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Military two-step

Military two-step

Keith Brown, the SNP MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, doesn’t deliberately court controversy. But somehow it finds him.

Last month, during the now infamous House of Lords debate on Scottish independence, Brown’s name was all but spat out by a former Labour minister, who, in a fine illustration of the topsy-turvy nature of the current constitutional rammy, sprang to the defence of former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, whom she believed had been besmirched by the SNP minister.

Lang, now Lord Lang of Monkton, said in the debate that a vote for independence would “dishonour the sacrifices made in common cause of those who died for the UK”. His comments were immediately, though unsurprisingly, condemned by the Scottish National Party, with several senior party members, including the Scottish Government’s veterans minister Brown, calling for the Conservative peer to withdraw the remarks and apologise.

However, in a mark of how febrile the debate has become, the SNP’s calls were in turn attacked by the former Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell, now Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, who congratulated the Tory peer on what she called “his excellent introductory speech” and said calls for him to apologise shamed her.

Liddell then added: “Your Lordships’ House may not be aware that the noble Lord, Lord Lang, has already been under attack for having the audacity to mention the First World War. He has been under attack from a Mr Keith Brown, a member of the Scottish National Party and a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Frankly, that kind of attitude shames me as a Scot.”

Her comments were then seized upon by the First Minister during FMQs the next day who also asked Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, to disassociate herself from the contribution by Lang. She politely refused to pass judgment in the chamber but later released a statement saying that she deplored “intemperate language” no matter what its source. That led to an outburst from another former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who attacked his own party colleague, Davidson, for being “young and a little inexperienced”. But in a counter-attack, a source close to Davidson hit back at the Tory peer who had been one of her backers in the leadership election, helping her defeat frontrunner Murdo Fraser, and said: “Ruth Davidson has now been Scottish Conservative leader for longer than Lord Forsyth was Scottish Secretary.”

Brown, meanwhile, an ex-marine and the only one of them to have actually seen active service as a member of the armed forces, was left bemused. Brown is generally considered one of the more placid, stoic members of the Scottish Parliament. Certainly not someone associated with histrionics… well, yes, OK, he was once labelled a “hooligan” by Labour MP Gordon Banks but it was an unlikely description following a minor incident literally in Brown’s own backyard as he was dramatically accused of attacking a Labour press officer during a prime ministerial tour of his street. Closer inspection of a video helpfully posted on YouTube revealed something much less explosive, though, as a rugby top-clad Brown, who had been gardening when the PM arrived, ambled over to see what was going on but when the press officer spread his arms out in front of Brown to prevent him approaching the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to ask whether he condemned the invasion of Iraq and what he thought about the lack of helicopters in Afghanistan, the MSP brushed the party apparatchik to one side. Hardly the actions of a rabid rabble-rouser.

The controversy left Brown typically nonplussed. It would take a lot to ignite him. And in reality, actually, one of the most excitable things about Keith Brown is his partner, the more obviously gregarious Christina McKelvie, the SNP MSP for Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, whose heartfelt passion for her causes is a contrast to Brown’s often more restrained and sober approach to politics. She is, undoubtedly, the Ying to his Yang. But this is a man that had donned a shiny red cummerbund and matching bow tie to dance the Tango for children’s charity, Aberlour, in its inaugural ‘Strictly Come Prancing’ competition, for god’s sake. He is no pugilist. He has an air of laid-back competence and, as a result, was the oil poured on troubled waters when his predecessor in the transport brief, Stewart Stevenson, resigned in 2010 amid a furore over his handling of the extreme winter weather conditions that had literally brought Scotland to a standstill. Brown strode into the breach, calmly rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job. And while his former military service no doubt contributed to him taking action and seeking resolution, more notably he got stuck right in at the sharp end, being seen frequently wearing an orange fluorescent vest (which hangs on a coat hook in his office) and a hard hat while out inspecting conditions, restoring order, and doing shifts in transport control rooms to ensure that the public felt that their transport system was back in safe hands.

