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Women's work: exclusive interview with Jo Swinson

Image credit: David Anderson

Women's work: exclusive interview with Jo Swinson

“I’ll try not to jump down your throat!” says Jo Swinson, erupting into laughter.

I have just admitted to hesitating before asking the new Liberal Democrat leader to discuss the balance between parenting and politics. She has objected to the question in the past, pointing out that male politicians rarely get asked about it.

But I’m chancing my arm, since the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has resigned saying that being leader made her “a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend”. Swinson has two young boys – including 15-month-old Gabriel – and finds herself party leader during a period of political turbulence that is not so much a maelstrom as a category five hurricane. So does she relate to Davidson’s sentiment?

“I do,” she says, emphatically. “I read it and thought, that’s a beautiful paragraph. It resonated, because you are one person, you have 24 hours in the day and we all have responsibilities to other people.”

Last year, Swinson lost her beloved father Peter, who had been living for 10 years with blood cancer. This spring, she and her sister Nicola planned a week’s holiday at a farmhouse near Lockerbie.

“It was particularly timed for the parliamentary recess, but it was also my mum’s wedding anniversary, the first she would be experiencing without my dad.  So we wanted to make sure she had all of us and her grandchildren round her.

“As it happened, I missed the beginning bit of it. I got there and I didn’t have to leave again, but that was just one of those examples when I really felt I wanted to be that daughter.”

Swinson is married to the former Lib Dem MP Duncan Hames who is now director of policy for Transparency International, the international anti-corruption organisation, based in London. They share parenting as equally as they can. Often, MPs’ children attend school in their constituencies, but Swinson’s five-year-old son Andrew goes to school in London.

“I have to be in London Monday to Thursday, so who’s going to look after him Monday to Thursday?” she says, hands spread, shoulders shrugging. “Gabriel is obviously much more portable, so he’s able to travel much more with me than Andrew can, though Andrew only went to school last year so he’s very familiar with flight safety demonstrations and the delights of the Caledonian Sleeper.

“You know what: I think people just have to work out what works for them. If people are going to criticise me for that, then fine, that’s not new, you get criticised as a parent all the time.”

We meet in a Bearsden café at the end of a week in which controversy is raging over Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament. British politics has rarely been so riveting, or alarming. Higher history essay questions and star-studded movies will revolve around the drama of these autumn days, and Joanne Kate Swinson and her resurgent party are at the heart of it.

But this morning, she’s been out delivering leaflets.

Swinson grew up in Milngavie. She has held East Dunbartonshire since 2005, except for two years between 2015 and 2017 when she lost it to the SNP, and she isn’t taking it for granted. She’s been at the school gates today, commiserating with parents about the challenge of organising wraparound care.

She briskly rounds the corner towards the café, unmissable in a leather jacket of Lib Dem yellow, checking her phone. She offers a businesslike handshake and chats amiably to a constituent before ordering a scone and tea to fuel her through an afternoon out in the rain. (The constituent later stops by our table to leave her name and offer Swinson any help she can.)

But the phone, which she discreetly checks from time to time, is her link to that momentous unfolding drama; indeed, while we are speaking, she approves a tweet making public that she is joining former prime minister John Major and campaigner Gina Miller in their judicial review challenging prorogation.

Swinson has been a resolute figure in the fight against Brexit. Besides that, she is principally known as an equalities campaigner. She has challenged advertisers over their use of unrealistic images of women’s bodies. As minister for employment relations in the Lib Dem-Tory coalition between 2010 and 2015, she championed shared parental leave. Last year, she became the first woman to bring her baby into the Commons debating chamber after Gabriel fell asleep on her in his sling.

She has told her party some home truths about their poor record on selecting diverse candidates (and has started taking steps to improve things). She doesn’t pull her punches, and her boldness – or recklessness, as some see it – is proven again a few days after our interview when she announces her support for revoking Article 50 (with the caveat that it would only apply in the case of a Lib Dem parliamentary majority).

But as one-time Baby of the House, the Lib Dems’ first female leader, and, at 39, the youngest-ever female leader of a British political party, she has had her share of patronising and sexist insults. During a Brexit debate earlier this month, an unidentified male MP called upon her to “sit down, love”, just after she started speaking in a debate on an early general election. Often, the sexism is insidious, in phrases like ‘bossy’, ‘strident’ and ‘head girl’.

Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t smile ingratiatingly. Perhaps it’s because she is direct and unflinching. Her speech is quick and animated; on a range of issues, she gives the impression of having done the thinking, made up her mind and moved on. She is decisive, then, but many will now be watching to see how flexible she is prepared to be.

Can she see the Liberal Democrats being the largest party?

