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by Tom Freeman
18 June 2019
Roseanna Cunningham on her journey from homesickness to the climate emergency

Roseanna Cunningham - David Anderson/Holyrood

Roseanna Cunningham on her journey from homesickness to the climate emergency

The declaration of a climate emergency has propelled Roseanna Cunningham further into the spotlight, with every decision taken by the Scottish Government increasingly assessed by how it contributes to Scotland’s part in tackling global warming.

But for the SNP veteran in the role of Scotland’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Secretary, her rise to the top has lasted a lifetime.

At only eight years old, Cunningham emigrated with her family to Perth, Australia. Her parents were older, on their second marriage, and for them, a chance to start again down under as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ was an opportunity to improve their lives.

Her father had mocked Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan’s 1957 assertion that Britons had “never had it so good”, telling his family: “If this is as good as it’s getting, then we’re off.”

It was Cunningham’s mother who was the most enthusiastic about the move, with the prospect of joining relatives who had been in Australia since the 1930s. 

But while Cunningham’s parents kept their focus on their future lives, she was looking back. She tells Holyrood that emigrating was “life-defining, in a way that it is almost impossible to explain”. 

“I have a very clear memory of standing on the side of the ship at Southampton and saying that I wanted to go home. It was absolutely crystal clear in my head that that was what I was going to do,” she says.

“My ninth birthday was in Australia, a month later, and when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, the wish I made was that I would get back to Scotland. That’s what I did every year when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake.”

With a smile, Cunningham describes the homesickness as a “psychological predisposition” to her career, adding she already had a clear understanding of her Scottish identity.

Her mother was “rather nonplussed” when the enthusiasm to return to Scotland didn’t wane, and when Cunningham turned 15, she wrote to the SNP.

“That was 1967. A couple of months before my 16th birthday,” she remembers. It coincided with Winnie Ewing winning the Hamilton by-election. 

“Everyone who was Scottish in Australia read The Sunday Post. I remember reading stuff and I knew about the SNP. It all just fell into place. So I wrote to the SNP in May 1967 and they wrote back, bless them. They sent a package of stuff out to me and that was it.”

But with parents who “weren’t at all political”, Cunningham’s politicisation of her homesickness into something tangible wasn’t an obvious step, especially considering she was so far away from the action. 

Her awareness of politics had stemmed from her Uncle Harry, a docker and trade unionist who had become a Labour MP in Western Australia. There were others in the family who were active, too. For Cunningham, “politics was an ordinary thing that ordinary people did”.

“I wouldn’t say that at that age I was really focusing on issues, in that sense. This was a more general feeling. I felt tied to Scottishness and discovered this political party… By that point, I had already been thinking about independence for Scotland.”

For a school essay, Cunningham made a case for former SNP leader Dr Robert McIntyre to come and speak at school assembly, something which raised eyebrows among her teachers. Her parents, meanwhile, were “a bit bemused” at the obsession.

“I guess, like most parents, they thought that it would probably just wear off.”

It did not. 

Cunningham left school and got a job in the library of the University of Western Australia. Because no one in her family had gone to university, she was surprised to discover that it was possible to study part time and she promptly enrolled to study politics. She was 17.

In 1976, Cunningham returned to Scotland under the pretence of wanting to do a master’s degree.

“That wasn’t really why I was coming back. I was coming back because I was coming back,” she says.

Her parents expected both her and her brother to return to Australia within a year or two, but within three months, she had got a job working for the SNP full time. 

“I remember my mother saying to me that when they got that letter – that was the days you had to write air letters, there was no Skyping or WhatsApping – she said when they got that letter, they kind of thought, ‘hmm, not coming back’,” she laughs.

It was a time when the SNP was changing. The party had begun to look at its own political identity. The aftermath of the 1979 referendum, which backed devolution but failed to reach the required threshold of 40 per cent of the electorate, led to the formation of the 79 Group within the SNP, who agitated for a clearer left-wing stance.

While she was still working at party HQ, Cunningham and her brother Chris were founding members. She describes it as “an activists’ organisation” made up of party organisers. 

“I guess we were all troublemakers at that stage. Troublemakers inherit the earth.”

The party had grown “massively” in the 1970s, Cunningham says, in a way that necessitated more ideological positions than the party had been used to. The 79 Group wanted to capitalise and build on the yes vote in the referendum. Cunningham describes it as “a tussle”.

“I think the argument we were making was that if we were a national party, we had to be where the nation is. Look where the nation is, that’s where we need to be, rather than somehow pretending that you can be all things to all men. You can’t.”

