The business of politics: Interview with Ivan McKee
If we apply the modern vernacular of the importance of ‘lived experience’ to our politicians, then the new Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise has the qualifications for the job pumping through his veins.
With a rich ancestral heritage that befits this mongrel nation, McKee has family genes from Italy, Ireland, Poland and here in Scotland. And he’s proud of that international perspective that his family tree brings. He is an engineer by trade and has built, bought, and sold manufacturing businesses right across Europe and beyond. His engineering background means he is always looking for solutions – a fix – to a problem and in terms of Scottish independence, he just believes we can do better and need to get on with it.
McKee came into elected politics fairly late in life. First elected to Holyrood in 2016 as the SNP MSP for Provan, few inside or outside the SNP bubble would have heard of him, other than perhaps through his campaigning role in the run-up to the 2014 referendum with Business for Scotland.
Quiet, controlled, and unassuming, some might even say ‘wooden’, McKee is one of the dark horses of Sturgeon’s ministerial team. However, his abilities and experience should not be underestimated. And while he has a great backstory, the most common question asked is, ‘Who is he?’
McKee was born in Helensburgh in 1963 where his father ran a grocer’s shop and delivery van. When he was about five, and his younger brother three, the family moved to Springburn in Glasgow where, initially, they all squeezed into his grandparents’ council house until they got their own home round the corner. His parents enrolled as mature students at university and went on to become teachers. His father later qualified as an educational psychologist, and the family moved into Glasgow’s west end.
McKee says that as a child, he was always fixing things – or taking them apart – and it was no surprise to anyone when he decided to study for a degree in Manufacturing Sciences and Engineering at Strathclyde University. Perhaps more of a surprise was how politically engaged he became. As he says himself, being an engineering student and being political was a bit of an anathema.
He joined the Labour Party at university in 1980 and with Margaret Thatcher in power, says, “It was easy to be politically engaged with so much to rail against”. He became the vice-president of the student union from 1983 to 1984 and says he went on every march going, protesting everything from nuclear weapons to threats to student grants.
He says that nationalism or the SNP didn’t really feature for him back then although his earliest political memory was of the 1974 election when the SNP won 11 MPs and took 30 per cent of the vote across Scotland. “My dad was pro-independence – still is – and there was this big SNP surge, so it was a big deal at home at the time, that’s probably my earliest political memory and then Thatcher getting in in 1979 and by the time I joined the Labour Party, it was really all about being against Thatcher.”
Scotland has been a subdivision of an under-performing corporate management team for too long, and running ourselves, we are going to be much better at it than being part of this poorly performing larger business.
When he graduated, and despite a couple of job offers, he travelled to Bangladesh with VSO where he worked for two and a half years as a volunteer in a factory that manufactured agricultural equipment and he advised on how to make the business more productive. He says the experience cemented many of his political views about inequality and solutions to that but also taught him about personal resilience and more about the world.
“It was tough at times…I mean, it was a really poverty-stricken country and while you knew about that before you got there it doesn’t really prepare you for what you see, there had also been a big fire recently which had devastated large areas and if you remember, there were also big floods back then, so, we were literally throwing food parcels to people. It was about survival.
“And I mean, death is an interesting thing there because obviously it comes younger, and it comes more frequently. And with children as well, so, you had guys working for you, and their kids would die, and they were just getting on with things. You know, accepting. Death was part of life, so, you get kind of right up close to all that stuff that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to and yes, it was tough.
“But there were a huge number of positive things that came from that experience, the international outlook for a start but also being thrown into new and unknown situations and having to just get on with it. Knowing what I was capable of. And making friends from all over the world and realising how little separates us all.
“You know, we were working hard during the week in the factories and out and about but then at the weekends, VSO people, and others from other organisations, would all get together. There were people from all over the world and particularly the Irish and the Japanese were there and that was really entertaining because we’d talk to the Japanese in Bengali because it was the common language between us, so that was fun.
“I also had my saxophone with me, so I was playing in a couple of bands. There’s an interesting story of one of the bands I played with at that point that I actually did a recording with, it was a Bengali band, and it went on to be one of the biggest bands in Bangladesh. I connected up with them a couple of years ago and it was funny looking at where we were all now.
“I think more than anything, that whole experience was about widening horizons, seeing what was possible, how other countries handle things and you see the reality of how different political decisions impact people’s lives. And you get to see that in the raw.
