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Street level: Tom Arthur on making Scotland wealthier for all

Portraits by Andrew Perry

Street level: Tom Arthur on making Scotland wealthier for all

Tom Arthur is standing in front of Holyrood Court, a refurbished residential block in central Edinburgh, patiently having his portrait taken.

It’s a winter afternoon and the bell has rung at the nearby primary school. The area where we stand, Dumbiedykes, is just a few minutes’ walk from the Scottish Parliament, but a photoshoot on their doorstep is a novelty for the children straggling back from class and a few can’t contain their curiosity. “Is he famous?” they pipe up, examining the photographer’s lighting kit. One wants a shot at the spotlight himself. “I’m famous, take my picture,” he instructs, before pointing at Arthur and declaring, “I’ll steal his girlfriend” then swaggering off.

The Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance is used to hecklers. After all, he was a musician before entering politics, playing hundreds of functions a year as a member of Velvet Five before election took him to a different stage. Both jobs put him before an audience, so are there any other similarities between them? Arthur is quick to dispel such an idea – not for him, the “cheap theatre of the chamber”. “I’ve indulged in it in the past,” he says of the temptation to perform, and he concedes he had a tendency when first elected to mimic the tone struck by unnamed others. But, he says, “it’s a serious job and the panto stuff I just find boring”.

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had advice on parliamentary conduct, Arthur says, which was to “always answer a question in the spirit in which it is asked”. But he’s not sure that guidance should be followed to the letter. “If someone does ask a question which is highly charged politically, there can be a temptation to answer in that way,” the Renfrewshire South representative explains, but he thinks the sight of “extremely privileged” and “very well-paid” MSPs upping the drama in debates is a turn-off for voters. “When you see the number of people who choose not to vote and the level of antipathy that’s out there, that’s something politicians have to bear in mind,” he says.

Arthur often peppers his conversation with references to the recent past, mentioning this politician or that bill from Scotland, the UK or beyond. With a reputation as one of the Scottish Parliament’s more thoughtful heads, the 38-year-old is certainly well versed in the history of his field, seemingly drawing wisdom and warning from various sources, and it’s easy to imagine him pouring over political biographies in his down time. Not a chance, he says, and he’s not a “religious consumer” of podcasts, news, or social media either. “I do enough to keep myself informed and be aware of the issues,” he explains, saying he’s not wrapped up in “the sport of politics”.

“The ‘who’s up, who’s down?’ – all that stuff I find tedious and boring,” he goes on. “So much of the focus can be so short-term and we are caught in this permanent election cycle, but real fundamental change which can ultimately affect people’s quality of life, that takes time, it takes partnership working, and I’m less interested in what’s in the headlines today and more interested in longer term, more substantive things more related to the lives of the people we’re elected to serve.”

The architect of the UK’s greatest postwar foreign blunder is now the UK’s chief diplomat

Anyway, he says, he’d rather take his dogs for a walk when he’s off the clock. “They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog,” he quips, and he’s the owner of two pugs and a Tibetan spaniel. “My wife always wanted a pug,” he explains, but “I’d grown up with Labradors and I said, ‘these dogs are utterly ridiculous, you’ll never see me walking a pug,’ and now I walk two of them and a Tibbie. They’ve got brilliant characters, they’re very affectionate and playful. I wanted to get another one, but my wife put her foot down and said no.”

Arthur could perhaps be forgiven for walking away from the headlines, given the problems affecting the SNP and the Scottish Government recently, from Michael Matheson’s iPad roaming charges to the row around the proposed council tax freeze and meeting the ever-growing bill for public services. The SNP-Green administration has committed itself to reform, but experts have questioned the approach and the potential outcomes of this against a spending shortfall, fuelled by inflation and public sector pay deals, expected to hit £1bn in 2024-25.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison, who Arthur works under, has been signposting “difficult decisions” to come for some time and recently said there is “no doubt” that the sector’s workforce will have to be reduced. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, Arthur was asked if the government, which has been committed to making no compulsory redundancies since 2007, would guarantee there will be no such losses now. “We want to avoid compulsory redundancies,” he said. “Of course, we are committed to engaging constructively with all our partners across the public sector in order to achieve those aims and ambitions.”

Speaking to Holyrood ahead of those remarks, Arthur – whose remit includes government procurement, budget revisions and public sector pensions – says that “the challenges we face fiscally and economically underline the need for change” in our political, economic, and social infrastructure. The first part of his job title, the community wealth bit, is part of the solution, he argues.

The concept is about “reimagining and rewiring” the way we work and live to create more sustainable communities, keeping cash in local areas for longer to create a bigger impact. A “series of crises” from the pandemic to Brexit and now the cost of living is affecting communities like that of Dumbiedykes, he explains, with UK Government austerity underlining these. 

Community wealth building is about “ownership of wealth” and taking a “place-based approach” which “harnesses local expertise” and using things like public sector procurement to build economic resilience in our towns and villages, Arthur says. He gives an example of the community asset transfer that turned a disused police station into a community hub in one part of his constituency, and another that’s led to new sports facilities. Arthur has also helped promote the Scotland Loves Local gift card scheme, which supports independent businesses across council areas. It’s actions like these, he says, that create change from within.

