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Stephen Flynn: 'There was an expectation I would have to be in a wheelchair'

Stephen Flynn photographed for Holyrood by Gemma Day

Stephen Flynn: 'There was an expectation I would have to be in a wheelchair'

Stephen Flynn was just 13 or 14 and in the middle of choosing his academic subjects at Dundee’s Harris Academy when he collapsed running up a flight of stairs. Unable to move his legs, he dragged himself along the school floor and up another flight of stairs before phoning his dad for help.

What followed was almost a year spent in and out of hospital getting tests, a large part spent immobile and in traction, which culminated in the devastating diagnosis of vascular necrosis, which basically meant his hips were disintegrating. Dreams of becoming a gym teacher for this sports mad teen were dashed in an instant, and a future in a wheelchair was what was being sketched out for him.

Flynn describes his younger self as “outgoing, a bit rebellious, and always on the go”. But the life-changing prognosis literally stopped him in his tracks and led to some bleak times.

“When I first went to hospital I was in an adult ward because there was no space on the kids’ ward, and it was pretty grim. Among others, there was a guy who’d came off his motorbike with horrific injuries and had had his leg amputated. He was talking about the pain of that and then telling me that he was on no medication and the like. Of course, I was worried, I was just a kid, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I was in a pretty scary environment.

“I probably was quite depressed at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to it, but basically, at that moment, when your whole life looks like it’s getting taken away from you and you have no control over it, that is overwhelming. I can remember lying in the hospital in traction, which is not a pleasant experience, and I guess I realised very quickly that I needed to behave and think differently because I really had no choice.

“I had to come to grips with the fact that having been sports mad and always running around, I was now physically disabled and at the same time as I had to get my head around that, I also knew I needed to push myself into doing something else with my life otherwise what was I going to do?  I couldn’t go and do the jobs that I had been thinking about or what my friends were planning to do. I needed to go and do something different, and my choices were suddenly limited. That was hard to deal with at that age… at any age.

“I remember the hospital telling me that there was an expectation that I would have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life which I just couldn’t countenance. And to be honest, I wasn’t willing to accept, and in my usual fashion, having then learnt to walk with two crutches, I eventually got down to one crutch and to be honest, I walked with it incorrectly for about 10 to 15 years, just because I tried to hide it when I was walking, and I didn’t want to ask for help.

“I was always quite embarrassed by it and as I got older, I had to suffer quite a lot of personal abuse because of it, particularly when you’re out and about in town and folk have got a few drinks in them and the like, and they just see you as a target for abuse. I’ve been called a benefit cheat and the like simply for walking with crutches.

“So yeah, it changes you, being suddenly disabled, and it changes the way some people view you. And when this happens when you’re in your teens and your 20s, when you’re starting out and maybe a bit self-conscious anyway, it is tough, and I guess my approach was to try and pretend it wasn’t really there and to do everything to prove that I wasn’t held back by my disability to the point of refusing to be held back a year at school to catch up on what I had missed.”

And interestingly it was his own determination to not allow his disability to define him that meant when Flynn made his bid for leadership of the SNP group of MPs at Westminster two weeks ago, which included a personal statement about how he had lived with a physical disability for most of his life, that was news to many close colleagues, never mind seasoned political commentators like me.

Announcing his candidacy to replace Ian Blackford, Flynn said: “Few working-class folks ever make it to parliament, fewer still run to be political leaders. Even fewer do so having spent almost the entirety of their teenage and adult years battling a physical disability. Your experiences tend to shape you and I am no different.”

He says that it was important for him to talk about his disability now because while half his life has been dominated by constant pain, the struggle of trying to overcome his physical limitations, and the preconceptions of others, it has also given him a different perspective on life and how it can be lived.

And crucially for the job he has now been elected to do, has imbued a resilience and a strength of purpose in him that he believes will benefit him as a good SNP group leader and as an asset to the independence movement.

You can’t help but look at what Flynn has achieved in such a short life to conclude that he is a man with something to prove. And that his reaction to his own disability has helped power him through. To describe his political rise as stratospheric is a disservice to shooting stars. It was in fact Ian Blackford himself who described Flynn to me over a year ago as “one to watch” and while many may now cynically think that Blackford should have been watching his new young protege a little more closely, Flynn denies there was ever a coup to oust Blackford.

He says that despite rumours to the contrary, he only put his name forward when Blackford himself announced he was standing down. And while the political history books may yet write that scenario a little differently, Flynn is sticking to his story. And as the new leader and I sit down in the House of Commons offices that house the SNP group of MPs on exactly the third anniversary of when he was first elected as the MP for Aberdeen South, I am reminded that at just 34, he is nothing if not a fast mover.

He has already served as a councillor, led the SNP group on Aberdeen City Council, been elected as an MP in December 2019, and has now won the leadership contest to replace veteran SNP activist, Blackford, as Westminster group leader. And if all that proves that he is a man with no time to waste, he has also managed to fit in getting married and being the father to two little boys. I ask him if being ill at such a young age meant he approaches life at full throttle.