Brown and I sit down as I return from a nightmare journey in London, having been caught up in the two-day tube strike in the capital. I ask him if he has any sympathy for London Mayor, Boris Johnson, whose city was plunged into chaos by the strike called by RMT trade union firebrand boss Bob Crow.

“Transport does tend to throw up these challenges,” he says calmly, not rising to any bait. “And as the minister responsible – and obviously Boris intervened in this case – you are often having to react to events which are outwith your control. However, I would say in relation to Bob Crow though, that we do deal with him quite a bit through the RMT because it has got strong representation not just in rail but in the ferries as well, and I find speaking to him directly is often the best way to deal with these things. I think it’s also true that the RMT is, in its nature, pretty decentralised so it’s not the case that he commands and controls everything and I think you have to appreciate that when you are dealing with him. But I’ve found him to be relatively straightforward to deal with.

“The London Underground is, under normal circumstances, a very good service… I mean it’s a brilliant service… and it has had a lot of investment and if it’s not available like the days that affected you then suddenly the pressure is felt on other parts of the network. But one of our issues here is about the level of investment in the south-east generally, in London in particular, and today’s announcement with a billion-pound order being placed for rail again, the focus is very much on London again. I think we have started to address that in Scotland with record levels of investment in transport but for other parts of the UK, if you look at the disparity between the investment in London for transport as compared to the rest of the UK, some of the figures are startling and it kind of lends credence to that notion, I forget who said it a couple of weeks ago, about London being a dark star that sucks everything into it.

“We most sharply see it in relation to high speed rail because if you talk, as I’ve done, to the local authorities in the north-east and north west of England, they feel easily as left out of this by the limitations of the current proposals as we do in Scotland. There’s also this misconception that high speed rail is about allowing people to access markets in London and it’s not. The central belt of Scotland is, I think, after London, the most economically active part of the UK and there are huge benefits potentially for businesses and others including London by having access, better access, to all those other markets in the UK with more efficient links. I think when people appreciate that, then you start to ask what is going to happen to the north of England beyond Manchester with HS2. So yeah, I think in many cases we have common cause with the people in the north-east and north west of England. The other thing is, and I say this having been interviewed on the likes of BBC Yorkshire and been to lots of conferences in the north of England, is that people in these areas look with real envy, genuine envy, I’m not making it up, at what they see us doing in Scotland with projects like the Borders rail link, Alloa to Stirling, and Ayrshire to Bathgate – they see it as us almost rolling back Beeching and doing much of what they’d love to do but they’ve not had the investment. I think they would tell you that’s often because they lose out to London in terms of the big, huge transport infrastructure investment they have down there.”

I tell Brown that during a recent interview with the Tory minister, Francis Maude, I had asked him how far north he thought HS2 should go and he’d said “absolutely all the way”, meaning Manchester.

He laughs. “I challenged Alistair Carmichael the day that he came up with Susan Kramer [the Lib Dem UK transport minister] to say what his position was. I said: ‘You’re the Secretary of State for Scotland, you’re meant to represent Scotland’s interests in the cabinet, just say you support the idea of it coming to Scotland’ and he wouldn’t do that.

“Where we are at now is basically going back to Justine Greening’s time in transport and myself and Alex Neil, when he was in infrastructure, managed to get her to agree to at least have HS2 communicate with us – it’s very hard to do this without that kind of engagement – so that was a good step forward. I also think there are more promising signs with Sir David Higgins, who’s now taken control of the project as chairman. He was obviously a chair of Network Rail before so he understands the issues and we’ve had enough discussions with him to know that he takes the issue of Scotland on board. He has also made the point that I’ve made for a number of years now, that is, if you do come to Scotland or however far north it comes, then you don’t have to start in the south. The Borders railway line is being built along its length like this now. You don’t have to start at point A and go to point B. And the point made about Japan being a long, thin country with high speed rail running from top to bottom, you could also make about China. They put together 4000 miles of high speed rail in about five years. We’ve talked for more than five years about high speed rail and we’ve not got a single part of it done yet.”

I wonder if the referendum debate and the concerns that the UK Government has expressed about investment in times of constitutional uncertainty apply to the HS2 project.

