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Shona Robison: 'Our opposition are making mistakes'

Portrait by Anna Moffat

Shona Robison: 'Our opposition are making mistakes'

On May 12 1999, Shona Robison took her place on the benches of the reconvened Scottish Parliament.

It was, she recalls, a “very exciting time,” and one of “enormous optimism”.

At the age of 33, she was a first-time politician who would enter the shadow cabinet and then government by 2007, when she was made minister for public health. Later, she would be minister for the Commonwealth Games, and, as health secretary, she would oversee the enactment of minimum unit pricing laws, something she considers her greatest achievement.

And as secretary for social justice, housing and local government, Robison is now on a mission to tackle child poverty.

But as she listened to Winnie Ewing declare that the Scottish Parliament was “hereby reconvened,” the former home care organiser had little inclination of the career she would forge. “I remember sitting, going ‘wow, this is actually happening’,” she tells Holyrood

Despite the passage of time – Robison is now one of a handful of remaining 99ers – and the ideological schisms which dominate public discourse (the constitution, gender recognition reform), the Dundee City East MSP believes that same optimism persists in Scotland.  

She says that it is thanks to the parliament’s delivery of policies like free personal and nursing care, and of the devolution of powers over social security and more. It’s a stance that has the SNP politician convinced that Scotland’s political direction of travel is on the independence track her party is setting.

Robison regards 1999 to 2007 – when the SNP first formed an administration – as the parliament’s “formative years”, and though she says “good things” were done during that period, there was “perhaps a lack of ambition” from Labour and Lib Dem leaderships who had “to look over their shoulder to London”. Labour in particular “got themselves very much caught up in that kind of lack of freedom to perhaps be more ambitious”, she says.

“Devolution has grown over the years, the confidence of the Scottish Parliament has grown. From 2014 onwards, we have seen a growth in that optimism.

“I don’t think there’s any satisfactory end point. That’s where our opposition are making mistakes – ‘far enough and no further, you don’t want to go any further’. That misunderstands human nature. People experience running their own affairs and social security, and then want to do so over all other areas that affect our lives.”

Robison points to polling which has found independence support is higher among younger Scots. A survey by YouGov in June put Yes support at 59 per cent for 16-24-year-olds. These children of the devolution era, Robison says, have grown up with “a kind of assumption” that their older compatriots lack. Her own daughter Morag is in this group. “Not knowing anything other than having the Scottish Parliament, a parliament that’s strong and bold, they accept independence as being a normal aspiration,” Robison says. “That kind of Scottish cringe, of doubting our own ability to run our own affairs, they don’t have any of that at all. It’s perfectly normal to have a parliament, so it’s then ‘what’s next?’.”

Although, Robison notes, Morag “never wants to go into politics” herself. Robison took just six weeks off after giving birth and, stepping down as health secretary years later in 2018, told the FM that “those closest” to her had “too often had to take second place to [her] job”.

That resignation came amid calls for her sacking over rising NHS waiting times, and followed “big changes” in her personal life, including the breakdown of her marriage to SNP MP Stewart Hosie and the loss of her parents, who had helped care for Morag when Robison went back to work. “The advice I always give to anybody in this parliament who is having a kid, or their partner is having a kid, is to take the time; take every bit of entitlement. I didn’t do that and I regret it,” she says. “I was in opposition as well – talk about putting pressure on yourself! I felt enormous pressure to be back. I had been elected with quite a small majority, maybe that played on my mind. 

“I wouldn’t say my daughter has suffered particularly for that, but it’s something I personally regret.”

Though hybrid sittings and remote voting practices have continued post-lockdown, mothers Aileen Campbell, Ruth Davidson, Gail Ross and Jenny Marra all cited family as a reason for not seeking reelection in 2021. The Edinburgh institution has a reputation as being more family friendly than its London counterpart,  but Marra told Holyrood that was “just nonsense”. 

While her cabinet colleague Kate Forbes remains on maternity leave, and Conservative MSP Meghan Gallacher has just returned from hers, Robison sees working practices for parents as an area of concern. “A number of young women have stood down from this place,” she says. “That worries me. 

