Stepping up: An interview with Roz McCall
Roz McCall has told many times how, when Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross rang last September to say a parliamentary seat was hers for the taking, she ignored the call. It was a Friday night, she was watching TV and she assumed it was a scammer. When we meet in the Holyrood boardroom on a wet day in early May, McCall repeats the tale, saying she swiftly called Ross back to be told that Dean Lockhart had resigned and, as she had been next on the regional list, his Mid Scotland and Fife seat was hers if she wanted it. The bit that is less well-known is that, despite having contested Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East in the 2019 general election and trying to oust the SNP’s Shirley-Anne Somerville from her Dunfermline seat in the 2021 Holyrood vote, she did not instantly jump at the chance.
“My instinct was to say yes but my husband had not long had a stroke,” she says. “Also, my dad had passed away in November 2020 and my aunt – who was also my godmother – had passed away the following year so my mum had lost her sister and her husband in a very short space of time. I’d got back into being an activist and fitting politics around my family rather than my family around politics. I was very honest and said I’d have to think about it.”
McCall didn’t keep Ross waiting for long. Her husband, Graeme, told her she’d never forgive herself if she “didn’t take the opportunity when it knocks”, so she accepted on the Monday and was duly sworn in when parliament returned from mourning the Queen later that month. She even made history by becoming the first MSP to pledge allegiance to King Charles. But while, as her husband pointed out, she had spent years working towards that moment — attending Young Conservative discos in her youth before becoming a Tory activist in the wake of the 2014 referendum and serving on Perth and Kinross Council between 2017 and 2022 — it was still a big step for McCall, who says that even as she was saying yes to Ross she was sitting there repeating to Graeme, “but you’ve had a stroke”.
The stroke in question, which continues to shape McCall’s life, including influencing her parliamentary interests, happened in February 2021, just as the Tories were in the throes of campaigning for that May’s Holyrood election. It was, McCall says, a “weird” campaign process, what with the country still under strict lockdown measures which meant she and her colleagues were unable to connect with the public in the way anyone canvassing for votes would like to. Yet there was an upside to the lockdown in that it meant that when Graeme took ill McCall and their younger daughter, McKenzie, were on hand to react. The yin to that particular yang was that, after watching him get taken away in an ambulance, McCall and McKenzie didn’t see Graeme again for three months. McKenzie’s sister Kennedy, meanwhile, was separated from all of them in her student accommodation in Aberdeen. Still, McCall reflects, it was the pandemic that likely saved her husband’s life.
“This is probably the only time anyone will say anything nice about lockdown,” she says, “but we were at home when the stroke happened. It was my youngest daughter’s parents’ evening but because of lockdown it was done virtually, which meant that when Graeme didn’t feel well and went to bed we were in the house when he collapsed. If we hadn’t been, I dread to think what might have happened. We were lucky in so many ways because we were there and could call 999 and, again playing the luck card, we were informed by the operator that an ambulance was just leaving a call a few streets away.
“There’s so much about stroke that I didn’t know before, but we were lucky that the ambulance got to us within half an hour of the call and he got onto oxygen very quickly; we were lucky that because of lockdown restrictions A&E was very empty so he got through that process very quickly, which meant he was assessed very quickly and was transferred to Edinburgh for an operation that reduced the bleeding on his brain. And because we couldn’t see him [at the time it was not possible to cross local authority boundaries, meaning McCall could not travel to Edinburgh from the family home in Dunblane] it was agreed that he needed a psychologist. One of the things I’ve learned is that a stroke victim has to grieve the person they were before they can become the person they will be. In normal circumstances it’s your family coming to see you that helps you through that time, but he got a psychologist assigned to him. He was in a very, very bad place before that.”
One of the things I’ve learned is that a stroke victim has to grieve the person they were before they can become the person they will be
The stroke was Graeme’s second big health scare and, while it almost made McCall turn her back on politics, it was the first one that, in a roundabout way, pushed her into it. The couple had met back in the late 1980s when both were serving apprenticeships at House of Fraser – a “phenomenal place to work” that enabled the young McCall to travel Scotland learning about everything from retail and merchandising to dispatch and accounts. Though she and Graeme were friends initially, they got together one Christmas after she had moved to England to work for First Direct. She moved back, they got married and, after Graeme lost his job at Frasers, they set up on their own. Graeme suffered from stress as a result of that venture, though, and when the firm was ultimately obliterated during the referendum campaign McCall decided that she had to act.
“He started his own business in distribution,” McCall says. “We’re going back to 1994 and, at the time, there were a lot of complaints about deliveries. Now it seems so obvious, but he was thinking why not have a system where you can book in a delivery. It was a very simple process, almost like getting a hairdresser’s appointment. I’d go to work, come home at night and write the deliveries in the diary and he’d pick up the stock and take it out.
“The business did extremely well. There was a lot of work put into it by Graeme and my brother-in-law, who joined us, and it went from one van out of our flat to over a million square feet of warehousing and a fleet of vans travelling all over Scotland and the north of England. At the time of having the business Graeme had stress issues, though, and, like a typical man, he was never particularly good at dealing with that. He was the operations manager and would be up and at the office for vans leaving at four in the morning – the office was in Motherwell and we lived in Auchterarder, which was an hour away – and he wouldn’t be home until after the last van came in. If a van couldn’t go because of staff illness or a problem with the engine he couldn’t do anything about that until 7am, when the recruitment agencies opened or he could get a replacement van, so for a good three or four hours he’d be sitting there worrying when he couldn’t physically do anything about it. That took a toll on his health.”