“Well, some people are saying that, but obviously I can’t be in the mind of UK ministers. We had Patrick McLoughlin [Conservative Transport Secretary] up here the other week and he was saying we can do so much more as part of the Union but that then contrasts, ironically, with his statement that there has been decades of underinvestment in rail under the Union. So all I can say is the Labour government had never committed to it coming to Scotland, the current UK Coalition Government has never committed to it coming to Scotland, and I’m not sure what the basis of the criticism can be about independence threatening it coming to Scotland, apart from the nonsense argument that it would have to cross a border between two sovereign states. As if it didn’t happen already in Belgium and Holland and France and Germany and so on. The interesting thing about one of the lines from Germany into, I think, Holland is that it has to change at the very instant it crosses the border and that’s something to do with the electricity supply being different. So they’ve managed to overcome these things quite easily and we wouldn’t even have to do that because we have the same power supply on both sides of the border, so everyone knows this can be done if the will is there to do it.”

One of the problems for any transport minister is inheriting the transport infrastructure you get. I wonder if he could start with a blank sheet what he would do differently.

“I think if you were starting again from scratch you would do things very differently. But life is never like that, you have to work with what you’ve got. I think part of the issue now is basically trying to improve road links… you know, just the basic idea that your cities are connected by motorway or dual-carriageways, which for a modern, developed country we should have had a long time ago but we’re having to catch up with. We’re also trying to catch up on a railway that never had investment during the British Rail years. I think in those years, they had to make an eight per cent return to the Treasury before they could even invest and the history, the more recent history of railways, has been about cuts, so we’re trying to reverse that. That’s not just a glib political statement. You can look at the stuff we’ve done this year. We’ll spend £800million on rail and £600m plus on roads. So given the fact rail only serves about six per cent of the population – about 83 million users, which is a record high but still only six per cent – it’s a big investment. But we think there are much wider benefits to society by having a rail infrastructure which is efficient and reaches parts of the country which it previously didn’t, like the Borders so it is worth it. But you’re trying to do all that at the same time as all the other transport things we’re trying to do as well and ferries are a huge issue for Scotland. Again, we want to invest in the ferry fleet. We’ve got a new substantial ferry coming in from Ullapool to Stornoway – £45m quids worth. There’s a huge affection and a romance for them but for people that live on the islands around Scotland, it’s their road really, and that’s why the Road Equivalent Tariff came in to dramatically reduce prices for people in the Western Isles and we’re rolling that out elsewhere. That’s shown huge benefits on the Western Isles through tourism as well, really substantial benefits. So we’ve done that and it’s increased ferry numbers.

“I think the other exasperation we have though, it’s that one of the biggest rising costs in ferries is on fuel and rather than do what we do now is to have a fuel duty regulator to try and regulate those peaks and troughs in prices that at the moment we just have to absorb each time and we don’t get the profit because the duty goes down south and gets swallowed up. So it is difficult to meet all those demands and bear down on prices, whether it’s on the railways, where we’ve done much more than the UK Government on bearing down on fares, or on the fares for ferries because we know it’s a tough life for folk – it’s hard on family budgets and when it’s a necessary part of your life to get to and from somewhere by ferry, it can be a huge overhead for folk. So I think we’ve done all that but you’re right, there is always competing demands on transport. As the minister, you’re eager to bring it all up to what it should be, but of course, you’re constrained by the finances available at the time and we’ve just gone through a recession as well.

“Funny though, I met a former transport minister, who will remain nameless… who said to me, ‘Things are going well. Airdrie, Bathgate are going well and the Forth Crossing’s going well’ and I said, ‘Yeah’ and I pointed out a few other examples that were going well and he said, ‘You must have to be meeting people every week’ and I said, ‘That’s what we do’. We have a weekly update on all these projects and there’s a lot of scrutiny goes on there too and I think, and I am trying to be as kind as I can to previous administrations, that perhaps it’s because money is that much tighter now than it was then that the amount of work that goes in to transport projects to make sure we get them right is phenomenal.

