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by Mandy Rhodes
16 October 2023
Neil Gray: I stood on my school chair and talked about independence - I was probably the black sheep of the class

Neil Gray at home with his children | Photo credit: Anna Moffat

Neil Gray: I stood on my school chair and talked about independence - I was probably the black sheep of the class

Arriving at Gray’s neat new-build in Livingston, I’ve barely got over the threshold before his nine-year-old, Isla, watched on attentively by a captive audience of her three younger siblings, seven-year-old Finlay and four-year-old twins, Freya and Emmie, starts basically lecturing me on Keynesian-inspired theories of workforce supply and demand. She rails on about the injustice of the pay differential between volunteers from the local community taking part in the soon-to-be-staged pantomime of Cinderella at Bathgate’s Regal Theatre versus the paid-for professional actors who are brought in as the stars. She runs through the rules governing compulsory comfort breaks; details how the pre-booking ticketing system operates, which means various family members will have to sit in the audience on different dates to see her perform as a mouse called Jerry in the run-up to the Christmas stage-show; and concludes her well-crafted diatribe on the rights and wrongs of the constrained hours she is permitted to work on rehearsals and the impact that has on her play time.

It’s an informed, entertaining, and unexpectedly detailed explanation of the power dynamic inherent within the workplace and Gray, whose job it is to set Scotland’s economy on a new track and reshape the way a nation views and values work, patiently looks on with wife Karlie before telling me that Isla has her sights set on being a lawyer…or, he swallows, a politician. 
Isla is the same age now that her father was when his father had a heart attack just weeks before Christmas and when Gray reflects on that painful time, it is easy to see why his focus in government is on building a fairer, more just, more family-oriented economy that works for all.

Gray’s father – “a Torry loon” – was medically discharged from the army with a brain tumour when he was in his 20s. He went through major and fairly pioneering surgery at the time – in the 1960s. He was told he would likely never walk again. However, through sheer determination and extraordinary willpower, he did learn to walk although was left permanently paralysed down one side and with one hand that doesn’t work at all. Married to his first wife at the time and with two young boys – Gray’s half-brothers, Alistair and Duncan – Gray says he can only imagine how devastating the experience must have been for his father, to have his whole world completely upended.

“It must have been a pretty profound, life-changing situation for my dad. He was a young man in his 20s with two young children and a career in the army. He had been on tour in various places around the world including a stint in Germany, he basically travelled all over the place, and then that was it, it all came crashing down. Just a pretty seismic change in direction for him in terms of what his life was going to be and how he was going to live it, and a reminder for us all, I guess, of how unpredictable life can be.”

By the time Gray was born in 1986, followed by his younger brother, Ronald, his father had remarried, and Gray’s parents were living back in his mother’s birthplace of Orkney. Gray’s father was eventually awarded a war disablement pension from the army, which was only paid out when his then MP, Donald Dewar, who held the seat of Aberdeen South at the time in the late 1960s, campaigned vigorously on his behalf. Money was always tight and Gray never knew of his father being able to work in full-time employment because of ill-health but says the family all pulled together.

“Dad’s health wasn’t great and aside from the disabilities caused by the brain tumour, he had various other issues and several heart attacks brought on by the stress of it all. We didn’t have much money growing up and in fact, we were pretty hard up. I guess there was an awareness, as children, that we maybe didn’t have all that other kids might have had but it was never really an issue and, in some ways, living where we did, in Orkney, maybe that made it easier, less external pressures, and I also think you could be right too, Mandy, there was more a sense of community, of egalitarianism, and that made things easier.

“Dad tried not to let his disability hold him back and was always busy working on things on the house or the smallholding and I remember, even though his hand never worked, he would just adapt so he could do things. I can remember being quite young, holding one end of a piece of wood while he sawed through it, and he just found ways around his disability – it wasn’t an issue.

“Certainly, Mum and Dad instilled in us a real sense of a work ethic. I knew that the tattie holidays were the tattie holidays because I would be out tattie picking earning some money. We would also go whelk picking on the beaches. We just all pitched in. There was always a feeling that hard work was important, that community was important, and that family was all. 

