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Voice of Experience: Natalie Don MSP on how childhood poverty shaped her politics

Natalie Don in her Renfrewshire North and West constituency. Pic: Anna Moffat

Voice of Experience: Natalie Don MSP on how childhood poverty shaped her politics

'I have lived experience of things that a lot of people in this country have been through'

Politics wasn’t on the menu in Natalie Don’s home when she was growing up. Sometimes she didn’t know what would be – meals could depend on what was available at the local foodbank.

She remembers the upset of trips to collect the food and of mornings waking up in a cold house with no electricity during periods of hardship and, after a childhood marked counting pennies, the former young carer counts herself lucky to be the MSP for the area where she was raised. 

But it’s been hard work to get here and Don, who represents Renfrewshire North and West, is conscious that she doesn’t fit most people’s vision of who a politician is. It’s time to change that, she says. “I don’t want to tell everybody my life story for them to feel sorry for me, that’s not what it’s about,” Don says. “I want to show people I have lived experience of things that a lot of people in this country have been through. We need people with these experiences in politics. If we don’t, then we are not going to be representative of Scotland.”

Question Time “wasn’t on the TV” at home and politics “wasn’t something we talked about,” she remembers. Her politics is profoundly personal and, in the Chamber, Don has railed against the blight of poverty. “Every child deserves the right to three meals a day, every child deserves a warm home, every child deserves to have a decent standard of living – and that is the bare minimum,” she says. “Every child also deserves to enjoy their childhood and not be dragged down by the stigma and the anxiety that poverty inevitably brings.”

She was speaking from experience. After Don’s father died when she was a toddler, it was just her and her mum at home. Alcohol abuse was a feature in the family and was the cause of her father’s death. Her mother, to whom Don remains “really, really close”, struggled with her mental health. It was episodic, meaning circumstances could change quickly. From an early age, Don helped to care for her mother and run the house during the hard times – cooking, cleaning and budgeting. She was a bright, able pupil, but personal issues meant she struggled to focus at school and so, at the age of 16, she left home and entered work, eventually becoming a supermarket manager.

All of this played out in the leafy village of Bridge of Weir, where average house prices sit at around £260,000 – more than twice that of some other parts of the seat, which takes in Erskine, Renfrew and areas of Paisley. “The automatic assumption that people have is that I’m loaded,” she says with a wry smile. “It’s always been very important to me to say ‘no, there are pockets of poverty everywhere’.”

More than one quarter of children in Scotland are recognised by the Scottish Government as living in poverty. The Resolution Foundation think tank expects this to rise to close to one in three within the next two years.

According to the Trussell Trust, its network distributed 221,554 food parcels across Scotland for the period from April 2020-March 2021. More than 77,100 children were fed by food banks during this time. The overall figures mark a small decrease of seven per cent on the previous year, but the Trust acknowledges that it is far from the sole source of food aid and that the dip “does not indicate that rates of destitution and poverty have declined or remained stable during the Covid-19 crisis”. Research from King’s College London suggests many people were supported by new emergency response teams formed through faith groups and football clubs. 

Many household budgets will be stretched to breaking point this year as the cost-of-living crisis adds too much onto essential bills. Poverty was already increasing, with the number of crisis grants distributed by the Scottish Welfare Fund up by more than 50 per cent from February 2020 to January 2021, compared with the previous 12 months.

“I honestly do not know how people are going to manage,” Don said in a recent debate on rising bills. “If any members do not know what it is like to wake up and get ready for school on a cold morning when your power has run out, let me tell them, it ain’t fun.”

Whether other members know the feeling or not, Don says all represent people who do. “We all speak to constituents and hear the issues they are having,” she says. “It’s not going to help anybody get electricity on their meter, but it can help to know that you understand. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, but having come from that life myself, I know it’s horrible. I don’t want anybody to experience that. I don’t want to see children struggling, worrying about lunch money. It’s that last thing you need and it makes you grow up too fast. It doesn’t give you a proper childhood. It’s not fair that some children have so much and some have so little. It’s very disparate.”

Did Don grow up too fast? “Definitely,” she says. She’d help with cleaning and other household jobs when her mum couldn’t manage, and she’d give her as much emotional support as she could. “My dad passed away when I was two and that was due to alcohol,” she says. “That was never kept a secret from me and I’m glad it wasn’t. Knowing that, knowing how it happened, getting introduced into a world where this was possible at a really young age made me grow up quite quickly.

