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My rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was better than being an MP – Pete Wishart

Pete Wishart is Scotland's longest serving MP | Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

My rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was better than being an MP – Pete Wishart

Last month, as almost a quarter of a million festival-goers sang, danced, and cheered along as they watched veteran mega star Sir Elton John play Glastonbury for the very first time in his 52-year-long music career, there was one Scottish MP who could claim to have trumped the Rocket Man by playing the famous Pyramid Stage at Worthy Farm well before him.

As Elton belted out his many smash hits, Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, reminisced that it was 31 years, almost to the day, that he took to the Glastonbury stage with his band Runrig as part of a massive global tour taking in concerts across Denmark, Germany, Estonia, France and Canada, playing to hundreds of thousands of fans.

Sharing a wistful memory, Wishart tweeted: “We played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 1992 as part of a summer tour when we were going from festival to festival and never really appreciated just how special it was. Oh, to do it again...”

And while Wishart confesses that he can remember little of the occasion – more of that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle later – he has just marked another important and perhaps more clear-headed anniversary: 22 years since swapping rock music for politics, when he was elected on 7 June 2001 as an MP, taking John Swinney’s old seat of Tayside North.

Wishart (left) with Big Country band membersFrom rockstar to politician, Wishart is now the longest-serving Scottish MP at Westminster and although Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael claims to share that title, given he technically ‘signed in’ at Westminster just ahead of Wishart, it was Wishart’s vote that was declared first on election night itself, so, that will do him.

Reflecting on a political career that has spanned almost a quarter of a century, that has seen him be SNP chief whip; vie to be the Speaker of the House of Commons – which he describes as more of a stunt to “shake things up”, than a real pitch; and now the shadow leader of the House and chair of the influential Scottish Affairs Select Committee, I ask Wishart what is better – being a rockstar or an MP?

“Ha, well, I would be lying if I wasn’t saying that it was the music. I mean, tell me what’s wrong with a lifestyle that involves going on a tour bus, travelling hundreds of miles, arriving in new places, doing a soundcheck, playing in front of thousands of people, taking in all that applause, going out clubbing all night, staying in hotels, getting out your bed at 12 o’clock, getting onto the tour bus, and doing it all over again? Tell me, who would have a problem with that? When any musician says, ‘it’s hard work’, it’s not hard work, it’s really easy. And it’s fun.

“You’re getting the adulation of thousands and thousands of people who just want you to entertain them. And I think with Runrig what we also had was a huge communal part of what we were with our audience, there was a real connection. And sometimes, you would walk off the stage, and you’d have to go outside just to try and calm down and get an assessment of what had just happened because it was like, wow, and it took a lot to come down from something like that. So, I’d be lying to say that it’s better standing in the House of Commons being jeered at and aggressively intervened by people determined to try and catch you out on a variety of things. But seriously, I do love doing this [politics] too.

The House of Commons is the biggest political theatre in the world, there’s nowhere like the House of Commons for the performance of politics

“There’s also a whole range of common similarities to the two things, like preparing for hours, as I did yesterday for a speech, finding the right words, the focus, the emotions, and then when you stand there on the floor of the House and try and assert things, that’s a performance, and I realise it’s a performance. The House of Commons is the biggest political theatre in the world, there’s nowhere like the House of Commons for the performance of politics. So, there is a lot of connections and similarities between the two things, and it always surprises me that so few people do come from the world of entertainment into politics. Take Glenda Jackson [who died in June], she was an MP during my first term at parliament, and I remember thinking, here we were, these two people that had been in entertainment, albeit she had won Oscars and would probably have dismissed me as someone who got to wherever in the charts or been on Top of the Pops, and she, by contrast, was a real thespian, but I remember saying to her that it was strange that others didn’t follow us from entertainment into politics. But in truth, even though she was a very good politician, I don’t think she really enjoyed it. She was very good at speaking in the House because it was, as I say, a performance, but I wonder if people like Glenda would come from entertainment into politics and just miss that big stage and that adulation because you’re not going to get that here, particularly in this day and age with social media and that sort of thing, and you can see when you open up social media after a speech that not everyone heard or liked what you thought you had said. But I do know that there are so many things that I’ve taken from my time in music and been able to use them in the world of politics.”

