, and there is no easy route through some of these difficulties. They are going to have to be managed as opposed to what I think sometimes folk are looking for: a shortcut to an easy answer. Actually, it’s a long road and it’s going to be a difficult road to get through some of these challenges.”

On the Scottish Parliament specifically, he believes that while overall it works well – he says scrutiny is “very robust and effective” – there is also a tendency for it to be “quite reactive”.

We are nowhere near the point where I think we’re as fair and equitable as a society as I think we should be

“Sometimes that has an impact on the quality of debate and the political discourse that takes place. There can be a tendency in politics to look for quick fixes, quick answers to issues when sometimes we’re dealing with a highly complex, deep-seated issue that requires a whole range of different policy interventions and will take an extended period of time and investment to make the changes that you’re looking to achieve.

“If there’s anything that frustrates me in this place at times, it is what I would describe as being quite a superficial level of debate in trying to deal with a quite significant and challenging issue. And that means at times, as a consequence, short-term decisions will be taken to the detriment of decisions that would have had better outcomes in the medium to longer term. I think there’s still room for the parliament to improve on that.”

He also feels the difference that the retirement of MSPs at the last election has made. “If there’s anything that I felt in this parliamentary session, it is that we have lost – because some of the MSPs that have retired over the last parliamentary session – quite a bit of institutional memory which members had because of the length of time they’d served in the parliament. I think that has had an impact on how parliament operates and how it proceeds at times, in a way which has not always been helpful.”

But when asked whether the very existence of the Scottish Parliament has led to improved life chances for the people of Scotland, including those who like him grew up on council estates in deprived areas, his answer is unequivocal: “There is greater opportunity for young people.”

However, he continues: “Progress has been made but there’s still much more to do here. We are nowhere near the point where I think we’re as fair and equitable as a society as I think we should be. And I think we still have young people and families who do have limited options for a variety of reasons. It’s government’s responsibility to make sure we’re doing everything we can to try and tackle that.”

As our time draws to an end, my final question for Matheson is about the future. We’re speaking now to mark 500 issues of Holyrood; what does he imagine will appear in the 1000th?

“An edition that covers the foreign secretary for Scotland, the defence secretary for Scotland, because we’ll be an independent country by then. I expect that within the next 500 editions of Holyrood magazine being published, one of those editions will come out with ‘Holyrood: the political magazine for an independent Scottish Parliament’. It will be interesting to see what front page you come up with, because you’re always very innovative with your front pages.”

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