“I remember picking up my mum’s book on a Monday or Tuesday for her cash,” she recalls. “We would have everything worked out and there would be a period of an exact amount of days where we would have nothing. We’d just be waiting on that next pay cheque.” 

The rented flat she moved into as a teenager was “a dive”, she says, and lacked central heating. “I don’t have a big family; there was nowhere to go for support, no one that I could fall back on,” she says. So she had to make it work. For escapism, there were video games; she’d been given a console and franchises like Final Fantasy were a window to another world. “The immersion in these games is huge,” says Don, who is currently playing through the industry’s latest smash, Elden Ring, in between reading committee papers. “That really helped me, growing up. Games get quite a bad rap, but the positives are overlooked. You’re making decisions constantly, you’re figuring things out, sometimes you’re reading as much as a book. Gaming has really helped me through life.” 

Don shared the flat with her boyfriend Robert, and, after many years together, the pair now share much more: their baby son Thomas and daughter Ailsa. It was Thomas’s arrival in July 2021 that saw Don become one of the few MSPs to have taken maternity leave, though a sense of responsibility to the voters meant she “didn’t take the hat off” and was still doing “a lot of constituency work” with Thomas in his pram. She’d been elected just eight weeks earlier, having been pregnant during her campaign. Don is proud to be a mum in parliament – “mama” comes second on her Twitter biog to MSP – and she’s keen that other young women take notice.

“When I was growing up, there weren’t many 20-to-30-year-old women in this position, or even on the TV talking about politics. Even that short time ago, it looked like it wasn’t for somebody like me, and certainly not somebody from my experience. Times are changing and we need that to continue happening.”

Don’s entry into politics came after she went back into education as a mature student, completing a degree in politics and history at the University of Glasgow. She got involved in her local SNP association and was encouraged to stand in her home ward in the 2017 council elections, in which she was successful. Don also started working for the local MSP, Derek Mackay, and hadn’t imagined she’d replace him as SNP candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 2021, following a close-run contest with another councillor, Michelle Campbell. Don had been on maternity leave with Ailsa when the schoolboy texting scandal that derailed Mackay’s political career broke and, launching her Holyrood campaign, emphasised that she was standing “on my own merits”. “It took a lot to get where I am now,” she told The National at the time.

“It took me a few years to get myself sorted and get to a place where I could start going to college,” she tells Holyrood, “and I really wouldn’t have considered entering politics until I went to uni. This always sounds really cheesy, but I genuinely always wanted a job where I could help people and make a difference in some way, but I didn’t know what that way was. Being a supermarket manager wasn’t giving me that satisfaction, and so many people were telling me I would be really good at politics. It seemed like I fit.”

If Don wants to see change in the Scottish Parliament, she also wants to see it at Westminster. In a recent speech, she raised stats showing four times as many MPs were privately educated, compared with the general population. “How can we possibly expect those MPs to understand the hardships that are faced by working families, when more than a quarter of them have been brought up completely sheltered from working-class and impoverished families? How can we expect those same people to have the slightest inkling as to what those families experience on a daily basis?” Don suggests the Chancellor could “take a minute away from one of his luxury villas and come to my constituency and live on the money that he is expecting our children to live on. He would not last five minutes, I am sure.”

But fundamentally, Don wants away from Westminster. She’s sticking by her assertion that Scotland will become an independent country within the term of this parliament. It will “absolutely” happen, she says. “It’s time that Scotland chooses our own path. We have the ability to make the decisions to make our country fairer if we have the powers here. We don’t have all the powers to mitigate this UK Government’s actions.”

The Scottish Government’s second Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan includes measures to increase the Scottish Child Payment from £20 to £25 per week when this benefit is extended to under-16s by the end of the year. This will be worth £1,300 per eligible child per year, while there are plans to support up to 12,000 parents into “sustainable and fair work” by increasing employment services and a new Parental Transition Fund will help lower the financial barriers faced by parents entering work.

New modelling means this could see 60,000 fewer children living in relative poverty next year than compared to 2017, the Scottish Government claims.

But will this really be enough amidst gloomy economic forecasts? “There’s always room for us to do more, but in terms of the benefits we have powers over, I think we are doing really positive work,” Don says. “I don’t think that you beat child poverty just by throwing money at it. Increasingly things like the Scottish Child Payment and wider benefits are hugely important, but, coming from a life that’s experienced multiple aspects of what poverty brings to a family, it’s not always about money, it can be about alcohol problems, drug problems, and we need to make sure we are tackling that whole spectrum.”

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