The position would prove to be controversial. 

“The press were all over it, all the time. It was this big story. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 80s when this was happening, the party’s poll standing was ten per cent.”

Although Cunningham won’t describe the agitations of the 79 Group as rebellion, she concedes the group were “in your face, with membership cards and all the rest of it”.

Nevertheless, the committee of the 79 Group was expelled from the party in 1982, including Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill. Cunningham escaped expulsion, mainly because she’d taken a step back to focus on her law degree. 

“I mean, I was starting to fail exams because I was spending all my time [doing politics] and had to take a step out of it. I was funding the law degree myself, so I had to just say that at that point, the timing was dreadful for me.”

By 1990 Salmond was leading the party, but Cunningham had to wait till 1995 to be elected, winning the Perth and Kinross by-election following the death of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. Labour’s Douglas Alexander had come second. “It was incredibly exciting,” she says.

As one of only four SNP MSPs, Cunningham found herself juggling several portfolios and dealing with media interest. Along with Plaid Cymru MPs, they formed a “tight group”, she remembers.

“There were always one or two party members from other parties who didn’t take a sectarian view of it. There were others who looked through you, as if you were made of glass. That was quite interesting.”

Holyrood encourages her to name and shame.

“Well, I remember going down and, for example, Jim Wallace was an MP, and he was always very friendly. Alistair Darling? I may as well have been invisible. Interesting, that people reacted in a different way to you.

“But I mean, that was just about individuals, it’s not really about casting aspersions on them. Maybe Alistair was just thinking about something else that day, you know.”

The large SNP group now at Westminster will have an entirely different experience, she suggests.

“It was just us. We were able to do things like stand in a wee huddle to decide things. ‘Are we going to vote this way or not?’; ‘What would we gain?’; ‘Right, we’ll just go and have something to eat.’ Because there was only four of us, you could literally just have these conversations like that.”

The growth of the Westminster group is only a small part of the incredible growth of the party. Cunningham was one of 35 SNP MSPs elected to the new Scottish parliament in 1999, but since 2014 membership has quadrupled following the independence referendum.

“If I see a car with a party sticker on it, I still have a vague notion that I expect to know the person driving it. These days, that is not going to be the case,” says Cunningham. “These are good problems to have if you are a political party.”

The 79 Group’s aim had been to grow the party’s base. Now, as evidenced by the vast conferences in the biggest venues in the country, that base has become massive. But could it become unwieldy? Couldn’t frustration with the leadership or the wake of a failed referendum lead to the formation of a 14 group, or a 21 group? 

“Any party that doesn’t continually have [internal democracy] in its sights is going to run into difficulty. Things have changed, there’s no doubt about it. 

“Actually, the massive influx of members didn’t create the instability that some people thought might happen. And in the main, they’ve stayed. The only problems it has created are the problems of success.”

Cunningham also rejects the notion that the new modern membership is younger, radical and more urban-centric than the party’s traditional rural heartlands. 

Cunningham and her fellow MPs in 1995 represented Banff, Angus, Moray and Perthshire. Is there a tension with the new influx over things like land reform and hunting?

“What is understood, often by people externally, is that if you go to rural Scotland, you’ve got people who think we’ve not to be radical about certain things. But that is not necessarily the case, and it is to misread a lot of the thinking in rural Scotland,” she argues. 

“One of the issues we have with land reform now is to get people to stop seeing it as a rural issue. To think in terms of urban land reform. But the radical land reform agenda came out of rural Scotland, not urban Scotland.”

The fact the SNP made the case for land reform in those traditional rural areas is an example of the party’s commitment to its principles, Cunningham argues, pointing to the consistency of its support for EU membership in recent years.

“The SNP has always been in favour of land reform, and would never have said anything else, even in those rural areas. There is a constituency in the rural areas where these are the messages they want to hear. There’s a bit of a false definition that rural must mean conservative with a small ‘c’ and urban must mean more radical. I don’t know that it is as simple as that.”

But while land reform is familiar territory for the SNP, climate change is the political issue which has newly risen to the top. For Cunningham, it is the biggest responsibility of her political career. The attempt to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius and reach ‘net-zero’ emissions will be a challenge “for all governments”, she says.

Cunningham argues each country needs to tailor its approach to its own context.

“If you go to somewhere like New Zealand, then it is largely agrarian and pastoral. They don’t have the industrial base, so their way of having to tackle it has got to be slightly different,” she says.