“We lived on a smallholding and kept geese, turkeys and caddy lambs and we all helped out with the animals, plucking the birds and the like. At the time, and I didn’t actually know this was the purpose of what this was for, but we would have the geese and turkeys and whatnot fattened up and oven ready for Christmas in order to get the cash that would allow Christmas presents to be bought. So, Mum and Dad would be chasing around the island on Christmas Eve, delivering the birds and so on, and asking people for cash, not a cheque, so that they could then go in to town and get the Christmas presents bought for us. That must have felt pretty desperate at times, but we didn’t know anything different.

“One winter when I was about Isla’s age, eight or nine, it was particularly bad weather-wise and my dad took a heart attack while he was plucking the birds, and I can vividly remember the ambulance couldn’t get up the road because of the snow and he was having to be wheeled down the road on a stretcher with the blue light going on the ambulance and it was all pretty dramatic. That’s the kind of memory and feeling from being a child that doesn’t ever leave you.” 

Despite Gray’s father’s health issues, he was extremely active in the local community, as was Gray’s mother, a special needs teacher who went back to work as a supply teacher when both her boys were older. Gray’s father was on the local school board and successfully campaigned to prevent the closure of the primary school on Burray which was always at risk because of the size of the intake – Gray was one of just four in his year at school – and a brand-new school now attests to Gray’s father’s efforts.

It was that hard-fought campaign that Gray cites as sparking his interest in the power of politics to get things done. And while he says party politics was never discussed at home, topical issues were very much to the fore. The news was always on and conversations among visiting friends and neighbours, always lively. But, Gray says, he was never aware of how his parents voted – indeed, his mother has only just admitted to voting for the SNP, and only since her son became a member of the government. And it is only in recent times that Gray learned that his father campaigned on behalf of the SNP in Aberdeenshire back in the 1970s, although he jokingly refers to his father as “probably being further to the right than I am”.

That’s interesting, given we are speaking just days after party veteran, Fergus Ewing, – famously described as a right-winger – was suspended from the SNP for voting in a vote of no confidence in the Green minister Lorna Slater. I chide Gray on the fact that the party used to actually be a broad church. Uncharacteristically, he cuts me short by emphatically asserting that it still is, and that party discipline is vital.

In terms of Gray’s allegiance to the SNP, a party that he only joined after university, he remembers a particular moment in his history class when he was about 16-years-old at Kirkwall High when the class was having a debate about Scottish independence. His teacher, Jim Burton, who Gray describes as “very left, probably a communist” and “an incredible teacher of the old school, unafraid to expose us to different thinking”, told Gray to stand on his chair and explain to the class his thinking.

“Karlie will remember this because she was in the class when it happened [the pair have been together since meeting at high school] so I must have been about 16 or 17 and Mr Burton got me to stand up on my chair and defend my position. It was about independence, more than the SNP, but I was basically saying how important I felt that it was for Scotland to be able to run its own affairs. I’m not sure where that came from, but I just felt it was a natural state of affairs.

“Funnily enough, I was about 13 when the Scottish Parliament was reopened in 1999 and I was picked by the school to be part of the official parade of schoolchildren that marched down the Royal Mile past the Queen and Donald Dewar. There I was, carrying the Orkney flag, and that probably sparked an element of interest in Scottish politics because you really felt the moment and to me, it just felt natural, and I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a parliament before then. It didn’t fit with my worldview that we were a nation, so why would we not have a parliament?

“Anyway, I stood on my chair and talked about why I felt independence was important and I guess, given one of the hardest pro-Union votes came from Orkney in 2014, I was probably the black sheep of the class at that time and that my view was not the norm.”

However, despite that early foray into political debate, it was sport rather than politics that consumed Gray at the time. He ran competitively for the school and was set for a professional running career until injury put paid to that dream. He still says it is his running medals that are among his most precious possessions.

“I played football, rugby, badminton, swimming, Octopush, which is big in Orkney, it’s not really big anywhere else, go and Google that later, and, as years went by, one dropped off and the next one dropped off, until it was just athletics. And it was, at that stage in my life, fundamental to who I was. I saw myself as being an athlete and other people saw me as being an athlete and in a small community when you’ve got an element of success, people obviously see that and recognise it quicker than perhaps elsewhere. And yes, I liked that recognition. 

