The journey: Interview with Graeme Dey
Graeme Dey’s first and second attempt to join the SNP didn’t go to plan. Passionate about independence in his teens, he sought to become a member just as the party was becoming a force in Scottish politics.
But the SNP was, he says, “a bit less slick and efficient an organisation then than it is now” and he never heard back. He moved on, got a job, started a family and didn’t re-engage in politics (except for voting and occasional disagreements with his dad, who he describes as a “working class Tory” back then) until after the creation of the Scottish Parliament.
Dey tells Holyrood: “In many ways my political passion has returned, because when I was in that 14-17 age bracket, when you know everything, [I was] absolutely passionate about independence. And then I returned to it in ‘98.”
In the intervening years, he moved out of his home city of Aberdeen to work for DC Thomson in Dundee, then over to Angus after his daughter was born. “Back then, Dundee wasn’t the place it is now and, with a young daughter, we wanted a different environment to bring her up in and opted to move to Carnoustie,” he says.
To tell the truth, I promised myself I was never going to set foot in here [the Scottish Parliament] until we were independent
It was in this Angus town that he got his teeth back into politics. He received a letter from local MP Andrew Welsh, who was just about to launch his bid to become the area’s first MSP, inviting him to a meeting.
Dey says: “I couldn’t go, wrote back and sent my apologies, that I was really disappointed, that I always wanted to join the SNP, it just never happened. Lo and behold, the following night, a local councillor and branch organiser turned up to sign me up.”
The enthusiasm of his teens flooded back and he offered to begin flyering the next day. “I became the branch organiser within three months, I was the constituency organiser by 2000, I was Mike’s [Weir, the MP for Angus between 2001 and 2017] election agent, and we fought some pretty successful campaigns. I ended up on the National Organisation Committee of the party, I ended up on the National Executive of the party.
“Mike and others had been at me about, ‘you should stand, you’d be good at it.’ It was always that self-doubt, you know, ‘I couldn’t do that’.”
But he was also hesitant of becoming an MSP in a parliament which did not have total control. “To tell the truth, I promised myself I was never going to set foot in here [the Scottish Parliament] until we were independent,” he says.
“Then in 2007, we won. I had to be here for that, for the swearing in of Alex Salmond. I came here, did that, [had a] wonderful day. Walked out the door and said, well, I’m not coming back until we’ve won independence. Four years later, I was back as an MSP.”
It was, in fact, the 2007 campaign that planted the seed. He had been asked to support a young campaign team in a target seat in Aberdeen, but the SNP fell short by just a few hundred votes. “That made me feel that I could do it, that experience,” Dey says.
And so when Andrew Welsh announced his retirement ahead of the 2011 election, Dey went for it. “I left journalism in the November the year before, that’ll be 2010, and it was just perfect timing. I desperately wanted to get out of journalism because what was happening in the profession. I campaigned for six months full time, which was fantastic, albeit during the worst winter in living memory, and we won.”
When Welsh died earlier this year, Dey was among the first to pay tribute to the former politician. On Facebook, he wrote: “Andrew was a giant of the SNP and the independence cause. Where he led here in Angus, the party was to follow across Scotland.”
Dey’s willingness to learn from experienced politicians like Welsh served him well in the first months of his new job. Rob Gibson, then SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, took Dey under his wing as the pair worked together on Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. He also sought the support of colleagues from outside his party, and he namechecks Conservative Alex Fergusson and Lib Dem Jim Hume as particularly helpful.
“As a committee, we were really good. Everybody was pulling in the same direction. And it helped me find my feet in here from that perspective and I took over as deputy convener there … I really enjoyed the environment brief. We had a really good finish to that parliament because Mike Russell was on the committee and working with him and Rob, we did a lot of good on the land reform agenda, some of the community empowerment stuff, got a real sense of achievement around that.”
When he was re-elected in 2016, he decided he wanted to spend more time focused on this area. He stepped down as party whip and became convener of the new Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. Two years later, he got the call from Bute House.
“We were due to have Michael Gove [then Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary] in front of the committee on the Wednesday morning. We had been trying for months to get UK ministers in front of us. This is a big deal, ready to chair it.
“And I got the call the night before to be at Bute House.
“So I had to phone and break the news to my clerks that I wouldn’t be chairing, but I couldn’t tell them why. I left my good friend John Scott in the lurch. John had to step into the breach – he was my deputy convener – and do the Michael Gove session.”
Dey’s quiet nature made him a good fit for Minister for Parliamentary Business. The most under-the-radar role in government, the minister is responsible for the smooth running of parliament, ensuring the government’s agenda is pushed through Holyrood without ruffling the feathers of the opposition too much. It’s a role that requires a calm, collegiate and non-confrontational person, who is also able to put their foot down.
These qualities emanate from Dey, who throughout this interview remains softly spoken but leaning forward to ensure he can be heard. Indeed, the only time he leans back in his chair is to laugh when I cheekily suggest the reason he no longer buys newspapers is to avoid bad transport headlines. (No, he tells me, he hasn’t bought a paper since 2014 due to “referendum-related” reasons.)
