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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
06 February 2023
Return journey: An interview with Craig Hoy

Craig Hoy in the Scottish Parliament

Return journey: An interview with Craig Hoy

Two days before the first Scottish Parliament election in May 1999, and a day after the publication of the first issue of Holyrood magazine, a senior Scottish journalist pushed open the doors to a modest office near Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s city centre and asked whether it was the reception for Holyrood magazine.

Cautious of how to diplomatically answer the question, founding editor of Holyrood, Craig Hoy, thought to himself, “this is Holyrood magazine; me, one colleague, and two desks”. 

But before the 23-year-old could reply, the journalist asked for the subscriptions department. “We are the subscriptions department,” Hoy enthusiastically replied. And he wasn’t lying. But he did omit that it was also the sales department, the editorial department, and the production department. 

In what Hoy now describes as “ancient history”, Scotland had recently voted to have its own devolved parliament. His boss, Keith Young, then owner of Parliamentary Communications, a publishing company which owned titles in London such as The House magazine and Parliamentary Monitor, felt there was a clear business opportunity for a publication dedicated to the new Scottish Parliament.  

“The chap that owned the company said to me, ‘well you’re Scottish, you should probably go back up and do something for us up there’,” says Hoy. “It was as simple as that. He put a salesperson, who was also Scottish, and I together, and we came back up north and basically got stuck in and launched the magazine.” 

Ironically, before the referendum, devolution was an idea that Hoy was not convinced by, and he wrote about his feelings on the Conservative Home website at the time.  And he didn’t hold any punches.

“To be honest, I was wrestling with that issue of whether devolution was a good idea or not. At that point in time there was a groundswell of opinion that the people wanted a Labour government, and they wanted to make sure that home rule, the devolution question was addressed. I thought why don’t we see how the new government beds down a little bit first but Tony Blair very quickly went for the referendum. And I thought, well let’s be pragmatic and try and make this as successful as it can be. 

“I remember meeting Sir David Steel before the first edition of Holyrood came out. I think he knew at that point that he was in line to be presiding officer, or at least that there was a fair chance that he was going to have a role in the first Scottish Parliament. And it was actually after that interview that I really thought that there was a niche here for the magazine to have a role as a cross-party platform in trying to help bring the parliament together and to provide a content stream. Everyone needed to learn about how this new parliament was going to work and Holyrood had a valuable place in that.” 

Hoy found it fairly easy to build the early relationships between the magazine and key figures in and around the parliament, thanks to the reputation of the already well-established, sister publication, The House magazine. He says that “it was quite easy to play off of that reputation” although he hadn’t yet established his personal reputation north of the border at that point. That said, he notes that in the beginnings it was generally easy to form those relationships because everyone was new to it and keen to embrace a new way of working.  “Looking back, there were some issues being part of a London-based publishing company, but at the end of the day, the magazine was going to stand or fall on the quality of journalism, the relationships we made, and the contributions that we got from elected representatives and other commentators. 

“Brian Taylor and David Steel were in the first issue. Then quite quickly thereafter Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond were appearing in the magazine regularly.” 

The first issue got “a really good response” with what Hoy describes as “a pretty lean operation”. Alongside the growth of the magazine, he found it “really interesting to see how quickly the sort of civic society built itself around the parliament”.  

The parliament’s first session set the heather alight for the magazine. As Scots campaigned for clause 2A, better known in the UK as section 28, to be repealed, much of that was channelled through the early editions of the magazine.  

“It was an interesting time for the magazine, there was a lot of campaigning being channelled through it: advertising, advertorials, op-eds. The parliament was doing something quite ground breaking and that also worked well for us commercially.

“I think that was one of the things that I said to Mandy [the current Holyrood magazine editor] when she asked me to name the big achievements of the Scottish Parliament for the 20th anniversary of the magazine. Since then, I think one of my regrets, and maybe this was one of my motivations for getting involved politically, was that whatever you think about land reform, the smacking ban, the smoking ban, the repeal of section 28, and maybe now the GRR  [Gender Recognition Reform Bill] legislation, apart from that, in terms of wholesale reform to education, looking at local government, penal reform, a real assessment of where the Scottish economy needs to be, one of my frustrations is I don’t think we have grasped enough of those nettles legislatively and in terms of public debate.  

“There have been big achievements of the Scottish Parliament, some of them relate to the early years, but I feel there has been too much drift.” 

Returning to the type of legislative decision-making that the Scottish Parliament made in its early years could cause some to brand Hoy as “partisan” he feels, but he is steadfast in his argument. He believes that there must be a period where the two parliaments work together “as devolution was envisaged to work”, meaning “two governments, both who are legitimate, and both of them have got responsibilities that are laid down by statute”. 