Tom Arthur outside Holyrood Court, Edinburgh

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he says, but it’s “not an overnight solution; it’s something that’ll take a period of time before the benefits really start to be felt at national level” against a difficult fiscal environment.

Which brings us on to the subject of David Cameron, who, as Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton, has re-entered the UK Government in the role of foreign secretary thanks to a Cabinet reshuffle by Rishi Sunak. “It’s interesting to know that someone who in many respects is the architect of the UK’s greatest postwar foreign blunder is now the UK’s chief diplomat,” Arthur says. 

“As prime minister, David Cameron chose to pursue a UK referendum on EU membership as a means of managing his own party group in Westminster and the wider Conservative Party. As a consequence of his approach, the UK has found itself outside of the European Union against the clearly expressed wishes of people in Scotland, inflicting serious damage on the Scottish and wider UK economy. That’s one of the major blunders of the UK Government, their most central foreign policy blunder in many decades. The fact the prime minister deems him someone to head up the Foreign Office speaks to the judgement of the prime minister.”

Arthur is similarly withering about the impact of Liz Truss’s brief tenure at Number 10, branding that “calamitous”, and says global economic challenges are being compounded in Britain “by decisions the UK Government has taken which have not been about the interests of the population but the management of their own internal party squabbles”.

Its handling of another policy area, that of 15-minute neighbourhoods, is another example of the Conservatives putting party before public, Arthur argues. Already in place in cities like Buenos Aires, Paris and Melbourne, the concept aims to provide access to most of a person’s daily needs within a short walk, wheel, or cycle from their home. It’s supposed to help both health and wealth, cutting transport emissions, improving quality of life, and bolstering local economies. In Scotland, the policy comes under Arthur’s portfolio, where the ambition is to deliver everything it entails within a slightly longer 20 minutes. 

The general concept has been supported by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, as well as international mayoral network C40 Cities. But, in a post-lockdown world, it has become a favourite of internet conspiracists who argue that it’s a Trojan horse for greater control over citizens’ movements and a door-opener for state surveillance over our daily lives. A rally against the move in Oxford attracted thousands earlier this year, with former Apprentice candidate Katie Hopkins suggesting it will mean residents “will only have 15 minutes of freedom”.

It’s so disappointing when you see folk take what is a well understood policy and use it for some kind of culture war

In the Commons, Tory MP Nick Fletcher said the enactment of the policy will “take away our personal freedoms”. Sunak also had a go, telling The Sun that the push for more local living was part of a “relentless attack on motorists” before energy minister Andrew Bowie told the BBC councils were “dictating to people that they must choose to access services within 15 minutes of their house”. “This is coming up on doorsteps up and down the country, it’s coming up in forums online,” Bowie insisted after interviewer Evan Davis suggested he was “spreading conspiracy theories”.

“It’s just utterly pathetic,” Arthur sighs. “This is a concept which has been in urban development and town planning for years and years. Any reasonable person would agree we want to see the services we use on a day-to-day basis situated in a place that’s a reasonable walk or cycle from where you live. That’s just good town planning.

“Twenty-minute neighbourhoods is an aspiration I think everyone would share and it’s to everyone’s benefit. It creates opportunities to access those services in a way that’s achievable through active travel, which can reduce car dependency, which can help a range of other issues from sustainability [to] reducing carbon emissions, reducing the volume of traffic. It’s so disappointing when you see folk take what is a well understood policy and use it for some kind of culture war.”

Johnstone, where Arthur lives and has his constituency office, is a good example of a 20-minute neighbourhood, he says, being “well-served” for transport, shops and services. The town lies across the scenic Gleniffer Braes from Barrhead, where the young Arthur grew up.

His family has been there for generations, and it has made its mark, with his great-grandfather mentioned in local history books for his community activism in the 1930s, when he was the secretary of a tenants’ association and central to a rent strike. “One of my uncles got blocked from getting jobs in Barrhead because of the reputation of his grandfather,” Arthur says. “He was blacklisted as a trade unionist, almost as a communist.

“It was a different era. The rights people are afforded now didn’t exist in the same way back then,” he goes on, and people like his relatives with an experience of poverty “really had to fight”. His great-grandfather, he says, whose own dad had moved from Ireland to work on the railways, was “radical in the context of the time”. 

The SNP, too, comes from radical roots. But after 16 years in government and approaching its 90th year as a party, is it still radical to vote SNP? Arthur thinks not.

“If you take the central argument that the SNP has stood for for the last 90 years as for an independent Scotland, I think there was maybe a time when that argument was radical, but it’s been normalised over the last decade. Opinion polling continually shows half of the Scottish people support independence. We see significant support for independence in the younger cohorts. The days when it could have been characterised in a pejorative sense as radical are long gone. It’s always felt normal for those of us who believe in it. 

“Independence as a vision and as a political project has been normalised.”

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