“You can’t then take solutions from one part of the world and impose them on another part of the world. That’s something we’ve got to think very carefully about.”

Only weeks after Cunningham and other MSPs rejected a Scottish Greens motion calling for a climate emergency, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced one anyway at SNP conference. 

Cunningham denies it was awkward, pointing to the fact the SNP amendment also contained the words ‘climate emergency’.

“It was one of those ones where the whole parliament failed to take an opinion. But the Greens are slightly mischievous in the way they’re trying to present that,” she says.

The 2017 programme for government showed the Scottish Government means business on climate change, she argues.

“That had a lot of environmental and climate change stuff embedded in it,” she says, pointing to commitments on plastics. We were already doing things when the Blue Planet stuff hit the screens. That meant we were actually ahead of things.

“I think for this first minister, climate change and environmental issues have always been very high [priorities]. Yeah, the climate emergency increases that, but the pressure goes on the whole of government, not just me.”

The process of challenging cabinet colleagues to sharpen their thinking on tackling climate change has already begun, but for Cunningham, it as much to do with how legislation is done as it is about what is done.

“I don’t think there’s an understanding of the sheer process involved in all this,” she says. “I can make a policy announcement, but the gap between that and the actual process of bringing something into reality can be quite considerable. That frustrates people, because they think there ought to be a way of short-circuiting it. 

“Now, I think when we declare a climate emergency, the processes of government are one of the things we’re going to have to look at because it is the case that everything is slow, and it’s slow for a good reason. It is slow because people want it to be, it’s slow because people want there to be environmental impact assessments, want there to be consultations, want there to be habitats’ assessments, these kinds of things. You understand what I mean? And suddenly, now they are slowing everything up. 

“So, we’ve got to look at what we’re going to do but also at how we’re doing it. That’s a tricky one. If we don’t do it properly it can get you into worse difficulties. Look how long it took, five years in court, for minimum unit pricing on alcohol. Folk tend to forget that.”

Although Scottish Government departments are more joined up than in other administrations, according to Cunningham, there are still challenges in shifting the focus of ministers.

“I’m not the cabinet secretary for everything. There are other cabinet secretaries who have a significant role to play in this,” she says. 

“I’ve been flagging up to them that they must expect more challenge on the climate change side, which is perhaps not what they’ve been accustomed to. I’ve had to do the heavy lifting on that, but that will need to change.”

However, the role of environment secretary “has always been exciting”, she says. “It’s fitted in well with the kind of things I was always interested in.”

Climate change has made the job increasingly complicated, though. Cunningham predicts “huge issues around species survival” when it comes to some of the solutions around carbon.

“This is not just about the iconic animals, the big fancy ones, this is about all the small things – all the insects, everything you need for a healthy habitat. 

“Some of the solutions for climate change, like peatland restoration which fixes carbon, also has a big benefit to biodiversity. Growing trees to fix carbon, which you want to do to mitigate climate change, also has a really great impact on biodiversity. We need to join those things up in a way which hasn’t been done before.”

Although the climate emergency has brought with it extra responsibility, Cunningham is not yet eyeing an exit strategy. As one of the Scottish Parliament’s original 1999 intake, she is already working beyond retirement age, but dismisses the suggestion she might retire at the next election as “the Methuselah question”.

“I’m strongly of the view that if you are fit and healthy, then there should not be any barriers,” she says, although she concedes nobody can go on forever. 

The eight-year-old who so mourned leaving Scotland would be “gobsmacked” to see where she ended up, playing a leading role in that country.

“It’s an enormous privilege and it’s been in that sense an absolute vindication of what that eight-year-old was feeling. It also perhaps suggests I’m incredibly bloody-minded, not easily swayed once my mind is made up. My whole life has been about this. And in that sense, my life has been very successful, and I hope to continue. I don’t feel as though I’m coming to the end of it.”

Surely success must be defined by the one overarching goal, however, that of independence?

Cunningham says she is one of the SNP faithful “who would have wanted it yesterday” but warns against a hurried, “cack-handed approach”, like the one adopted by those who are delivering Brexit.

“Yes, people are impatient. I’m impatient. God, the older I get, the more impatient I get. When you are very young, you kind of think you’ve got forever, but the older you get, the more impatient you get. 

“The party is full of impatient people. But do you know what? You know who would be the most impatient? The First Minister herself. I’ve known the First Minister since she was 17 years old, and I absolutely know she will be one of those who wishes we could have been independent yesterday.” 

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