“At the end of the day, what that taught me was that I can go anywhere and be able to adapt to any environment.”
When McKee returned to the UK in 1989, he landed at Heathrow on a Thursday, bought The Telegraph, and immediately turned to the jobs section. A few weeks later, he was working in South Shields near Newcastle in a factory that made circuit boards.
“I feel glad I ended up there. A couple of guys had bought it when it had been losing a bunch of money, they turned it around and grew it to be one of the biggest in Europe. And a real kind of world leader in circuit board manufacture. It was a hugely high-pressure dynamic environment. And basically, they would bring in folks like me who were single, in their early 20s, and would work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I would even bring a sleeping bag into work, and basically, just go live and breathe and drive the business. They grew it to be successful and then sold it for an obscene amount of money and all within a few years. It was a huge learning experience, just phenomenal because I learned about what could be achieved in quite a short period of time with that kind of laser focus.”
McKee returned to Scotland in 1994, already the father of a daughter, Hannah, by a previous relationship, and married to Helen, with whom he went on to have three more children including twins. He and Helen later divorced and he married for a second time in 2003 to Ewa who he met in Poland.
Over the years, McKee worked for various manufacturing businesses in different roles from engineering to more client facing and sales positions. And he bought and sold a number of businesses in deals which he describes as “some more successful than others”.
When I ask him how successful in terms of hard cash he has been, personally, he becomes reticent, and I ask him if that is just being typically Scottish?
“We’re not good at that, are we, as Scots, to talk about success? We tend not to talk about that on a personal level and I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing, but yeah, you’re right, I have been successful. And while you tend not to talk about it in that crude pounds and pence sense, you might use it [success] as a reference point for what is possible, and I think that goal of success is hugely important to drive ambition. So, yes, you are right, I’ve been reasonably successful. We just don’t like talking about it.
“I mean, some of the businesses I have had have been more successful than others, and I started some that didn’t quite work in that they lost money and I started other ones that did work and made money and yeah, started up around six, seven, eight, nine... around that order of number, so, single figures.
“There wasn’t a specific plan, things just sort of happened, so, career-wise, I left that business in ‘94, then was working for a few other businesses for short periods, and I ended up at Motorola making mobile phones in the late 90s. I was there for about four years and that place famously shut, if you remember, and if it hadn’t shut, I might still have been there, who knows, and none of the rest might have happened. But that [experience] can move you to a place where you’re exploring other options.
“Looking back, there’s been juncture points where things have happened that have taken you to the next kind of level in terms of business, and really opened up your vision in terms of what’s possible. You do start on that very kind of structured, career path, engineering and into management, and you could just run that through your whole career and retire well. But those kind of disconnects, at various points, take you to a different place. And then you realise that there’s much more to it in terms of opportunity, financially, and otherwise. And at each stage, you kind of broaden your horizons.
“I was forty before I started getting involved in setting up businesses, so you’ve already got a really solid career you could fall back on in the worst case, so, I was always in a fortunate position where I wasn’t sweating over it. If the business folded, I wouldn’t be financially in a really difficult place because I still had engineering, so to answer your question... yes, I have been knocked, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, but the trick in business and poker is to lose small and win big, so you can lose more than you win, as long as when you win, you win big. So that’s important and when you haven’t always had successes then you can know what the failures are and what they feel like, and you just kind of roll over and move on to the next thing.”
Is that quite seductive, that success?
“Achievement is. Success is, however you define success, but the achievement is, and it goes back to being an engineer, I like to fix things, I like to build things, I like to find problems and solve them. And that, I suppose, is the real core driver. Although I love making money, like playing Monopoly, but I hate spending money. Also, and I’m paraphrasing Obama here, but if all you are interested in is making money then that reflects a poverty of ambition.”
For McKee, money has become a means to an end. He says that there is little point to life unless you are making a difference. And at that point, our interview takes a different turn.
Having returned to Scotland in 1994 with his wife and young son, Daniel, McKee was working for Diageo when news stories about the war in Bosnia filled our screens. He was particularly affected by what he saw and in December 1995, he volunteered with Edinburgh-based charity Direct Aid to go with an aid convoy to the war-stricken country.
