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Support act: An interview with Jackie Baillie

Support act: An interview with Jackie Baillie

Jackie Baillie is a rare breed: she’s the only Labour MSP to have served continuously in the Scottish Parliament since 1999.

And while that lone position may simply reflect her party’s downward political fortunes over the near 24 years of the parliament, it is a pretty exclusive club – the ’99-ers. It has just nine MSPs and, along with Baillie, counts both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister among its members. The remaining six all come from the SNP, which makes Baillie’s membership even more singular.  

But more than this, Baillie is also one of only three of those politicians to have been elected in 1999 to continue to represent the same constituency seat – Dumbarton in her case – that they were first elected to (the others being John Swinney and Fergus Ewing). Sturgeon and the rest of the ’99-ers first came into the parliament on the regional list and only later in their political career secured a constituency seat.

And yet for such a long-standing politician, who held ministerial office in the first Scottish Executive as well as being a serial stand-in for the many leaders there have been in the Labour party over the last two decades, Baillie has kept a surprisingly low media profile. Try as you might, you won’t find any big, in-depth interviews with the MSP for Dumbarton and certainly nothing that veers into the personal.

Yet, despite this, she is one of the most recognisable faces of the Scottish Parliament, as well as one of its most formidable politicians. She visibly discomfits the SNP frontbench in the chamber with a passive aggressive approach that puts one in mind of a smiling assassin. 

Paradoxically, she is viewed both as a political attack-dog and one of the most warm-hearted and generous – both with her time and money – MSPs at Holyrood.

She has a reputation for being as hard as nails, a fierce debater, and yet she’s not afraid to show emotion which has made her occasional tears in the chamber – during the fight to get compensation for the families affected by the lethal outbreak of Clostridium difficile at the Vale of Leven Hospital in her constituency, and again when she raised the concerns of fire safety following the deaths of two men in the Cameron House Hotel, also in her constituency – even more powerful. During our interview, she cries at various intervals, jokingly blaming the birth of her daughter, Laura, 30 years ago for unleashing emotions she hadn’t realised she had – particularly when we touch on the death of her parents in recent years, but also when we talk about the struggles experienced by constituents. And it is helping constituents which remains her main driver, which likely explains her longevity as the MSP for Dumbarton.

Party loyalty is a phrase that is much used when you talk to colleagues about Baillie but there’s also bit of ‘the fear’ that hangs around her, which I suspect she not only enjoys but encourages. She is held in both apprehension and reverence by opponents and privately viewed with some suspicion by various past party leaders on her own side who basically can’t get their heads or their egos around Baillie being happy as the support act rather than plotting to take their job, which probably says more about their approach to politics than it does about hers.

She has temporarily stood in as party leader three times during Labour’s torrid time in opposition at Holyrood, when it has changed its leader more often than won elections. When Johann Lamont stood down in 2014 following the independence referendum, complaining that the UK party treated Scottish Labour like a branch office, Baillie agreed to lead until a successor was found but ruled herself out of standing, stating clearly that she wanted a “supporting role”. She did the same in 2017 following Kezia Dugdale’s departure and again in 2021 when Richard Leonard resigned as leader, by which time she had been deputy leader for almost a year –  a position she continues to hold under the leadership of Anas Sarwar.

They make a good team. They work to each other’s strengths and Sarwar is happy to see her described as the powerhouse behind the machine. It is her campaigning efforts that have been credited with Scottish Labour’s successes in last year’s local government elections, and that has helped turn the narrative for Labour around from failure to success. But neither Baillie or Sarwar are taking anything for granted. Baillie is currently consumed in the party’s selection of candidates for the next general election and tells me that there are some “exceptional people” coming forward.

Baillie’s considerable abilities might have been one of Holyrood’s best kept secrets, but she came to much wider national prominence in her role as a member of the parliamentary committee on the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond which was avidly watched by many who might otherwise have never tuned into Parliament TV. She won plaudits for her forensic interrogation of witnesses, including Nicola Sturgeon, in her pivotal role on the committee. She asked difficult questions, taking no prisoners, no matter who they were, which led to veteran political commentator Andrew Neil saying she was one of the best interviewers he had even seen. Commenting on Twitter, Neil posted: “Jackie Baillie asking questions now. Suddenly there is point and coherence.”