“We have a collective responsibility to live up to the reputation of the parliament being family friendly, not just for MSPs but for staff. We don’t want to lose young women or young fathers from this place.”

Robison has families firmly within her sights. Her role covers housing, welfare and child poverty targets and, with the cost-of-living crisis continuing to erode household finances, she says her team is “doing everything we can”.  Under legislation set in 2017, ministers have committed to reducing the number of children living in relative poverty from one in four to fewer than one in ten. Recent projects by charities suggest the government will fall just short of its interim target of 17 per cent in 2023-24. However, the Scottish Child Payment – the only benefit of its kind in the UK – has been called a “gamechanger” and Robison says its uplift to £25 per week, plus its rollout to all eligible children up to age 16, is an example of how the Scottish Government can work effectively even “with a fixed budget, and a falling budget, an inflation-impacted budget”. “Trying to put in place big interventions not seen anywhere else in these islands is really bold,” she says.

If Robison had seen her current role advertised among the public sector positions on the myjobscotland website, she says, “I would be clicking that and getting my CV in”. “It could have been written for me in terms of my interests, my background, my real passion.”

The democratic will of the Scottish Parliament, whether on this or any other matter, should be respected

She recounts a recent visit to Prospect Community Housing in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, where she announced winter funding for food groups and heard from staff and residents. “I was speaking to a tenant who had been isolated in a top floor flat in her previous block and has now got this ground floor apartment that has also got a common room with activities, and she says, ‘I’m never out of there’. She never used to leave her flat and now she’s out every day, she’s got new friends. That woman’s life has been transformed,” Robison enthuses. 

And despite calls from council leaders for the Scottish Government to suspend its plan for a national care service, Robison is convinced that reform is necessary. “Having a national care service is absolutely essential and some of the same issues way back in the 90s, before this place was around, are issues that a national care service is required for, to bring that parity and real integration between the health system and social care. It’s absolutely the right direction of travel.”

While there’s some controversy over that policy, it has been nothing compared with the response to the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill, which – now subject to a Westminster veto – was passed by the parliament after days of fractious debate. There were heckles from the public gallery, and the startling sight of a woman flashing a fake-fur merkin [a pubic wig] in a protest against the law change, which allows those born or residing in Scotland to change their sex on legal documents after three months of living in their acquired gender and a promise to do so for the rest of their lives. The need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria is removed and the age threshold is reduced to 16, while an offence of making a false declaration is created. 

Under the Scotland Act, the UK Government had one month to block the bill on the grounds that it would impinge on UK-wide laws. As that deadline approached, Robison was unsure whether the challenge would come. “It’s still a work in progress in terms of where we end up,” she said, defending the legislation’s competence. “I understand there isn’t unanimity within the UK Government about the way to proceed,” she told Holyrood. “There are differing opinions.”

And, awaiting that news, Robison expressed the same sentiments she’d share as she urged Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to withdraw his Section 35 order and allow the bill to go for royal assent. “It was a small change but a bold change, and very much consistent with the direction of travel of many other countries. It’s not exceptional,” she said. 

“This parliament voted two to one in favour. The democratic will of the Scottish Parliament, whether on this or any other matter, should be respected.” 

While most of the criticism over the GRR was directed towards First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Robison also experienced her share. She’d had that too as health secretary, pre-Covid, when much of the critique was “personalised”. “I have enormous sympathies for anybody who holds that job,” she says. “Every job in government is huge but it’s particularly an enormous responsibility and people feel that and carry it.

“It would be the same headlines no matter who was in the job, it comes with the territory. 
“You don’t see UK Government health secretaries in the line of fire in quite the same way as we do here in Scotland. It’s not a complaint – more scrutiny is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s quite markedly different.”

After holding so many political roles, are there any others Robison would like to achieve? Perhaps first minister? And, as an original MSP, might she fight on for another 20 years? She laughs off both suggestions. “I’m absolutely enjoying the job I’m in,” she says. “I have ambitions to do more within the role, but there’s always other things in life I want to do at some point. 

“I have always said that I don’t want to be hanging about beyond the time that I should. I’ll know when that time is. Life is short and you’ve got to make the most of it.”

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