Though both McCall and her husband had stood back from the business prior to 2014, she says it lost 72 per cent of its customers overnight after customers down south took fright when a YouGov poll suggested the Yes side in the independence referendum was going to win. With questions around currency, a hard border and pricing in Scotland remaining unanswered, many clients chose to walk away. “The business didn’t survive that,” McCall notes.
“It wasn’t even on our radar that that would be a consequence of separating the UK, but the truth of the matter is that it was a very real consequence,” she says. “I became an activist on the back of the referendum, but not because of the referendum itself. I knew a lot of people that were working to put their sides across on both sides of the argument. I thought the referendum would answer the question one way or another and I’d like to think I’m reasonably pragmatic about these things – if that’s the way people want it to go, that’s the way they want it to go – but it didn’t. Not only that, but it fired up a hatred that was tangible.
“After that I accosted Liz Smith [a fellow Tory MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife] in the street in Auchterarder – I saw her and pulled my car into the nearest space I could find and ran over and said, ‘whatever you need me to do I’ll do it’. I started as an activist, manning street stalls, handing out leaflets, speaking to people and trying to pour some oil on troubled waters. I wasn’t trying to stoke up more animosity, I was actively trying to calm it down. I did that for a couple of years then started the candidate selection process. The first one I didn’t get, but the second one I did.”
McCall says that when she won her seat on Perth and Kinross Council, she took the approach that she only had a guarantee of five years in the job so she would focus on trying to get five things done. “I’m proud to say that I got four of the five done,” she says, noting that they were getting a problematic junction sorted out, ensuring funds were found to deal with potholes, having 20 mile per hour speed limits put in around the ward, and sorting a speeding issue in the village of Comrie. The one she wasn’t able to tick off the list was an upgrade to Comrie Primary School – although the Tories controlled the local authority at the time, “the investment that was required was more than I could lobby through”.
I realised that if I want to make changes I was going to have to step up
Council work is “exceptionally important,” McCall says, because “they do the stuff that everyone is concerned about – it’s the council that delivers”. She chose to stand for central government, though, because the issue she is most passionate about – care-experienced children – can only really be influenced from on high. “I realised that if I want to make changes I was going to have to step up,” she says.
Since entering parliament last year McCall has spoken on the subject several times, noting in February that it is “simply unacceptable” that, two years after the Scottish Government committed to overhauling the care system in its landmark The Promise policy, “the lives of care-experienced people are still no better”. In March she tabled a debate on the support available for fostered and adopted children, stressing in her opening remarks that “every adopted child in Scotland today has experienced trauma” but that “the current system does not recognise that trauma”. And last month she asked First Minister Humza Yousaf what he was going to do to remove a so-called “baby blind spot” thought to be baked into The Promise because children in the new-born to toddler stage are easy to overlook.
One reason McCall feels so strongly about these issues is that her own two daughters, who are blood siblings, came to her and Graeme through adoption after McCall, who has endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome – “the royal flush of gynaecological issues” – was unable to have children herself. “Through that year and a half to two-year process we ended up with two amazing daughters,” she says with obvious pride. “They came as two fireballs aged five and two.”
Though she says the adoption process was “very good”, McCall adds that it also opened her eyes to certain issues she believes all children who have been through the care system experience.
“I’m a great advocate for attachment disorder and trauma-related issues,” she says. “I’m passionate about The Promise and adopted and fostered and care-experienced children. We accept so much now about different learning issues or health issues in the classroom and the environment, but the stigma still attached to fostered and adopted children because of a lack of knowledge – ignorance really – is something we have to change. The number of times my daughters were asked ‘why were you not wanted?’. How we deal with that takes down stigma. The Promise comes from exactly the right place, 100 per cent, but in the next three years I’ll be pushing that.”
McCall is also, perhaps unsurprisingly given her family’s experience, a member of the parliament’s cross-party group on stroke. It is roles such as that, and her position as a substitute member of the Public Audit Committee, that she enjoys the most about being an MSP, preferring the sober business of committees to the “theatre, some might say pantomime” of the chamber.
“It’s not at all what I expected – I thought it would be a bit more highbrow but exactly like council,” she says. “The work gets done in the committees – that’s like council on steroids – but every day is a school day and I’m taking every opportunity that’s coming from this.”
With our hour up McCall is off into the rain, back round to parliament to attend to business before heading back to Dunblane to spend the evening with her husband. Graeme is “doing brilliantly” now, she says, but she remains his carer and while he doesn’t need her for personal care, if she’s not there at a reasonable hour he won’t think to make his own dinner and will be so tired he’ll need to go to bed as soon as she is home.
“I don’t hang with a lot of people in parliament,” McCall says. “The time when we’re all together is Tuesday to Thursday but that’s the time when there’s a lot of work going on. I’m probably one of the first out the door. I try to get to events but if I’m not home between 6.30pm and 7pm I’ll only get to see my husband for about an hour before he goes to bed. I’m happy to give my all when I’m there, but there has to be a home-life balance there too.”