“Interesting,” he laughs. “I don’t think it’s about being in a rush. I think it’s more to do with just a belief that if you think you can change things, and you think you can play a part in that, then you’ve got to throw yourself into it to make things happen.

“I used to be delivering leaflets for the party in Aberdeen and I would always take the ones to be delivered to the places with all the stairs because I was the youngest, but I also didn’t want anyone thinking I wasn’t up to it. And I would literally go home at night and have to lie on the sofa because I could barely move after doing it, but I would get up the next day and do it all again because I believed in something. I would always push myself physically to try and overcome the ailment that I had, which is probably a bit naive, but it’s what you do, because you’re just trying to fit in.”

Flynn has spent much of his life in severe pain and relying on walking aids until his hip replacement in 2020, less than a year after being elected an MP. However, in typical Flynn fashion, he admits he stopped taking any medication years ago because he didn’t want to feel life through the fog of Tramadol. 

“I was always in pain; I was in pain when I first got elected down here. Travelling was always uncomfortable, just trying to sit comfortably. The first time I lived without pain was probably about three or four months after my hip operation, I had been in pain pretty much my entire adult life, but I never wanted it to define who I was or who I could become.”

Flynn was born in Dundee and raised in the city and in the Angus town of Brechin. He describes his family as “working class and a very close-knit unit”. He is the middle child, with a sister four years older and a brother 10 years younger. He says his parents have always been “grafters” who held down multiple jobs and just wanted to provide for their children and to be able to offer them more than either of them had had growing up.

As a result, his engineer father travelled away from home a lot because of work and his mother did various jobs including working shifts in the local video rental shop, as a baker and in a care home. Flynn describes being at the video store quite late at night with his sister, both dressed in their pyjamas, waiting for their mum to finish work and take them home. The family moved several times between Brechin and Dundee for work and as a result Flynn attended three different primary schools and had a change in high school – Brechin High and then Harris Academy. He describes it all as character building.

He says the family wasn’t particularly political and there were certainly no ‘round the dining table’ political discussions going on in the Flynn household. He says he probably always knew his father, now also a councillor in Dundee, was an SNP supporter and remembers him standing out in the street talking to John Swinney, then the MP for Tayside North, sometime around 1997, and just being annoyed because he and his dad had been on the way to the bakers for treats and the political conversation was delaying things.

I remember the hospital telling me that there was an expectation that I would have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life which I just couldn’t countenance

It wasn’t until Flynn had been diagnosed with vascular necrosis and running about had been replaced with the gentler pursuit of reading that he started to become more politically aware, and he says this was at the time of the War on Terror following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I remember vividly the protests against the Iraq War and Tony Blair’s stance on that, and I could never quite fathom when I was watching the telly as a teenager why we were doing such things, especially when the people seemed so against it. That was probably the start of my sort of political thought processes and then that tied into the fact that I started to read a lot more because I physically couldn’t do much else, and I had a keen interest in history, and latterly, modern studies, at school. 

“I guess that while my working class background would traditionally have meant I was a Labour supporter, I grew up in the shadow of the Iraq war and I could see the complete antithesis of my values on the telly every day. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown just didn’t resonate with me and of course at the same time with the emergence of the Scottish Parliament, and that is all I have ever known; you could see change happen.

“If it wasn’t for the Scottish Parliament and free education, I would never have got to university and never had the opportunities I have had.  And when you see that parliament there at Holyrood, and you contrast it with this place, not just growing up, but also now being here, of course, you see how things can be done differently and done better. So that collective view in terms of where the Labour Party was at that moment in time and where the Scottish Parliament was and potentially where it was going, kind of focused my mind.

“And the more that I became engaged politically, the more I realised that Scotland should have the ability to define its own future and that my perception of things as I was growing up was right, that we vote in a different way, we want different things, want different outcomes to be achieved, and the best way of fulfilling that objective was for Scotland to have control over its own destiny.” 

With that interest ignited, Flynn went to the University of Dundee to study politics. He stayed at home and says that was partly because of his disability and just being apprehensive about breaking out of that family “comfort zone”. He worked part-time in the local Tesco and says he mainly mixed with a group of close friends that he had from school. He joined the SNP while at university and, having gone on to do a masters degree, then applied for a job in Aberdeen with Kevin Stewart MSP. And while he didn’t get that job, his CV was passed to another MSP, Maureen Watt, and she employed him in her Aberdeen office. He moved to the city following his then girlfriend, now wife, Lynn, a teacher, who he met in Fat Sams nightclub in Dundee while they were both at university.

