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by Tom Freeman
15 May 2014
World view

World view

“I’m an internationalist,” says Shona Robison.

It’s a good job she is, because as Holyrood sits down with the newly-promoted Cabinet Secretary for the Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights, she’s recovering from a trip to Canada, and the jetlag is setting in.

“Well, it’s five hours back in Canada, so this would be four in the morning. It’s been a struggle getting up,” she says.

As well as the official duties for the trip, Robison was in Canada to deliver a bottle of malt whisky to Canadian Sports Minister Bal Gosal. She had lost a wager on a recent curling match in which a united Americas team unexpectedly beat a rest of the world team skippered by Olympic medallist Eve Muirhead. Robison was forced to hand over a bottle of 12-year-old Aberfeldy.

Finance Secretary John Swinney was pleased, she says, because she chose a distillery from his constituency.

Robison says she has been an internationalist for as long as she can remember. Her earliest memory is living in Falkirk at a time when her parents were helping Chilean refugees who had fled Pinochet’s regime and settled in the area. “Our house was full of Chilean refugees. You get an international perspective there, and that’s always stayed with me. I’m an internationalist as well as believing in independence for my own country, and I think in some ways, the two are connected. You need to be able to control what’s in your own backyard and then understand Scotland’s place in the world, and I would very much be optimistic Scotland will have a very peaceful role in the world, as a good global nation that understands the importance of helping others.”

Despite seeing herself as more of an internationalist than a nationalist, during her university years she was drawn to the SNP.

GlasgowUniversity alumni dominate Scottish politics, and Robison is no exception. Former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander was a peer and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a few years below. Robison was involved with Labour students at first, following in the footsteps of her parents who were both active campaigners in the Labour movement. However, the SNP’s activity in the anti-apartheid campaign challenged assumptions she’d had about the party. Then there was a discussion on a bus trip to London for a student protest with her fellow Labour student members. “We spent the whole trip debating Scottish culture, to which they said there was no such thing. I took great exception to this because I’d always believed in self-government for Scotland. We’d all been the night before in a Nicaraguan support group society or something, where they were extolling the greatness of Nicaraguan culture, which it is, but the next day we’re in a hot debate refusing to accept their own nation’s culture? I couldn’t stomach that. I thought I can’t connect with it at all,” she remembers.

She lived in Govan at the time, and in 1988, during the by-election campaign to elect Jim Sillars, Robison and others were inspired to shift. “By this point, relationships were strained within Labour circles, so myself and a couple of other people who had left the Labour student mould went into the campaign rooms of the SNP and joined. The first person I met was Alison Hunter, who basically said, ‘aye, come in, here’s a pile of leaflets’.”

Robison entered the Young Scottish Nationalists surrounded by vocal and influential women, including Sturgeon and Fiona Hyslop. “We were quickly encouraged to stand for things, and stand for internal positions. It was quite a good fast track into the party. It was quite political,” she says.

Robison herself is a role model to the younger generation of women in the party. Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell told Holyrood in March she had been inspired working in Robison’s office by how she juggled her home and political life at a time when her husband, Dundee MP Stewart Hosie, had just been elected for Westminster.

“Oh gosh! Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. If you speak to my daughter, particularly in a few years time, she might have a few comments to make about that! She’s ten now, and our lives run a bit like a military operation. She was only two when Stewart was elected, and he’d stayed at home for the first year when she was born, so she’d had him at home, then my mum and dad have been great grandparents. Fantastic, I have to say.”

Maintaining a good relationship with her daughter is an important part of the juggling act for Robison.

“One thing I have always tried to do is get home at night. I’ve kind of stuck to that. But as I say, when she’s a rebellious teenager, she may have a view. You’ve got to protect that time. She’s at school all day and then really into horses and all that, so she’s very occupied. When I get home though, it’s time to chat and catch up on the day. It is hard, but every working mum will tell you the same, trying to juggle work and family life. I’ll not tell you what our house looks like, but suffice to say, cleaning is low down on the priorities. It’s sometimes a bit of a shambles.”

