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On independence manoeuvres: An interview with Keith Brown

On independence manoeuvres: An interview with Keith Brown

As justice secretary and deputy leader of the SNP, Keith Brown is part of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s inner circle; along with equalities minister Christina McKelvie he is one half of an SNP power couple. On paper, though, he is an unlikely nationalist. 

A former Royal Marine who served in the Falklands after swearing allegiance to Queen and country, and a former council worker who in the 1980s stood for office on an anti-poll tax ticket before going on to become active in the trade union movement, the Scottish parliamentary representative for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane would seem to make more sense as either a Tory or a Labour man. Yet while he toyed with the idea of joining the latter while studying politics at the University of Dundee, it was his strong belief in the case for Scottish independence that led him towards the nationalist cause.

“When I was at university, I was going to be either Labour or SNP,” he recalls. “Support for the SNP was at about 12 per cent in the polls at that time. If I joined Labour, I would have had a fairly good opportunity because that was where the action was, but I thought the SNP were more likely to bring about a Scottish parliament and independence.”

Ultimately, of course, it was Labour that brought about devolution and the creation of the parliament in which Brown has served since 2007. Yet even though he plumped for the SNP, Brown maintained ties with the Labour movement after that decision was made, signing up for a Scottish assembly fundraiser on the suggestion of Jim Boyack – a prominent Labour activist and devolution campaigner – on his return to Civvy Street.

“When I left the Marines in 1983 the first thing I did was run the Edinburgh Marathon to raise money for a Scottish assembly,” Brown says. “The person who got me involved was [Labour MSP] Sarah Boyack’s father.”

He may have a soft spot for Labour, but when it comes to the suggestion that anyone serving in the armed forces is likely to be a Tory, Brown – who as well as being justice secretary has portfolio responsibility for veterans – is scathing, noting that people sign up for a wide variety of reasons, with political leanings unlikely to be chief among them.

“I’ve been to one or two reunions over the years and I’m surprised by the number of veterans who are supportive [of the SNP],” he says. “Sometimes the support is not where you would expect. When I went to a [Falklands] 40th anniversary reunion they said ‘we’re right behind you’. They didn’t necessarily say why that was, but sometimes veterans are unhappy with their experience of leaving the armed forces and things like pensions. I don’t like it when veterans are described as Conservative.”

Certainly, if his own experience is anything to go by, a deep-seated allegiance to the crown and everything it stands for is not a prerequisite for becoming a Marine. Beyond mandatory national service there was no history of service in Brown’s family, and he only signed up himself because, disillusioned with school, he saw it as a good way “to get fit”. Having wandered into a Royal Navy recruitment office, he saw a poster for the Marines and decided that was the service for him.

Though he admits he chose probably the most extreme way possible of improving his fitness, Brown says what his forces career gifted him was not just physical fitness, but mental strength too – something that often needs to be in plentiful supply when you are at the coal face of Scottish politics.

“To pass out as a Marine you have to do the Commando Test,” Brown says. “The training is the longest in the world and if you’ve done seven months but can’t do that last test, which is a 30-mile march across Dartmoor, then you don’t get your green beret. The mental stuff is much harder than the physical stuff – you have to look after a chicken then kill and eat it, you have to spend the entire night cleaning and ironing your kit – but it’s all for a purpose and it sets you up for life. In the Marines in particular there’s a heavy emphasis on self-discipline – being a self-starter and relying on yourself to do certain things. The Marines have the Special Boat Service, and their motto is ‘not by strength, by guile’. That’s been an important life lesson.”

We are talking in Brown’s office in the Scottish Parliament, where the foot of an Action Man figure – a gift from a colleague – pokes out of a cupboard as he stands to get his photo taken. He says he’s not a big fan of doing interviews, preferring the way that photoshoots turn out to reading how journalists have chosen to present his words. He is certainly at ease getting his picture taken, stepping and turning like a pro and alternating between smiley and serious on command.

Then again, for someone who doesn’t like reading interviews with himself – and who last year was criticised for dodging journalists in the Holyrood canteen rather than answer questions about what was at that time the unfolding ferries fiasco – he seems equally at ease chatting. As the end of our allotted 30 minutes draws near, we are given a four-minute warning, but he bats it off with the observation that he can easily make a bit more time. Ten extra minutes are added, and it is me, conscious of the aides behind me and the length of time we have run over by, who wraps things up. But that’s for later – at the moment he remains keen to talk.

The original reason for doing this interview was to discuss how the justice brief and SNP deputy leadership – as well as the Scottish Parliament itself – have developed during almost 24 years of devolution. Prior to the Scottish Parliament being formed Brown, who worked in local government administration on graduating in the late 1980s, had been a councillor in Clackmannanshire, winning a 1996 by-election by four votes after several earlier  failed attempts, and had stood unsuccessfully in both UK and European elections.

“I was trying to advance independence,” he says, “and for a long time the route was Westminster or Europe.”

He wasn’t part of the inaugural intake of MSPs, having come sixth on a list that could admit only five, and didn’t enter Holyrood until he won the Ochil seat in 2007. But he was at the opening of parliament in his role as Clackmannanshire’s deputy provost and, given how focused he was on returning there as a member himself, has been a keen observer of how the legislature has developed ever since.

“I think there has been a substantial maturing of the parliament,” he says. “It has taken some really huge decisions, such as the smoking ban, and is now seen by people in Scotland as their default parliament.”