Wishart was born and brought up in Fife. His parents, Nan and Alex, both came from large mining families in Kelty and in an area that was solidly Labour, where the joke was that you didn’t count the votes, you weighed them. His parents weren’t particularly political. He has an early memory of meeting an SNP councillor who presented him with a prize for winning a school table-tennis competition and says he can also remember his mother being “not particularly happy” when she went to see Dick Douglas, who was at the time a Labour MP (he later joined the SNP) with some problem or other, but then he adds, jokingly, “she was never particularly happy with any service she got”. He says his first real introduction to politics and political debate was via his grandad who was a trade unionist in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and he would talk to him about Michael Foot and Tony Benn. But he also had an uncle who was a member of the Communist party which Wishart remembers as being “highly exotic” at the time.

By his own admission, Wishart did “badly in school” because his head was only full of music. “All I ever wanted to do was play music and be in a band. I would sit in the classroom composing tunes in my head and trying to work out how to make it work. I was in bands from about 15 years old and basically, school just sustained me through that. I worked in the local Fine Fare at nights and that gave me money, so between night shifts in Fine Fare, going to school, and playing in a band in the evening before a night shift, that actually suited me and when you’ve got the energy of a 16 or 17-year-old, that was okay. So, staying on in school actually suited my lifestyle at that point and then I stumbled into college because my uncle, the communist, was doing community education at Moray House, and said it was really good. I went along without any expectation of getting in because usually they liked people who had already graduated but basically, I was offered a place, so I took it.

“I was the youngest by a long way because most of them were graduates and all the lecturers were Marxists. It was brilliant. I was 18 years old, confronted with all this knowledge and I remember reading all the stuff that was recommended. It wasn’t so much about community education, more community agitation. And I thought I could settle for this, but then, a year after I started college, I was offered the place in Big Country.”

The conversation about joining Big Country with its frontman Stuart Adamson was, says Wishart, the “biggest conversation of my life”. He says that everything else in his life followed from that.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything that I’ve done subsequently in my life and career without Stuart Adamson. Had he not said, ‘come and join Big Country’, I would never have gotten into Runrig, if I hadn’t got into Runrig, it is highly unlikely I would have gotten into frontline politics. So, all of it comes back to that ask from Stuart to be part of his band.”

Wishart describes a dynamic music scene in Dunfermline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, centred around the Kinema Ballroom which became a mecca for up-and-coming bands including more high-profile ones such as The Clash, The Stranglers and The Jam. As a fellow musician, Wishart soon got to know Stuart Adamson and Richard Jobson who, together, had formed the punk band, The Skids, which had some early success, having been championed by the DJ John Peel and their hit single Into the Valley reached number 10 in the charts. Wishart’s band often supported The Skids, but with Jobson attracted to life in London and Adamson determined to make a home in Scotland, the band ultimately fell apart. Jobson later said of Adamson: “This was a guy who had a mortgage, a wife, and a family when we were all trying to live some mythic punk lifestyle. He seemed level-headed, grounded.”

It was Adamson who persuaded Wishart to leave college to join his next band, Big Country, along with Wishart’s younger brother, Alan. Having negotiated with Moray House that he could return to finish his studies at a later date, Wishart followed his dream. There is no doubting that Adamson was an extraordinary musician, but he was also a very complex character who had problems with drugs and alcohol. On tour with Alice Cooper, the band was reportedly sacked by Cooper’s management team for “being too weird” – which is something when you consider Cooper’s reputation.

Wishart describes that time as remarkable. “I remember they had a guy standing at the side of the stage with his finger pointed outwards at an angle and I thought, what on earth is this, and he was basically the coke roadie. He stood all night like that, and Alice Cooper used to run off stage, snort from the guy’s finger and then come back onto stage to carry on. I was only 18 at the time and being exposed to remarkable music but also thinking, ‘all right, welcome to rock and roll’.”