“Yes. Absolutely,” she says, apparently meaning it. She decries the choice between no-deal Brexit with Boris Johnson, or “Labour Brexit with Jeremy Corbyn”.

“There needs to be a different choice and that needs to be the Liberal Democrats, working with others. And that needs us to be a much, much, much bigger parliamentary force.” The party’s polling shows that “hundreds of seats are in play”, she says.

Swinson is frequently charged with leaning to the right, having voted for policies such as increasing English tuition fees and cutting welfare. She parries the charge that coalition cost the Lib Dems dear in 2015, insisting that most lost seats went to the Conservatives, though adds that this was not of course the case in Scotland (where the SNP took 10 of the Lib Dems’ 11 seats, including hers). In fact, adding the SNP’s 10 seats to Labour’s 12, the tally is 22, compared to the 27 that went blue, an uncomfortable squeeze from both sides.

So where do Swinson’s Lib Dems sit on the political spectrum? Are they a centre-left party again, as during the high point of the Ashdown and Kennedy years?

“I don’t think the political spectrum is left-right anymore,” she comes back. “The political spectrum has shifted and it’s about values, liberal against conservative or authoritarian.” She rails against the Westminster electoral system which reinforces the old two-party model. Both main parties straddle the “open versus closed” dividing line, epitomised by Brexit, with liberal Remainers and social conservatives to be found in both.

She does not altogether discount the old left-right axis, acknowledging the squaring off of an avowed left-winger (Jeremy Corbyn) against the low regulation, low tax pro-Brexit Conservatives, but believes the new divide is more significant.

 “The Brexit issue is not very difficult for us because we know where we’re at and we’re comfortable about it.” She points to the Lib Dems’ best-ever European and English local election results, the arrival of former Labour and Tory MPs (taking the Lib Dem MP count to 18), and 30,000 new members since May. 

Of course, there is another divide in Scottish politics: yes/no. Can she envisage any circumstances in which she thinks it would be right for the UK Government to sign off on another independence referendum?

A direct answer this time is not forthcoming. She says that the Conservatives are not the right people to make the case for staying in the UK. Personally, she doesn’t want to feel “ripped apart” by Scottish independence.

“I’m Scottish and I’m British. I grew up in Milngavie – this is my home and my dad was a Londoner and my sister married a man from Middlesbrough and they now live in Jordanhill, so for me, this is personal. I’m determined to fight to keep the United Kingdom together.”

What if the polls did shift considerably, on independence and having a second referendum – what then?

“I’m not going to stop making that case to keep the UK together,” she says. “If you look at the Brexit mess, the thought that we’d put more chaos on that – I just think is the last thing that we need.”

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have both been seriously at odds with their Scottish leaders in the last few months. Ruth Davidson has resigned, while Richard Leonard has been undermined in opposing a second independence referendum by Corbyn’s openness to one.

How does she manage her relationship with Scottish leader Willie Rennie?

“Willie and I get on brilliantly,” she says. “Willie is one of my most trusted confidants and advisers; he has a great wisdom and a fascinating and insightful perspective on the world. We talk regularly, we have lunch. I suspect that relationship is not mirrored in the other two parties.”

Perhaps this is just as well. The Lib Dems’ new policy of revoking Article 50 has led to cries of hypocrisy from the SNP, since her party insists that Brexit can be stopped by a general election win, but a pro-independence majority at Holyrood wouldn’t be enough to bring about independence. Rennie has held the line. Swinson has argued that her Brexit policy is about seeking to escape chaos while an independence referendum would create more, but that line has done little to dampen the controversy.

On top of this, she has been accused of being a democrat in name only, willing to overturn a referendum result with a parliamentary majority won in a general election. Critics within her own party, including MP Norman Lamb, are deeply uneasy about the policy.

But Swinson continues to woo disaffected Tory voters and expresses deep disdain for Boris Johnson.

“I think he is a charlatan, I think he only cares about himself and to me, that is the worst thing,” she concludes. “I disagree with people in other political parties all the time, but generally, you get the view that they are in it for the right reasons.

“I don’t think he cares.

“I’ve been a minister, I know what it’s like when you go to a select committee to give evidence – it’s a much bigger deal than even oral questions in parliament because they can just keep digging at you. I think about how I used to prepare for my select committee appearances, really knowing my stuff inside out, and he went and said those... those awful words that were used against Nazanin [Zaghari Ratcliffe] in her trial.

“He didn’t apologise, he didn’t really seem to show remorse. In most governments that would have been a sacking offence.”

It’s a worrying time, she notes, but points to what, for her, counts as a big positive: the growth in Brexit Britain of what has become probably the biggest pro-European movement in all of Europe.

“People have been galvanised by this. And I think that is inspiring and a cause for optimism. The rules of the game are changing all the time.”

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