The sports portfolio has meant there are demands on weekends too. “I could fill every minute of every Saturday and Sunday going to sports events, so you have to be quite strict with your time I think, and I’ve maybe learnt over the years to be a bit more protective of it. It’s being able to say no to things as well. I wasn’t very good at the beginning, but I’m a bit better now,” she says.

If juggling priorities has been difficult up to now, the new expanded portfolio of sport, the Commonwealth Games, equalities and pensioners rights gives Robison the longest title in the Scottish cabinet, and a lot of potentially competing responsibilities.

“I know. I’ve set myself a challenge of delivering a speech that encompasses all four elements of my portfolio,” she says.

She says she has “made it clear to everybody” the focus for the summer will be the Commonwealth Games, and once they are over, things will get “a bit easier”. She has also had the equality brief since last year, but sees promotion to the cabinet as an opportunity to keep it at the forefront of priorities. “It was a brief I wanted. I really want to take the opportunity to try and create a momentum around a different type of Scotland, and equality is at the heart of that. There are so many opportunities with independence to do that, and talk about the type of Scotland you want to see.”

Robison recently announced a consultation on proposed mandatory quotas to ensure at least 40 per cent of public boards are made up of women. Gathering evidence on quotas is one thing, but is affirmative action something Robison instinctively supports?

“For all my life I’ve supported positive action, because I believe voluntary measures have their place, and have made some improvements, and we can evidence some of the improvements that have been made, but actually, the international evidence shows us those societies that have made the big breakthrough are ones which have used positive action measures. Look at Norway. The Norwegians decided they wanted to transform public and corporate life in Norway, and they’ve done it through a mixture of positive measures and some practical measures. They had the legislation, but behind it they had some big programmes of attitudinal change. They’ve produced databases of women who want to serve in public and corporate life and really brought a whole new cohort of women into public and corporate life who have served both really well, but have provided almost a new talent pool. Actually, corporate Norway and public life in Norway have done really well through that injection of new blood.”

Her trip to Canada, too, offered up examples. “They’ve not used positive action as such but they’ve done a lot around getting more women into their top companies in Canada, particularly the big infrastructure companies. And they’ve said it makes a real difference round the board table, because women maybe bring a different perspective to risk, and in their financial and banking services that’s quite important. But if the door is shut to women, it’s shut to everybody, and therefore I’ve held that position all of my life. I recognise not everybody thinks like that, and that’s why we’ve embarked on a consultation to elicit views, but with a view to taking action.”

Like her SNP colleagues, Robison also sees independence as an opportunity for change. “We want an opportunity for Scotland to look and feel differently, and to better reflect its makeup. That requires us to have not just women in positions of power and influence, but other underrepresented groups too. Getting women into positions of power and influence is the catalyst for change,” she says, putting forward the prominence of childcare in the White Paper as an example.

There has been criticism of the promotion of Robison and Angela Constance to the cabinet as cynical tokenism. Women have been less enthusiastic about independence in the polls, and critics have said the First Minister is trying to ‘woo’ them.

“I think you have to lead by example. The cabinet now being 40 per cent women I think sends a very strong signal. We’re up there with the very best of senior government positions in the world. I think if we’re saying to others we want you to have women at the highest level, you’ve got to lead by example. Walk the walk as well as talk the talk. That’s a first step. Angela and I are going to be full contributing members to the cabinet, and I think we’ve shown we’re more than able to cover our portfolios and get things done,” says Robison.

Apparent evidence of tokenism has been the fact the women in the cabinet largely appear to control the smallest budgets. Robison says this is “a cheap shot”, when the Scottish Government portfolios work so closely together.

“I mean, where do you draw the line? Myself and John Swinney are talking about the elements of equality matters within the budget, and we’re working jointly on that. If I was to take older people and corralled them into my portfolio then those figures would look different, so it depends where you draw the line. I mean, some of the biggest spending items in government are actually important areas that impact on women, childcare being one of the big commitments, so I think it’s a very arbitrary line.”

Pensioners’ rights and welfare also crosses with the equality aspect of her portfolio. “I’ve met with a number of older people’s organisations and that came up in discussion. It’s very much about the rights of older people and making sure in equality terms older people have their voice. The First Minister, when he was appointing me, said he saw this as an older people’s voice, a pensioners’ voice within the cabinet. Mine is a coordinating role, because clearly, a lot of other ministers and cabinet secretaries have portfolios that impact on older people, so my role is to bring all that together in a coherent place,” she says.