I always thought there was a way back for Alex, you know, but I think it would have had to have started with assuming responsibility for some of the things that he had said and done

So, to that question always asked of politicians on whether they have taken drugs, Wishart laughs and says: “I always give the famous answer that Alex [Salmond] once gave which is, ‘yes, but I’ve never exhaled’. Look, I had a normal rock and roll lifestyle, that is the best way to put it. If you get into conversations about stuff like that as a politician, you know you’re never going to win. I mean, it would be wrong to say that I’ve never experienced stuff like that because it would just be rubbish. I was a musician in the 1980s, you’re going to see and be confronted with certain things, and you’re going to indulge in certain things too, so there’s no point in having the conversation about it because it’s just there, basically.”

Wishart describes things as “ending badly” with Big Country. In fact, Adamson ultimately gave Wishart an ultimatum that he could stay with the band but his brother was out. Wishart loyally stuck with Alan and left Big Country, although he now laughingly acknowledges that his brother would not necessarily have done the same for him.

Adamson had his demons which ultimately overtook him, and he killed himself in December 2001, just six months after Wishart was first elected as an MP. Wishart still expresses deep regret that he wasn’t able to save Adamson and says that in retrospect, he felt he could have been a stabilising influence on him. “Maybe, one of the worst decisions in my life was not to remain in Big Country,” he tells me. “I can’t help but wonder, had I stayed, maybe there would have been a way that I could have helped Stuart through his difficulties and problems… would I have been able to have done something to help him down from, you know, some of those darkest points in life? I don’t know, but I do think about it.”

Adamson clearly had a huge impact on Wishart. He talks about him with such fulsome adoration that I ask if he was in love with him. Wishart says he was in a way, rooted in enormous admiration of Adamson’s musical prowess.

After Big Country, Wishart returned to Moray House to finish his course and he became student president in 1984 when the miners’ strike was at its peak, a time which he describes as “a hugely traumatic period” and “the last big fight for someone of my working-class background and generation”.

At that point, Wishart was a member of the Labour Party and was on the NUS executive, mixing with the likes of Tommy Sheppard, Jack McConnell and Bob McLean. He says that even then, it was clear that they were all going to become important political figures and he tried to measure himself against them.

Shortly after his term as student president, Wishart joined Runrig which is when his politics become more aligned with the cause for independence and the pull to campaign for a Scottish Parliament. He says he became an SNP voter in the late 1980s, a more active supporter in the 1990s, and a member in 1993. The band already had a particular political bent around issues to do with land reform, the Gaelic language and nuclear installations, but he says that touring with Runrig in the Nordic countries like Denmark, Finland and Norway, where he saw first hand a particular form of social cohesion, he began to question why these small countries were so much more successful than Scotland and he realised it was because they handled their own affairs.

He was vetted by the SNP to be a parliamentary candidate in the late 1990s, alongside a young Angus Robertson who he remembers as wearing “a weird yellow suit and with a mass of red curly hair”. However, when Runrig’s lead singer, Donnie Munro, announced he would be leaving the band to contest the Westminster seat of Ross, Skye and Inverness West in the 1997 general election for the Labour Party, Wishart decided it wouldn’t be fair for the future of the band for him to leave at the same time, so he stayed and put his political aspirations on hold. The chance to stand came up again in 2000 when John Swinney announced he would be standing down from Westminster. Wishart played his last gig with Runrig in December 2000 and was elected as the MP for Tayside North in June 2001. The seat was later renamed as Perth and North Perthshire.

Alex Salmond was hugely influential in persuading him to stand. He was a fan of Runrig and would often come to see them play. Wishart says that Salmond sought him out and gave him the encouragement to stand. Refreshingly, given the circumstances, he talks with great compassion and openness about Salmond and his regret at what has transpired.

“I am so disappointed about what happened with Alex; it was really awful. And as a person, I really feel for him and what he’s gone through, at what must have been an absolutely dreadful experience. I always thought there was a way back for Alex, you know, but I think it would have had to have started with assuming responsibility for some of the things that he had said and done. But he’s never been prepared to do that. I sort of suggested that maybe he wanted to go into an interview with one Mandy Rhodes, for instance, and just talk about everything, clear the slate, acknowledge some of the things that came out in court. I think, had he done all that, there would have possibly been a way back for him and he would have been embraced. I think that a lot of the difficulties we’ve had in relationships [between the SNP and Alba] since then could probably have been resolved. But it would have had to start with Alex accepting and acknowledging that something went badly wrong, and addressing some of the things that came out in the trial, but that’s not happened.