“I read last year that the devolution settlement was never really built to withstand the amount of tension that we’ve now got between the UK and Scottish Governments. And I would argue that it is largely driven by the Scottish Government because of the end objective of independence. My opponents would say otherwise, obviously.

“I don’t think that the Scottish Parliament was built to become a forum for constitutional change, but rather to become a forum to change Scotland for the better using the devolved powers that we have. It was my frustration that brought me to the Scottish Parliament and certainly is my frustration now that I am here that we were debating independence on Monday, and not the National Health Service, not the pupil attainment gap. 

“I think all sides are entrenched, and that sense of trying to make the Scottish Parliament collaborative, on a cross-party basis, I just don’t see much of it. That was one of the initial hopes of the Scottish Parliament, that with the committee system, with the system that was in place, you wouldn’t have this kind of politics that others have criticised other parliaments for. I think, sadly, we’ve leapfrogged them, and we’re worse now.”  

Hoy’s personal journey with devolution from founding the only publication dedicated to Holyrood through to him now sitting as an MSP in the very parliament he was unsure of only 25 years ago, is particularly fascinating.  

After a few years of covering Scotland’s devolution journey for Holyrood, Hoy moved back to London to set up ePolitics, now Politics Home, and later became the managing director of its then parent company, Dods. 

“Then in 2008, after working for the company for quite some time, myself and two colleagues thought about doing the same thing that we had been doing here, but in Asia. So, we moved out to Hong Kong and launched Public Affairs Asia,” he recalls. 

But it was not an easy beginning. Less than a year after Hoy and his partner packed their bags to launch the new publication the financial crash hit.   

“For the first 18 months, we were just treading water,” he says. “But then the publication and the events took hold and started to go quite well. And I was enjoying doing it, the only issue that arose was my partner’s mother was getting older and my mother died. And when you are that far away, despite Zoom and Skype, 15 hours on a flight may not seem like a lot but when you have relatives and family commitments, it’s not easy.  

“So, at that point my partner and I thought the company was doing quite well, we will either potentially sell it, or we will let someone else run it. It was only when I came back in either 2014 or 2015, I thought that I wanted to be back full-time and do something different. In 2019, I said to the local Scottish Conservative association in East Lothian that I might be interested in standing for election.  

“They told me there was a by-election coming up and suggested I stand for the council. They told me not to worry, I wouldn’t win. But somehow, I did.

It was at the point, Hoy took a step back from the company in Hong Kong and although he retains a share of the business, someone else is now running it.

“It was only when I moved back to Scotland properly about five years ago that I was able to look at things through different eyes because I was no longer looking at it as a journalist,” he says. “I was quite appalled by how Scottish politics had become so tribal, the way the constitution issue has become so dominant, rather than using the parliament to improve schools, hospitals, roads, and railways.” 

Then, only two years later, in 2021, Hoy was selected to stand in the Scottish Parliament elections, gaining his seat through the regional list. Continuing his rise to political prominence, he was then chosen to be chair of the Scottish Conservatives only a year after being elected to Holyrood. 

Hoy reflects on the journey of the Conservatives in Scotland during the period of devolution. From being totally wiped out in Scotland in the 1997 general election and narrowly scraping their way to becoming the third-biggest party at the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999, to now the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament.    

“Despite the fact that some former colleagues, I think, were less keen on devolution in those early days, there was a view of let’s make this work. Let’s make this work with Scottish Labour, in the early years to some extent, and let’s make this work with the SNP to constructively support them to pass good legislation. 

“We then grew with the Scottish Parliament and the advances that we made when Ruth Davidson came along. I think there was a view that the Labour Party had left the centre of Scottish politics. Ruth was very clear, we are a centre-ground, pro-UK party, that wants to make Holyrood work. I think that is quite refreshing for many people across the spectrum and that is something that we have continued to do. 

“Our political opponents were saying that there is no way we’ll maintain that high watermark, which was 31 MSPs. And we did it, and that was in large part down to the strategy that Douglas developed, and probably the quality of candidates we had, but also down to the fact that we make it quite clear where we stand in relation to the union.”   

And throughout the period of the devolution, Hoy’s personal politics haven’t changed much, however there were periods of his life, particularly while working as a journalist, he quelled his personal engagement. During his time at university he was a member of the Conservatives, and although he gave his membership up for a time, his opinions, particularly on the issue of Scottish independence, have never changed. 

“The funny thing is, when I was overseas the independence referendum took place, so I didn’t see how rancorous Scottish politics had become, but when I got back, it was that that reactivated my politics, so I’m back in the parliament where it all started for me with Holyrood magazine, but the difference is that back then I had no political engagement at all because I was a lobby correspondent.”

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