“I got into running at my wee primary school and always won everything there and I remember going to my first real competition and Mum and Dad tried setting my expectations low by basically saying I wouldn’t win. Dad even gave me advice which was to sit behind the leader and then sprint the final straight if I could. Well, I led the race from 200m in and won. That was it. Hooked. I went on to run for Orkney and for Scotland at all age groups – 400m was my best event (48.92 PB) but I competed at 100m (10.98 PB) and 200m (22.3 PB) as well, but not as often. I captained the Scotland team (which included Eilidh Doyle at the time), went on tours to Ireland etc. I was national age group champion, indoors and outdoors, and was on a 2014 Commonwealth Games pathway when I injured my knee when I was in my final year at university.

“It was actually at a relay development day that I caught my spikes in the track and that was it. Ripped or damaged almost every ligament in my knee which took two operations to sort, but it was the nerve damage that had the biggest impact. My surgeon, who was brilliant and undoubtedly saved my running, initially told me that I wouldn’t walk without a splint, never mind be able to run. But I think his actions meant my knee moved quicker and nerve damage, though not fully recovered, has repaired better than expected. I still slap my foot walking sometimes and ankle stability [is] not there, but much better than expected and yes, that stopped the sprinting at that level.”

Gray was in his final year at the University of Stirling when the injury happened. Having been turned down for the politics course, he initially studied sport, psychology, and media studies before later shifting to politics and journalism. He says he didn’t get involved in student politics then because his spare time was all taken up with his twice daily athletics training but following the accident, he diverted all his attention into his studies and gained a first. His final-year dissertation was an exploration of Scottish nationalism. 

It was a university lecturer who encouraged him to apply for an internship with the SNP and from there, Gray got a job working with the former MSP Alex Neil, managing his constituency office and running his 2011 election campaign. With Neil’s encouragement, Gray, who was both devastated and motivated by the result of the 2014 independence referendum, stood for Westminster in 2015 and, to his own shock and that of his wife, won.    

Having not expected to win at his first attempt, Gray says he sold the fact of his standing to his wife as “an experience builder”. When polling suggested Airdrie and Shotts was among the seats the SNP was likely to win, he still did not believe it would happen.

“It was hard for all of us at the time because there was a big bounce in SNP support, but it was hard to predict how sustainable that was going to be,” he says. “We bore the scars of the referendum and there was an expectation that things would fall back, but we were campaigning hard and could pick up where the wind was blowing.”

The results when they came were “incredible”, he says, with the SNP taking 56 of the 59 seats contested. “That wave – you forget how big a moment that was in Scottish politics and to be part of that huge shift in the political norm in Scotland, taking out big, big names, like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy – was a massive, massive moment. To be part of that felt like we were part of history.”

When he entered Westminster, Gray had two small children, Isla and Finlay, but with the birth of the twins, Emmie and Freya in 2019, though he was re-elected for a second term that year, Gray felt he could no longer justify the time away from home and made the decision to stand down and contest the Holyrood seat being vacated by the retiring Neil, which he won in 2021.

He was quickly tipped for the top. After just 18 months as an MSP, the former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appointed him to her ministerial team, with responsibility for international development and then in addition, for Ukrainian refugees. He won the One to Watch gong at Holyrood’s Garden Party and Political Awards a few months later. And when Sturgeon stood down earlier this year, he was being discussed in certain quarters as a potential successor. He says he did think about it and “there were conversations had” but that, fundamentally, with four children all under the age of eight, he felt he couldn’t give the job of first minister everything that it required and once Humza Yousaf put his hat in the ring, Gray threw his full support behind him. 

“I had a pretty early conversation with Humza, obviously, and when I knew that he was thinking about it, I was pretty clear in my mind that he was absolutely the right person to take us forward. That was the right thing to do. And I gave a very early commitment that I would support him.”

Gray was by Yousaf’s side throughout the leadership contest and that unequivocal support was rewarded when the new first minister gave Gray the pivotal role of Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy in his new Cabinet. I ask him how that whole notion of spending more time with the family is going.