“I worked for Alex for the best part of eight years, very, very closely. I saw nothing. And I don’t think I’m a person that lacks perception. I get a sense of what’s happening around about me, and I knew nothing about any of this. And it’s funny because I was chief whip and then when all the police investigation was going on, I was never asked about anything. I think I was casually asked by somebody whether I had any files on Alex, and I said, what, I have no files, I have nothing, because that wasn’t the way that we operated. I think this idea that somehow, as a chief whip, I was sitting with an Alex Salmond folder, was, you know, absurd, that just did not exist at all. So no, I didn’t know anything. And when all this hit, I was as surprised as anybody and I have had to think, what did I miss, what did I not see, and even now, looking back, there was nothing, no little signs of anything, just totally out of the blue.

“I occasionally see Alex when I am flying back and forward, you know, and it’s [our relationship] just really reduced to a ‘hello’, nothing more, and that is sad.

“Alex is one of the smartest people you’d ever meet in politics. And when I was down here at Westminster in my early days, it was him and I that sort of ran the group, I was his chief whip, he was the leader, and we were really dependent on him because we were all new and he was a great mentor. He was generous with his time, and he was always supportive. Even if you’d totally fucked up, Alex would have your back and help you get over whatever it was. I think what we’ve all lost through this, to have lost that huge statesman that he could have been, you know, for us as a party, we’ve lost out on that. And we still suffer because of that.”

I think there is a chance we will be independent in the next five years, but I think we have got to accept the position that we find ourselves in just now

I ask Wishart if he recognises any parallels between the way he regards Salmond and the way he regarded Adamson, two huge influences in his life.

“Yes, absolutely. I had never thought about that before but yeah, there is a commonality between them as big figures and the character of these people who transcend their chosen career profession, people who stand out at what they do. Stuart Adamson was that person in music, and Alex was that person in politics. So yeah, there is. They both, quite curiously, had the same sort of personality characteristics. With Alex, it was obviously his words and ideas and for Stuart, it was in music, but they were both able to reach out to an audience in a very singular, individual way.

“I think the moment for any sort of healing between Alex and the party is past now. I don’t really think there’s room for that anymore. I don’t think there’s any opportunity to do that. I think there was a point in the early days of all this where that was maybe possible and that conversation could have been had, but I don’t think that exists anymore. Too much has been said and done. And relationships have been so flawed and broken. I just don’t think there’s a way to put that back together again.”

Given the party’s more recent travails, I ask Wishart what his assessment is of where the SNP is right now.

“I think the party is in a really difficult situation, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that. I joined the party almost 30 years ago, been a frontline politician for 22, been a member of the NEC since about 1996, and there’s always been an upward trajectory. And other than the 2017 minor blip, there was always this assumption that we would quickly brush ourselves down and get on with things, but this is quite an unusual situation to be looking at in terms of difficulties, yes, a little bit of electoral decline, but other problems that seem to be constantly emerging and seem almost insurmountable. I think there’s a way through it, I don’t think things are decided and concluded at this point, and we may, in the next few weeks and months, surprise absolutely everybody and find support building again and we’re able to communicate effectively what we’re trying to achieve.

“I think there is a chance we will be independent in the next five years, but I think we have got to accept the position that we find ourselves in just now. The easy route out of all of this was an agreed referendum, but that has all but been closed down. I am at a point where I have accepted the ‘no’ from the UK Government for now and I think that they are serious when they say that. So that route has gone, and we now have to start to try and be creative and different about how we try and secure this agreed referendum.

“My proposal is that we look at every election as a referendum, with the first line of an SNP manifesto saying that if we secure the majority of the votes in this election, Scotland is determined to become an independent country. We would need 50 per cent plus one of all that vote. Would the UK accept it? Probably not. But we are not responsible for how the UK responds to these situations and what we will have done is demonstrate to the UK and the world that Scotland has decided to be an independent nation and whether that elicits some sort of positive response from the UK, I don’t know, but they might actually go ‘oh, alright, you’ve done it’, and it will move things forward.”

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