Looking at the ageing population and inequality is a full circle for Robison, whose first ministerial appointment was as public health minister. From a background working in the social care sector, the whole government approach to health has always interested her. “When I worked as a home care organiser in Glasgow, liaising with the health service was very much part of my day-to-day job. Then becoming public health minister was a fantastic first ministerial appointment, getting into issues around older people, around mental health, things that particularly interested me, the whole public health agenda on alcohol and smoking. I’ve carried a bit of that on with the physical activity agenda in sport. Michael’s doing a great job at public health and he and I work quite closely around some of those physical activity agenda.”

Health is a big aspect of the Commonwealth Games legacy agenda. The Government’s former physical activity champion Dr Andrew Murray’s work into the importance of keeping active has been significant in driving the agenda forward. The rise in awareness of its importance means the legacy project is a long-term ambition, according to Robison. “The evidence shows even later on in life, beginning to do that can add not just a number of years onto your life expectancy, but the quality of life as well,” she says.

The NHS will play a greater role in prevention, she says, including a new ‘brief intervention on physical activity’ tool which will allow doctors and nurses to prescribe exercise. “In the same way a doctor or nurse will have a discussion on smoking or someone’s alcohol, they’ve now got a system that enables them to have a discussion about your physical inactivity, and signpost you to the walking group, or local gym, where there’ll be a programme for you to start where you’re at but take you to better health. That came out of the legacy of the Games.”

Promotion related to taking more physical exercise is hardly new, however. A TV advert in the 90s featuring rugby legend Gavin Hastings walking a mile was hailed as a great success, yet Scotland has become less, not more fit. This time, Robison says, the focus has shifted. “Although we want to do what we can around the older generation, our focus has been quite unashamedly on getting young people into good habits, because we know for preschool and school-age kids, if you get them into a pattern of eating well and being physically active, that’s more likely to last into teenage and adulthood,” she says.

Scandinavia has got it right, suggest Robison, in having a more physically active culture. “That’s why so many of our programmes have been focused on schools, that’s why there’s two hours of PE minimum, the Active Schools Programme, getting active play into every nursery, working around diet: the free school meals P1-P3, nutrition, working with parents so when kids are at home they’ve got a better chance of eating healthily as well.”

Opening schools up in evenings as community sports hubs will put sports facilities in all communities, she argues. Ninety two per cent of schools are now delivering the new PE requirement. Schools are playing a greater role in encouraging children to walk or cycle to school. “All of that is about making it easy for people to be active, and harnessing the captive school day to really make the most of it; that in itself is really important in changing those attitudes and getting those schools to see themselves not just as places of education, but places of health and wellbeing as well.”

Robison has seen how active her own daughter has become. “Oh, it makes you exhausted just to watch her,” she says. In terms of practising what she preaches, though, Robison hasn’t always been sporty. A keen long-distance runner in her school days, she never kept it up. “Not that anybody ever said why don’t you come and join the athletics club; it just wasn’t like that in my day. There weren’t the same pathways into clubs and stuff,” she says. By the time she had left home it had fallen by the wayside. “I would have to admit at university, my levels of activity were pretty minimal but I then picked up again. What I do now is I’ve got a mountain bike and I love getting out on my mountain bike. In the winter, it tends to be the exercise bike, but in the summer, we’ve got great off-road cycle tracks in Dundee, and they’re great to use. That’s my way of chilling out.”

Family Robison and Hosie are known for their affinity with Dundee United Football Club, who will contest the Scottish cup final with Perth’s Saint Johnstone this week. Robison isn’t able to sit with her family. “I’m going to the final officially, so I will of course be maintaining impartiality in these matters. It’s a good Tayside derby, it’s great for the area, and I think it’ll showcase the best of Scottish football and it’ll be a real family affair. I know a lot of kids will be going. In fact, my own daughter is. My husband is taking my own daughter and his brother and his nephew who are all going. They’ll enjoy themselves, they’ll be in the stand!”