“There’s probably not an MSP in here that’s not come to me and talked about transport issues. One time I came out the chamber and I had a queue five deep at the bottom of the stairs standing behind each other with the next issues. You never get a lunchtime without someone asking you about it and I think that’s probably a little bit different to other portfolios.”

Its reach across so many areas of Scottish life, be it from rail, road or air – we now even have our own state-owned airport at Prestwick – does make the transport portfolio unique. But notwithstanding that workload, Brown, a former marine and firmly committed to the welfare of servicemen, asked Alex Salmond in 2012 if he could take on an added responsibility – the role of veterans minister.

“I was very keen to do that. I’ve been really impressed since 2007 at the way we changed the approach to veterans. There was a House of Commons committee, I think a Health Committee, which gave a pretty damning report on provision for veterans in Scotland and then you had Stewart Maxwell [SNP MSP for west Scotland] set up the Veterans Fund which was a first and there was a real focus on the needs of veterans from the Scottish Government with a champion elected to represent them. Basically, I wanted to build on that and of course I meet veterans, as I did before I got this job, right around the country, and I hear some of their stories and it is heartbreaking. So I was quite keen to see if I could help and the First Minister said ‘yes’ and here we are.

“And you are right, it’s very different from transport so why would the two sit together? Well, I think there’s a reason not to create endless posts for different areas because there’s always going to be some level of combination in what’s done. But really, I find it genuinely very rewarding and a real pleasure to meet veterans, whether it’s across the road at the Scottish Veterans Residency or elsewhere around the country.

“However, the frustration can be that the UK government has the power to help us gain much more understanding of military issues simply by extending the current programme they have at Westminster for MPs, to allow MSPs to travel to various areas and bases and they’ve refused to do that. The most absurd one is the issue of me, as veterans minister, going to Afghanistan which I’ve asked now of various ministers, six or seven times. I think we were on the cusp of getting a ‘yes’ to that under Liam Fox then he lost his position and Philip Hammond, I think at the instigation of the MoD, has brought the curtain down on that.

“They’ve sent, among others, Cheryl Cole, and while I can understand that the troops would far rather see Cheryl Cole than me, they’ve also sent members of the European Parliament and lots of people who have no responsibility for veterans at all. And especially since they are making so many folk redundant in Afghanistan, some of them being handed a P45, literally in the frontline, and we immediately have to pick up the pieces from that – try to sort out housing, finance, employment, accommodation, all sorts of things when they get home to Scotland – it just makes perfect sense that I meet them ahead of that and find out what they think is lacking. For example, when I spoke to the guys who had just come back from Afghanistan, they were saying they needed more help with training because a lot of the guys wanted to go to the North Sea and work and there’s things we can do for them in education and skills. Housing is always an issue and, for example, we found out there are two schemes running, one of which has not been updated since the 1980s to help people in the armed forces get housing and one of which only applies to England, in fact, only part of England. So there is a real purpose to that prior engagement and this is not about political point-scoring. We want to do our job better, we want to get a better lot for veterans and every seasoned military veteran I’ve met has said it’s a no-brainer, that of course I should go.

“I’ve asked Mark Francois [Conservative Minister for the Armed Forces] and I get on fine with Mark Francois actually, he’s got a genuine commitment to the military. Hammond [Secretary of State for Defence] I’ve never spoken to directly but I’ve written to him asking and Liam Fox was the first one but the answer has always been ‘no’.”

And their justification…?

“It changed but eventually they said there was no space on the flights and that we weren’t going with foreign military personnel. The most interesting one though was when I was down at an awards ceremony in Cardiff for those that provide heath services to the military and the guy who is Surgeon General or Chief Medical Officer for the Welsh Government said he’d been out a number of times but that there had suddenly been a clampdown. I think after they said ‘no’ to me, they realised they were going to have to say ‘no’ to a number of other people. So it’s really cutting their nose off to spite their face and I think it’s absurd.”

How does that make Brown, as a Scottish Nationalist, feel that he is representing veterans and yet having to go cap-in-hand to ask permission to speak to military personnel in the field and being told no by the UK Government?