But he also admits the role was a challenge. “As an MSP, as a committee convener, I was one of these people that had a list of things that you had to get through in a day. That’s how I operate. Going into parliamentary business, I came to realise that’s just not how that role worked. Things just happened and you had to deal with it and there were days when that list never got touched. And that helped prepare me for this role [as transport minister], because transport is an operational portfolio. Things happen.”
The biggest change during Dey’s time as parliamentary business minister was, of course, coronavirus. Very quickly he had to get to grips with how to keep parliament working while every aspect of life was disrupted.
“We had to get through as much legislation as it was possible to do. That wouldn’t have been possible without a fantastic spirit in the parliamentary bureau, and a willingness and pride in trying to get the parliament through its processes. Whatever you see in the chamber – and the rowdiness, the disagreement in there – behind the scenes the business managers were committed to [continuing] that.”
Despite the success in this role, he admits he was “taken aback” by the promotion to transport minister. I ask, given the various issues he’s inherited in the portfolio between ScotRail strikes, ferry delays, reduced passenger numbers and all with winter looming, whether he is daunted by it.
“Thanks for cheering me up!” he jokes, before adding: “Yeah, a lot of challenges there, a lot of things to get to be getting on with. There’s never a dull day, never. It can be pretty varied, but you know what? It’s nice to get up in the morning and want to go to your work and have something get your teeth into. It is challenging, but very interesting and very rewarding, a sense of achievement when you’re making progress in some of these areas.”
Beyond all the operational issues, Dey must also be the minister to deliver action on climate change.
A recent report for Transport Scotland warned that nothing short of the rapid introduction of low-emission technology, mass modal shift and reducing travel demand will do. All the less radical scenarios explored by the report fell “well short” of the aim to cut transport emissions by 56 per cent by 2030, 70 per cent by 2040 and hit net-zero by 2045.
Some people think road building is bad; I’m not in that space. We need a well-maintained road network
Despite the challenges, Dey is confident he’s the right man for the job – largely because of his time on the parliament’s environment committees. “I come at it from that perspective, with that knowledge, and recognising that transport has to get its house in order.
“I think the journey that we’re on – no pun intended – is to have all these sectors recognise their responsibilities, and that this isn’t optional. We all have to do it. Each individual sector, coming together collectively, has to get on top of the emissions challenge.”
He adds: “I would sit in [the environment] committee and we would look at the climate plan and climate legislation, and we’d be asking the questions about how’s transport going to do this – now I’m on the other side, I’ve got to make sure it happens.
“It’s interesting because a lot of the questions that we had when I was in that role were, will we have the technology achieve this? Can we facilitate a behavioural change?
“And the answer is that technology is evolving very quickly. And I do think we can facilitate the behavioral change, encourage it, enable it. But I think we’re at a pivotal point in all of this.”
His party has just signed an agreement with the Scottish Greens, who have called for further and faster action on transport. In particular, the Greens’ latest manifesto pledged to “cease funding road building projects that add capacity to the network”.
Asked about his approach, Dey says: “The Greens have got their perspective on this. There’s areas that we disagree on. Take the A96 – the commitment is still there to dual, but we’re doing a sensible review because we have to consider where we go from here … Some people think road building is bad; I’m not in that space. We need a well-maintained road network. It’s just about getting the balance right.”
Dey has also been thinking about his own contributions to climate change. His constituency, a mix of towns and rural areas, is a microcosm of many of the problems in the rest of Scotland. He has to drive to many of his surgeries because public transport is not an option.
While the pandemic has brought challenges for transport, it has also created an opportunity to shift the thinking. Dey has cut down his car travel time by walking for shorter journeys, helped by his new step counting watch – a gift from his daughter which, “being a competitive individual, I’ve become quite obsessed about”.
He also speaks positively about hybrid working, though he understands remote working isn’t for everyone. Through the pandemic, he’s become much more aware of his own mental health and the need to step back.
“One of the things for me is to get in the golf course on a Saturday morning with my pals who will take the mickey out of me – usually it’s at my golf – and that’s one of my ways of relaxing and just recharging the batteries. Get away from the phone, the iPad. I think everybody has to find that kind of, I wouldn’t call it a balance, because it’s not a balance. But those moments when you can just unwind a little bit and come back charged.”
His family has also been a strong source of support during the last 18 months. He lives with his wife and two adult children. “We have our moments, but it’s been nice to have them close because it’s been a tough 18 months for everybody. Last December – we lost my father-in-law during the summer – so the two grans were coming for Christmas and you get to the weekend before and you realise that’s not going to be possible, so it was a strange old Christmas, two iPads at either end of the table, doing it by Facetime. I guess if I’m looking forward to anything more than anything else, it’s a more normal Christmas this year.”
I ask how his family has coped with his additional workload since becoming a minister. “I think they’ve noticed!” he replies. “I was busy as Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans. I’m a lot busier doing this, it’s a lot more intense. But it gets you up in the morning, you know?
“I’m 58 years old, turn 59 later this month. A lot of people at my age are maybe winding down or coming to the end of their working life. I have the enormous privilege of having a job that I enjoy, something to stimulate you, new challenges and so, who would complain about that?”