Perhaps given his experience as leader of Clackmannanshire Council from 2003, Brown was swiftly handed ministerial responsibility when he finally did enter Holyrood, taking on the skills and lifelong learning and transport briefs before becoming cabinet secretary for infrastructure, investment, and cities in 2014. Nobody knew it at the time, but it turns out it was something of an ill-fated appointment, with ferry services falling under his remit but the now-notorious contract with Ferguson Marine seemingly failing to come under his scrutiny.

The dodging of journalists in the Holyrood canteen aside, Brown seems to have emerged from the ferries scandal relatively unscathed, with his successor as transport minister – disgraced former MSP Derek Mackay – singled out as the fall guy. When it comes to the justice brief, he has not been so fortunate, though, with irate lawyers blaming him for failing to sort out problems with legal aid fee rates that stretch back decades. Handily for them his name rhymes with a key piece of court attire, with ‘Gowns down, where’s Brown’ being chanted on the de-facto picket lines they formed when staging protests outside a number of courts.

In his office Brown claims to have forgotten about the chant but says the dispute has now been resolved. He pays tribute to former community safety minister Ash Regan, who relinquished her position last year rather than vote with the government on its gender reforms, and who, Brown says, did most of the work on the legal aid dispute, negotiating several fee increases that seem, for now, to have appeased the defence bar.

“The argument was equality of arms on both sides,” Brown says, noting that part of the dispute focused on the fact the government has poured resources into prosecution services while defenders were left out in the cold. “We’ve tried to keep the dialogue open and what we hope now is that, moving to the next stage, the legal profession is happy with where we’re at. We’ll continue to discuss what we can do to help. They do understand the nature of the financial constraints we’re under.”

In terms of justice more generally, Brown says the move to a single police force in 2013 was “very brave” and has been “entirely vindicated”. “I say that as someone who sat on a police board and knows that the much-lauded public scrutiny of [regional forces] was a myth,” he says. “The scrutiny now is much bigger.” He believes the controversial decision to abolish the not-proven verdict in favour of a guilty-not guilty system will likewise be vindicated in time.

As deputy leader of the SNP since 2018, Brown is deeply involved in the party’s plans to hold what Sturgeon has termed a de-facto referendum after the Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Government has no right to legislate for indyref2. There has been much debate already about what the term de-facto referendum means, how it would work, and whether the SNP even has the right to use a more general vote to effectively canvas support for a single issue. The party will iron out the finer details at a special conference scheduled for March, where it will decide whether to roll out the plan at the next Holyrood or Westminster election. For now, Brown is bemused at all the consternation the proposal seems to have stirred up.

“I’ve studied a lot of politics in my past and I find it really unreasonable that some people say it’s wrong to say you’ll stand on a ticket of getting a mandate to negotiate for independence,” he says. “That’s nonsense and some basic knowledge is needed – you can’t tell parties the basis on which they can stand […] We’ve tried all democratic routes and we have the decision of the Supreme Court, which we don’t challenge, and either people will vote for it, or they won’t.”
Brown has been gearing up for this moment since 2014, when he first stood – unsuccessfully – for the deputy leadership in the wake of the independence vote.

“It was an exciting time and I wanted to be part of it,” he says of his first attempt to become the party’s second-in-command. “I found the referendum really encouraging. As I said, when I joined the party in 1983, we were at 12 per cent in the polls. After the referendum my local area was the first to declare and I knew we hadn’t won because what happens in Clackmannanshire happens in the rest of Scotland. I spent the entire night doing media on the BBC and in the last interview they said, ‘you must be devastated’. I said we just got 45 per cent. I felt really encouraged and that’s why I wanted to be deputy leader – I wanted to see a second referendum and advance the cause.”

How much time do Brown and McKelvie spend discussing politics at home, I wonder, what with both holding government positions and both deeply wedded to advancing that cause? The answer is not very much. Sometimes they discuss matters relating to their respective portfolios, with Brown’s focus on justice and veterans and McKelvie’s on equalities and older people creating something of an overlap. Mostly they just “relax and get away from it as much as we can”, he says, spending their evenings watching movies like the one that piqued his interest earlier this month – Operation Mincemeat, the true story of a deception Britain pulled off during the Second World War that stars Colin Firth and Kelly Macdonald.

As I’m packing up my things ready to go, Brown remembers two things about justice in the age of devolution that he had wanted to talk about: the 2009 compassionate release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi by then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill and the stats that show a reduction in violent crimes under the SNP’s watch.

The decision to release Megrahi, who had terminal cancer, and allow him to return to his family in Libya was, Brown says, “very big”. “It was an extremely brave and commendable decision,” he adds. 

Meanwhile, the proportion of people experiencing crime in Scotland reduced from 20 per cent in 2008-09 to 12 per cent in 2019-20, with a £24m investment in violence reduction meaning people in Scotland are now statistically far less likely to be the victims of violent crime than the people of England are. Scotland, Brown says, saw some “massive changes in crime and policing” under his predecessors and now “London is looking at some of the stuff we’ve done in terms of knife crime”.

And now it really is time for me to go, but not before Brown tells me a story about walking into a glass door at the BBC on hearing that McKelvie had won the Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse seat at the 2011 Holyrood election. It’s hardly the kind of stealth move you would expect from a former Marine, but then he had been up all night and the result did mean McKelvie had progressed from a list to a constituency MSP, so I’m not going to judge him for it.

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