Crushed buses and the debris of war line a street in Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1996. Credit: Shutterstock
It was such an extraordinary step for a father with a young family in Scotland to take. However, and perhaps it’s just about being a man in his 50s, brought up in the west of Scotland, but when it comes to discussing this further, McKee is an expert in the practice of displacement. At first, he dismisses questions about why he went and how he felt by saying, “it’s just something you do, isn’t it?” and then describes what to you and me are just inhumane scenarios – children avoiding sniper fire as they walk to school, friends and neighbours turning on each other in acts of brutality, people being killed – talking about them in the third person, matter-of-fact, as an observer rather than as someone who was right there, dealing with an unfolding tragedy.
But then, his face crumples and he is sobbing. Uncontrollably sobbing. In fact, so upset is the minister as he recalls memories now 30 years old, that we decide to stop and we arrange to talk over the weekend.
He starts again, in that very detached fashion of the previous days, masking emotion by going into great detail about the practicalities of what he contributed to the aid convoy – the 28th to go from Scotland. He talks at nervous speed about driving a seven-and-a-half-ton truck, distributing medical supplies, of the ingenuity of rows of washing-machine parts strung along a river to drive turbines to generate electricity, and of the trenches dug to offer safe passage to children walking to school. He talks about it logically and impassively, so I ask him again what was behind the unexpected [for him too] huge outpouring of emotion.
With chin trembling and tears falling again, McKee says that he doesn’t think about these things often, but the memories are etched somewhere deep in his psyche. He says that it is hard to reconcile the horrors that happened in a European country so like our own, among people that look and sound so like us.
“It’s just too close to home”, he says. And then he tells a story of how someone he had met in Bosnia pressed a photograph of themselves along with a letter into his hand and asked him to deliver it to their family who had managed to escape the war and been offered sanctuary in Scotland.
A few weeks after he returned home during that winter of 1995, he came over to Edinburgh and went to the Wester Hailes address where the family had been given refuge. When he handed them the letter and the photograph, they broke down and told him that the Bosnian relative he had met, had committed suicide in the intervening period. Finding their own escape from a bloody war.
For a man like McKee, driven to fix things, that was too much to bear. Still is.
Years later, he invested in setting up a manufacturing business – making wiring systems for vehicles – in Bosnia, employing local people. “It was really good to be able to do that,” he says.
That principle of giving something back remains with McKee. Fundamentally, despite his growing wealth, his politics have little changed since his student days as a Labour Party activist. But like many others, he believes the party left him and he became disaffected following the invasion of Iraq. He says he still voted Labour in 2001, can’t remember what he did in 2005, but by the beginning of the independence referendum campaign, he had made a choice.
“Financially, I was in a place where if I didn’t want to work, I didn’t have to, and at an age where you start to think, well, what am I going to do next? What does the next 15, 20 years look like? And then the referendum came along, and I thought, ‘Oh, this looks interesting’. I was looking at it from a business perspective and an economics perspective. I thought it made a lot of sense.
You know, there was the law of resonance with my business career, to some extent, about taking opportunities, understanding what’s possible, pushing out that level of ambition, grabbing those chances, and doing things independently, addressing those challenges under your own kind of steam. So, when you look at it like that, and compare it with business situations I’d been involved in, in terms of management buyouts and so on, I thought there were a lot of the characteristics of what we’re talking about for Scotland’s economy that were very much along those lines.
“Scotland has been a subdivision of an under-performing corporate management team for too long, and running ourselves, we are going to be much better at it than being part of this poorly performing larger business. I went along to this Business for Scotland meeting, – would have been December 2012, – just to kind of sit at the back and see what was what, but at some point, they asked for volunteers for something, and I felt like I should put my hand up. Because that’s what I do.
“I was obviously very despondent at the referendum result but clearly after that there was a lot of discussion about what happens next, what needs to happen to move things forward, etc and I believe we got to a place where there was such a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes to that question of should Scotland be independent, that it makes you realise it will just be a matter of time, it is inevitable, and the question is now how and when.”
Seven years on, I wonder, if Scotland was a business, would he see it as one worth investing in?
“Absolutely, and it’s in a better place now, I think, than it was, because there are a number of key sectors where we are really in a very fortuitous place, globally. And there’s a lot of things that are there to build on. I think we’ve got a better understanding of what independence could mean, and of articulating it, positioning it, and communicating it. Frankly, taking a lot of the fear out of it that perhaps people in the business community felt about what that journey might look like.”