It was her performance in the committee which also led to the remarkable £2,000 donation to her election campaign in 2021 from former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, which helped secure her re-election, kept the SNP candidate out, and ultimately deprived the SNP of a majority in the parliament.

Sillars said at the time that he “would prefer her in the parliament to a [SNP] clone on the backbenches”.

Baillie, as is her way, bats off any praise about her political prowess with a shrug and a laugh, but she is also in no doubt that her ability to get to the nub of the issue in the Salmond harassment committee rubbed her political opponents up the wrong way. Over 100 complaints were lodged with the ethical watchdog about her. Not a single one was upheld. 

“My reflection on that time in that committee was that it was a shocking experience that took over my life and the interesting thing for me was the extent to which the government would do everything in its power not to share information with us. The committee would ask for information, they would refuse, they would be at pains to keep us hanging for many months and the committee just kept at it. It was a war of attrition and I never realised how much secrecy there was, not just in Scotland and in politics, but at the very heart of the Scottish Government. And it was an awful experience. It was equally awful, with one notable exception who I won’t name, that most of the members of the committee from the government party were not interested in getting at the truth. They were simply interested in getting through meetings, trying to limit damage, and protect the government, instead of trying to get to the truth of what happened to the two women who were forgotten about in all of this, two women who had complained about inappropriate treatment, and the paucity of the Scottish Government’s procedures and response to all of that.

“It felt at times like I was intruding in a personal fight between the former first minister and the current first minister to which there would be no winners and so it taught me a lot, but it was a hugely difficult process and actually for 18 months after, which is why I have said very little since, I was subject to more than 100 complaints with the ethical standards commissioner about my behaviour on the committee, everything from being rude to the first minister, when actually I was at pains not to be rude to anybody, through to leaking information to the press which was absolute nonsense. And for 18 months, I and other colleagues on that committee have had to deal with, in some cases, entirely vexatious complaints. We have now come out of it with a clean bill of health, but the reality is we don’t protect parliamentarians who are trying to legitimately pursue things from vexatious claims from members of the public, who, as one of my colleagues has suggested, are all members of a particular political party. 

“I am not naïve, and I know politics can be quite toxic, it can be very toxic, but I have always believed in most politician’s good intentions. I don’t think they come into office to do bad things but honestly, during that committee, some of the things that went on were awful. The lack of openness and transparency from the Scottish Government was awful. The role of the Lord Advocate, not the current one who I am very impressed with, but the role of the previous Lord Advocate was inappropriate. The attempt to stifle information was outrageous, the list just goes on and honestly, I thought John Swinney was better than that. So yes, that particular experience has tarnished my view of where we are a bit.”

Baillie has witnessed much change during her time in politics, particularly in her own party, but has a resilience that she says is likely rooted in her childhood. Born in Hong Kong to a Scottish mother and Portuguese father – she spoke Cantonese before she spoke English – she was sent to England to an all-girls boarding school when she was just 12, leaving behind her parents but also her younger brother and sister, and while she recognises as an adult that her parents believed they were doing the right thing for her future by taking advantage of a private education paid for by the Hong Kong government – her father was in the police force – she learnt very early on to fend for herself in what felt like a very foreign and very privileged environment. 

“I understand why they did it because they thought it would provide a better education, and it’s certainly taught me confidence, which is an asset to have, but the reality is that it’s not a choice I’ve made with my family, and my daughter stayed with me and went through the state system, and I guess that speaks volumes.

I look at the SNP now and I recognise where they are. I think they’re tired. I think they haven’t got, if I can say this, the talent that they once had

“I found it incredibly difficult just being away from my family which I’d never experienced before, so I was sad quite a lot. But the contrast between, you know, Hong Kong, which is a concrete jungle and which is a melting pot of cultures and food and ideas, to Windermere, where the school was, which is very green, very lovely, very wet, the whole thing was a culture shock and an emotional journey.