“Well, first of all, it is the harsh reality of where we are at constitutionally. But what I have to do now is keep my eyes focused on the fact that we can make a real difference. One of the things I’ve always said is that when you join the military, on day one, they should start a plan for your employment and your housing and possibly for your health provision for when you leave. There’s much more they could do to be joined-up and I think the more enlightened people in the military understand that point and it’s in their interests to do that. So it’s the frustration that’s caused by not being able to do that in a more effective way, by finding out at first hand what the man or the woman that is out in Afghanistan and about to go back into the civic street wants and needs because that can be a really quite scary prospect for a lot of people.”

Brown talks from first hand about the fears veterans face. He was just 19 when he fought in the Falklands as a marine. He saw colleagues killed and talks movingly about some men coming back with major psychological scars and others that came back and just got on with their lives. It’s hard to say where he fits because he describes his time in the Falklands in an almost detached way. Perhaps that’s how he copes.

“I think it’s documented that some people came back with very traumatic issues and I still meet regularly folk that have been in the Falklands that have had real trouble adapting to civilian life and you know, there’s substance abuse going on there and there’s inability to cope with stresses of civilian life, often I think associated with those that have been in for quite some time. The military feed you, they clothe you, they accommodate you so you don’t have to go through these things by yourself and [it’s] much scarier than some of the stuff they’ll do in the forces, they’ll tell you, the idea of running a budget or a household on your own. Some people, because of the particular nature of the conflict, found it very hard to deal with afterwards but other folk… like the guy at the Scottish Veterans Residency, Ian Ballantyne, who has just retired, he was my company commander down there and as best as I can tell, he’s managed to crack on with his life since then and many folk have done that. But I do think there’s a particular and strong commitment given by somebody when they join the armed forces and I think that should be reflected in the commitment we make to them when they come out.

“Well, it’s bound to leave its impression on you, there’s no doubt about that, but I didn’t seem to… I don’t know, I was only in for three years for a start and I’ve got no background in my family in the military and had no real interest in it but the year I did, it was the recession in ’79 and jobs were difficult to come by. My reasoning was something as superficial as trying to get fit. So the three years that I did I really enjoyed but it was enough for me and I felt that I had done what I wanted to do and then I wanted to get on and study, so that’s what I did.

“But there was a guy the same age as me, same name as me, Keith, Keith Phillips, who died the night before the big battle we were involved in and I suppose you ask me, ‘How does it affect you?’ and the idea that his life just stopped then and mine went on… two guys, same age, both called Keith, in the same conflict, it makes you think and when I went down to the Falklands for the 30th anniversary and saw his grave, which hadn’t been visited since 1982, it brought it home to me the arbitrary nature of those kinds of things… who goes on and who doesn’t.

“It’s not that you didn’t think then and in fact I had to write a letter to my mum the night before we went into battle and had to write as if it was the last she would ever get from [me] and I couldn’t get started so you, yes, have a fair idea of how momentous what you’re about to do is. I got a letter from my brother though, probably the only time in his life he’s written to me, just before and he said he’d signed us both up for the first ever Edinburgh marathon so I had better come back. And then when I got back, he said, ‘Actually, I forgot to send my application but your one’s fine’.”

Brown clearly was shaped by his short time in the marines and particularly by the Falklands. His commitment to veterans is unquestionable but I wonder how he would feel though if either of his teenage sons or indeed, his older daughter, wanted to join up.

He lowers his eyelids – he has impossibly long eye lashes that would give Humza Yousaf a run for his money – and looks at me. “What a question that is, Mandy. I think the thing that sticks in your mind as a parent is that if somebody joins the forces now, probably not right now but in the last few years, they were almost certainly going to end up in Afghanistan and I don’t think any parent wants to see their child put in harm’s way. However, both my sons have kind of asked a couple of times about what it was like and one was quite interested in joining the RAF at one point and there’s no question I would ever hold them back [from doing it]. They haven’t pursued it for their own reasons but I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect any parent seeing their son or daughter go into the forces and not to have a worry there as well.”

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