He laughs before describing how important it is that he and Yousaf, as the fathers of young children, understand the pressures of family life and the vital role their respective wives bring to their support of them.

“Humza and I are friends, we understand each other, can be open with each other, be frank with each other, and we can also challenge each other, and that is so important in government when you are looking for new ideas. We both understand the importance of our family and the pressures we are all under. We meet up and we have playdates with the kids. Amal [Yousaf’s youngest daughter] is the same age as my twins, and Nadia and Karlie know each other and get on, so that’s really nice. It means we can properly reflect on how well  – or not – we are doing at juggling work and family life and, just as important as it is having that strong team behind you at home, it’s also important to have that camaraderie at work as well, and have a mutual understanding of those pressures of work and having young children, because it’s not easy.

“There’s no doubt that without Karlie’s support, I couldn’t do this. She is incredibly successful in her own right as a teacher, and I am very proud of her, but she also brings a very strong political judgement of her own to our relationship. It’s funny, I remember how Jim Sillars always told the story of the Govan by-election and going home and how he would say to the troops, ‘It’s all right, for you guys, you know, you’re going home to a nice warm home, I’m going home to a public meeting,’ which meant he was going home to Margo [MacDonald]  – I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s quite like that, and I really miss Margo’s judgement on things – but what I get from Karlie is something similar, that incredibly strong support and very strong political judgement of her own, as does Nadia for Humza.”

Given the twists and turns Gray’s career has taken, from the running track to politics, it’s interesting to note that he actually thought his career would be in journalism – covering politics. He did a stint at BBC Radio Orkney, doing weekend sports reports while at school and then towards the end of his university course was doing research shifts for Good Morning Scotland. I ask him what he would be asking if our roles were reversed.

“Cracking question…I’d ask, ‘How will you achieve independence?’ because that is the challenge for us [in the SNP], without a question. That’s where political discourse is at the minute. The constitutional question is still the dividing line in Scottish politics. And at election time, it’s still the decisive dividing line for the way people vote.”

So, reverting to our more natural roles, I ask why hasn’t his party been able to shift that dial on support for independence?

“There has been quite a lot of other things going on that people are considering, so I don’t think there has been that concerted campaign in order to get the position shifted. I’m not particularly concerned about the fact that we’re floating between, you know, anywhere between 45 to 55 per cent of the polls, because that is a far better starting point than where we were going into 2014.

“And I think it’s now about making the issues that we’re facing relevant for people on the constitutional question. So, looking at my portfolio at the minute, energy, which is absolutely fundamental, and we are energy rich, but we’re power poor, and we’ve got high levels of fuel poverty, and that is absolutely wrong. The cost-of-living crisis, that is absolutely wrapped up in the constitutional question, so, when we’re discussing the cost-of-living crisis in the parliament and then we mention that as part of a constitutional issue, and the opposition say it is not relevant, in my view, it’s absolutely fundamentally relevant.

“And I think there is more for us to do in taking that current situation that people are facing and turning it into a reason why they need to support independence. There’s work, as you’d expect, going on in government in terms of how we set out that economic case, the case around the energy situation, around the cost-of-living crisis situation, and explaining to people as to why independence is absolutely fundamental to dealing with those issues.

“Bill Clinton was almost right when he said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ because now ‘it is the wellbeing economy, stupid’ and understanding what the economy can do for people. We need to continue to see economic growth, but it has to be sustainable. And it has to be for a purpose. And that purpose is about generating greater fairness in our society.”

Given the personal wealth of both the UK prime minister and Gray’s counterpart, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, I ask him whether his more difficult background makes it easier for him to understand the hardship that many people are currently experiencing in a cost-of-living crisis and whether that then feeds into his views on economic policy.

“I think that’s true to a point, but I don’t think that having wealth and entitlement necessarily debars you from having empathy, or from having a desire to want to help other people. But I feel it’s intrinsic in me, knowing what I grew up with, and that desire to want to see other people not having to go through that, for children in particular, is just something I inherently understand. And so, I don’t think that my experience is better or worse, or gives me a greater or lesser say, but it just means that I know fundamentally what it feels like, because I have lived it.” 

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