“It taught me how to survive, how to take care of myself, taught me confidence and stoicism, but I would argue I could have got all of that and more at home.”

What the experience also did was expose Baillie to great privilege and wealth which helped politicise her.

“I was an overseas student funded by the Hong Kong government, and therefore not affluent, and I was rubbing shoulders with very affluent young people, and thinking that there was a complete disconnect between what was happening at school compared with the outside world. That privilege was something very alien to me and I was interested in everything that was alien, why things function the way they do and so on, and I’m sure I was very annoying, asking questions constantly and trying to understand it all. That was also the time of the rise of Margaret Thatcher. And I think Margaret Thatcher politicised a generation and I was part of that. 

“So, for me, school was about awakening all kinds of emotions about who I was, where I fitted, and politically who would I most naturally support. I looked around the different political parties, and I found more of a human element in Labour than anywhere else. I joined the party while still at school surrounded by all this privilege at the tender age of 18.”

During the shorter school holidays, Baillie would stay with her maternal grandparents in Lenzie rather than fly back to Hong Kong and her love for Scotland led her to moving here to work and study after school. She says her parents were very traditional and wanted her to either be a lawyer or a doctor and she did get a place to study medicine, but the cost was so prohibitive that she made the decision not to pursue that path. She says now that she wouldn’t have made a good doctor. Instead, her efforts were poured into a different kind of healing. Trying to help close the poverty gap and deal with the consequences of inequality by working in various economic development roles within local government.

“One of my first jobs was working in the Gorbals and that was an education for me in and of itself. I remember particularly working with women who had left school at maybe 16, who had had a host of children quite early, many of them ended up as single parents, and we began a process of not just providing a creche for the kids, but working with the women providing non-vocational education and then vocational education, and some of my greatest moments are what these women have achieved. So, one of them who had three kids under the age of five went on to graduate and become a teacher. Not only has that lifted her prospects, but it’s also lifted the entire family. Another woman who at age 16 had a child went on to head up the C. diff campaign. Previously she had never even registered to vote, had never been engaged in in politics, but understood the power of change that needed to happen, and got elected as a councillor, then went back to university, studied and achieved a law degree, and she’s fantastic. She’s lifted her entire family along with her as well. That is real change. That’s what I am proud of. Those wins.

“There used to be a postcard somewhere here on my office wall in the parliament that said something like ‘women fly when men aren’t watching’, and there is so much untapped potential in women, and I really enjoyed that part of my job before I got into politics, making sure that women had the opportunities they deserved.

“I guess I do see my role as facilitating change happening. Success happening. I get huge benefit from it; I really thrive on doing that. I don’t need any praise for my role in that. It is just really fulfilling. And it’s the same when you get a result for a constituent. I get real thrill doing the job that I do. 

“Politically, as you say, I am always content to be the supporting act. I think I can contribute most that way. And I don’t want the difficulty and the challenge of being the leader. I see how hard Anas Sarwar works, I see the effort he puts into it, and I want to be slightly kind to myself and not put myself through that. I will support him in any way possible. But I see that as my role. I’m good at that. If anybody’s watched me closely over the years, and the fact that I haven’t had a profile piece like this before, tells it all. The reality is I am content to be a little behind the scenes to support somebody else, rather than pushing myself forward. That’s the way I’ve always been. That’s the way I’ll continue to be. I have huge loyalty to the Labour Party; I want the best for it. And in my view, I now have a leader who will take Labour forward in a way that hasn’t been possible for a while.

“You don’t have to like your leader. But it helps enormously when you do. And certainly, in terms of Anas Sarwar, he is a great leader, he’s popular, he’s hard working, and he has a vision about where he wants this country to be.

“We are very much a double act. He is very generous in his praise about my efforts, but he is the leader, I’m the deputy, we work well together, and I was very pleased to have delivered West Dunbartonshire, a Labour-controlled authority, for him too, and we will do the same come the general election. We are conscious that there is an opportunity for Labour now, in a way that there hasn’t been for say the last decade. 