He became a councillor on the city council in 2015 and six months after his by-election victory was elected the SNP’s group leader on the council, taking over from Jackie Dunbar who went on to become an MSP. He describes that move as a “big step up” and that the council was something of a “bear-pit” with formidable opponents in the likes of Barney Crocket, Willie Young and Jenny Laing – “some really good orators who knew their stuff”. He says the experience was a huge learning curve which helped improve his confidence and his own abilities.

Flynn stood for Westminster in the 2019 general election for Aberdeen South when Tory Ross Thomson decided that he would not stand again in the seat he had won from the SNP in 2017.

And I know saying this could lose me votes, but contrary to public opinion, I don’t even like curry. I just don’t. I saw one headline that said I was a part of some vindaloo boys’ club. The truth is, I can barely stomach korma, even that is too spicy for me

Flynn overturned a near 5,000 majority to win the seat back for the SNP. And as a measure of how fast life moves in the Flynn world, his wife gave birth to their first son three days later. He describes those first few months as an MP as a whirlwind dominated by both becoming a new dad and working as an MP during the pandemic.

In 2020 he went on to have his hip replaced which has meant a relatively pain-free existence for the first time in 20 years. And then earlier this year, Lynn gave birth to their second son, who was 10 weeks premature. Flynn, who repeatedly refers to living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past, says it was a terrifying time when he feared he might lose both his newborn son and his wife, and just when things turned a corner and mum and baby were home and thriving, his son became ill and was rushed in to the ICU in Aberdeen Royal where he was ventilated before being flown down to Edinburgh for specialist care for over a week.

He is now home and well, and Flynn says, “thankfully he’s a just a cheery wee chappie with the biggest smile ever”. Flynn believes that the resilience he has developed over the years is also what kept him together during what he calls “a very scary time indeed” and reinforces his view that you need to keep focused on the here and now and driving things forward instead of dwelling on the could-have-beens.

And for now, what Flynn is focused on is building a strong team at Westminster that will help deliver independence for Scotland. When I suggest that it his him and his Westminster colleagues that will be in the ‘firing line’ if the general election is a de facto independence referendum, he quickly corrects me, saying that he considers himself to be on the frontline and not the firing line. He also dismisses any notion that he is on a different page to the First Minister about the focus of a campaign, is insistent that he will play a role in shaping it following the planned conference in January, and that he is fully supportive of her as party leader.

When I ask Flynn how he feels about some of the disparaging reaction there has been to his election as group leader with anonymous party sources being quoted as saying everything from him lacking intellect to having orchestrated a coup against Blackford, he dismisses it all. But interestingly, he says that what has upset him more personally is the depiction of him as some archetypical beer swigging, football mad lad.

“I’ve struggled with that because it’s not a fair reflection of who I am and the biggest influence in my life was probably my late gran and when I read some of the things that are said about me, I have really struggled to accept that the perception is perhaps of me being part of laddish culture. That is something that she would find upsetting, and because of that, I find it is upsetting to me.

“And anyway, it couldn’t be more detached from the truth. I couldn’t play football for 18 years and my big crime now appears to be that on a Tuesday, about once a month, because remember, I can’t even over-play because I’ve got to watch the fact that I’ve got a metal hip, I join colleagues and staff to kick a football about to unwind while we are down in London. I think that’s a good thing. That’s what people do up and down the country. And I know saying this could lose me votes, but contrary to public opinion, I don’t even like curry. I just don’t. I saw one headline that said I was a part of some vindaloo boys’ club. The truth is, I can barely stomach korma, even that is too spicy for me.

 “I just really struggle with some of that nonsense, because apart from anything, the guys who get together on a Tuesday night, their membership of the party is longstanding, their loyalty to the party, and to the First Minister, is without question. And you know, there are good people like Gavin Newlands who are at the forefront of things like the White Ribbon campaign [to end violence against women and girls] and so this perception that’s been put in place, of them being part of some laddish culture, I find quite upsetting. It’s just not who I am or who they are.

“It is upsetting to be pigeon-holed into something you are not, and I don’t think you would win the election as a group leader if that was the case, because otherwise your colleagues wouldn’t support you, so that’s not who I am, it’s not a fair reflection of who I am, and it’s not a fair reflection on my colleagues.” 

What would be a fair reflection, I ask. He laughs. “Well, if you give me the opportunity or a bit of free time, I will pick up a book and read, and my favourite drink when it’s roasting in the summer and for which I keep getting slagged off for is an Aperol Spritzer. I’m not even a beer swigger. I am quite a laid-back person. So yeah, this lad culture stuff does upset me.

“I like to bring people together, I think that often in politics we think we have all the right answers as individuals, and the reality is that we don’t have a monopoly on knowledge and this group of MPs is so talented, some of the folk down here and their knowledge and expertise, and skills, is amazing. I was in awe of some of them when I first came down here and had the opportunity to work with them, and I still am. I want to harness their collective experiences and vision, and hopefully put together from that a coherent approach to how we deal with Westminster and gain independence for Scotland.” 

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