Dundee United supporters recently raised thousands online to enable more children to get to the game after it emerged there were only limited concession tickets available. Although Robison believes cup finals, as special events, may fall into this trap, she is encouraged by activity at some football clubs during the normal season when they let children in for free for selected games. “I think that’s good because it encourages the next generation of football fans to come through the doors. Obviously, you wouldn’t get that for a cup final but for other games, it’s good to encourage kids to support their local team,” she says.

Children’s relationship with sport is very important, she suggests. “The football clubs have a really important role in that, which is why the money we’ve provided to clubs through the SPFL has been focused on their work with young people. Some of that’s diversionary stuff, some of it employability, but a lot of it is about multi sports, not just football, and using the club as a community club, which many of them are, to open doors to a range of activities.”

Robison’s personal interest in football centres around the national team, but it would appear her enthusiasm for sport doesn’t stop there. “I like rugby,” she says, “I’ve had the pleasure of being at Murrayfield – sometimes, not always a pleasure but it’s a great atmosphere. I like rugby sevens. I missed sevens this weekend because I was coming back from Canada, but the sevens is great. Of course, it’s going to be in the Commonwealth Games, and Scotland are great. I was following them on Twitter. They’ve really improved their performance, so who knows what will happen at Ibrox. We’ll see, it’s going to be exciting.”

Holyrood recently noticed a less fashionable hobby in the Cabinet Secretary’s listed leisure interests: science fiction. “I don’t know, I love sci-fi films. I don’t know what it is. My husband and I both like science fiction films, so if a new one comes out… the last one we went to see was Gravity, anything to do with space and stuff. We just both like it. It’s maybe just complete escapism from politics, I don’t know.” Robison’s enjoyment of ‘Nordic Noir’ television series isn’t shared by Hosie, so sci-fi is their common ground, she tells us. She insists they are not ‘trekkies’.

“I don’t mind Star Trek but it’s not of favourite. One of my all time favourite films is Dune. Love it. Love it, with Sting, of course in his kind of outfit. We both love Dune. We went through a phase of watching it again and again. It’s just such a stylish film.”

If David Lynch’s 1984 film about giant intergalactic sand worms helping topple the balance of power in the universe can’t be seen as political inspiration, for those used to a futuristic narrative, imagining a new country is not so much of a leap. A written constitution is the start of a forward-looking outlook, she says: “It gives us the chance to look at some fundamental things, like the power in society and rebalancing that through public life and corporate life.”

Robison rejects the idea an independent Scotland would just be a smaller version of the UK, unable to properly challenge inequality.

“See, I don’t think that will be the case at all, because the power and the enthusiasm that will be unleashed by people putting their shoulder to the wheel to build our new nation is going to be so exciting. People will want to be a part of that.

If there’s a Yes vote, I predict you’ll not be able to find anybody who didn’t vote Yes, because everybody will want to be part of Team Scotland going forward, creating this new society. Is it going to happen overnight? Of course not, but the vision of having a Scotland as a very special place that enshrines people’s rights, promotes their talents, welcomes new people to its shores, that’s a place people will want to go and be proud to be part of, I believe.”

For a self-proclaimed internationalist, there’s no danger of this new country being too inwardly focused as it tries to forge its new place in the world. The Scottish diaspora around the world may be tempted to come back, she suggests. “People have reached the highest positions throughout the world. It’ll be interesting to see, post-independence, how many of them come back to support Scotland in its nation-building and taking its first steps in the world as a global nation. There is so much goodwill out there towards Scotland, not just from global Scots. People like us, you know!”

And as her own daughter grows up and flies the nest, Robison hopes she will have new opportunities.

“I’ve said on many occasion, although I’m a politician I’m also a mum, and I know in my heart, 150 per cent, her life will be enhanced by independence. She may choose to travel the world, go and work elsewhere, that’s her choice to make, but she shouldn’t have to do that. When I look at my generation, or I look at my husband’s family, he’s the only one left in Scotland. They all went to the four corners of the world. In some cases, because they wanted to, but in too many cases, because they felt they had to, to fulfil their ambitions and be who they could be. I want people to fulfil their ambitions here in Scotland if they want to. We want to create the kind of dynamic society and economy that allows people to do that. Young people like to travel, it’s good for them to experience the world, but it’s also good for them to come back.”

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