“I think we lost sight of what mattered to people. And people associated us with somehow not standing up for Scotland. The reality is, we’re now very much putting Scotland front and centre. But also listening to what people are saying, which is they want something different; they want a different set of priorities. That’s not to say that that in 10 or 20 years’ time people aren’t going to want another referendum, but their priority now is to get rid of the Tories in London and get a focus back on the issues that matter to them. The easiest path to doing that is voting Labour at the general election. 

“I look at the SNP now and I recognise where they are. I think they’re tired. I think they haven’t got, if I can say this, the talent that they once had. There are many talented individuals in the parliament, but the churn in the membership has been huge, that collective memory is really faint now, and you’ve got people like Alex Neil, outside parliament, making observations that I think are entirely valid. I remember chatting to him once about going to the health committee, where the average age of the members was over 60. They were unwhippable. You couldn’t tell which political party they came from because they hunted as a pack. That doesn’t exist any longer. The parliament, I think, has been weakened by the SNP government into just simply being a supportive shop for what government is up to. And you look at backbenchers on committees and I feel for them because they are better than that. But they’re simply used as voting fodder.

“And I watch Nicola, and it’s been interesting to watch because there are so few of us that were here in ’99, and she was a young woman who was quite introverted, and so my hat goes off to her in terms of the effort it must take for her to be the first minister. But by all accounts, she operates a very tight ship. There are very few people in her tent. She doesn’t engage with her group. I think that’s not healthy for her or indeed for democracy in Scotland. 

“I also don’t remember Nicola Sturgeon as a feminist ever. I think this has come about as a product of her being first minister and she rightly wants to use that role to encourage other women. But when we were debating 50:50 for the Scottish Parliament, when we were talking to Lib Dem women, to SNP women, to even the Tories, and the STUC trade union women who were so important in that fight, she wasn’t there. She was never there. And so, the creation of the Scottish Parliament and trying to deliver a 50:50 parliament was something that I don’t think she was engaged in.

“We all change, of course we do, and certainly, the 36-year-old me in parliament in ’99 would have been quite nervous, you know, amongst all the giants like Donald Dewar and Sam Galbraith, and I have no fear now. But I also think that had Donald survived, we would be looking back on a very different institution to the one we have now.”

And on that, Baillie says the recent passage of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill has been one of the most difficult to navigate in this parliament and while we spoke ahead of the UK Government’s decision to invoke a section 35 order preventing the bill getting royal assent, she warned of a likely legal challenge during the parliamentary debates and says that far from being anti-devolution, a s.35 is very much part of the devolution process.

“The lesson for me is that for policy that’s been six years in the making, there was very little debate, there wasn’t sufficient parliamentary scrutiny, and there was an attempt to kind of rush things through at the end. We spent a lot of time trying to improve the bill, trying to be the sensible people in the room that recognised that improving the gender recognition process is the right thing to do, but nevertheless saying there need to be protections. We secured some amendments, we didn’t secure them all, we were content with the amendments about the Equality Act, but we wanted to go further, I made no secret of that. I made a speech in parliament on that basis, that there would be review, that there would be monitoring, and that the things that people were concerned about were addressed. We supported the Conservative amendments on dealing with sex offenders, and I’m sorry that those failed. It left me speechless, to be honest, that the amendment from the SNP’s own Michelle Thompson [to prevent alleged rapists awaiting trial from seeking a GRC until their case concluded] didn’t get through because in what circumstance wouldn’t you accept something like that?”

Vitally, does she think women will be more or less safe than they were before, if this bill is to be enacted?

“I hope that women are safe… I am concerned that they don’t feel safe. And I certainly wouldn’t support Maggie Chapman’s view of extending the reach of this bill further.  

“In terms of why Nicola has pushed so hard on this, I think this is about legacy. I think she wants to be seen as a social reformer and this has been around for six years, and I think it’s about unfinished business. I think that’s the motivation. I could be entirely wrong. But if you were asking me to be reflective and say why, that would be my answer.

“I have always believed that it is through consensus, cooperation and dialogue that you actually achieve change. That hasn’t happened here, and I hope, and I expect, both governments to now be mature enough over an issue of this importance to do exactly that going forward.” 

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