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A just cause: Interview with Christine Grahame MSP

A just cause: Interview with Christine Grahame MSP

Even at age nine, Christine Grahame didn’t stay silent for long when she deemed something was wrong. An untrained dog, taken in by a neighbouring family, was jumping up on local children. Christine, concerned the animal would soon bite a young child, went to her mother. “My mother turned to me and says, ‘don’t just moan, Christine, phone somebody about it’”, she recalls. So she did. The SSPCA was called and checked out the animal. Her concerns were unfounded, they said. Two weeks later, the dog was put down after biting someone.

It’s an anecdote Grahame used to recite when she was a high school teacher in an effort to encourage kids to speak up. “My mother’s lesson about ‘if you’re not prepared to say or do something, I don’t want to hear about it’ has remained with me – sometimes to my cost – that if something really is wrong, I spoke out,” she says. It’s a trait she kept up on her return to university in the early 80s, this time approaching forty and with two young children at home. Her first experience of higher education two decades earlier had been something of a daunting experience. As the first from a working-class housing scheme in Edinburgh to go to university, Grahame found herself burdened by the feeling she didn’t fit in and, she believes, underachieved as a result. Second time round, she was more alive to the privileged opportunity that attending university entailed.

“I remember being quite a nippy person in the law library if people were talking,” says Grahame, who completed a two-year law degree at the University of Edinburgh. “They would sit down and just talk and [at] one point, I remember a whole lot were talking and finally, I just said, ‘look, you may have the rest of the evening to do this, I don’t’. Having said that, I felt awful and I couldn’t study after it.” Those who dared loan a book out and then leave it untouched for hours on end similarly felt the ire of a determined Ms Grahame.

Whether it be sustained questioning over the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing, her bid for SNP deputy leadership a decade ago – not, she says, because she wanted the job but rather because she was sick of seeing the same old faces in the frame – or in the current debate on the abolition of corroboration in criminal trials, she has not been given to keeping schtum in politics either.

A stalwart of Holyrood since its inception in 1999, Grahame is both a formidable and highly respected character having been called on to convene four committees – two of which, justice – in her 15 years. “I love convening – it suits my temperament,” she remarks, insisting that her principal role is to ensure that everyone round the table has an equal say.

It is clear she holds the bipartisan character of the committee system in high regard – often very different from the tribal jostling that FMQs gives rise to – while drawing a clear distinction between her roles as a convener and backbencher. She compares her first spell as convener of the Justice Committee – and fellow members – as them all showing much greater skill today. One development, though, in her view, is less positive.

“I think the problem for the Justice Committee, which started and has grown over the years, is there’s no space for inquiries. If you look at our work programme, it’s all legislation. Remember, there were two justice committees at one time; I opposed that, I thought it was [a] nonsense and it didn’t cure things, it just meant more legislation came through and that was with a Liberal/Labour government, so it doesn’t matter who is in. I know when Bill Aitken chaired justice, he moaned that they had no time for inquiries and over the years, the Justice Committee has less and less time to do them.

“The first time I was convener, we did inquiries – we even did our own Act of Parliament. You couldn’t possibly do that now. The balance is wrong for the Justice Committee and it’s not the first time I’ve said it and it won’t be the last. The Government shouldn’t produce so many bills. It is like a sausage machine, whichever government it is. Governments tend to think we’ve got four years in or five years in this time, we must get this through. And I am not mad about lots of legislation. I don’t think you need laws all the time, sometimes, it’s just policy changes.”

Of course, the reforms that have dominated the committee’s most recent deliberations – police and fire reform, tribunals, changes to the court system, and the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill – are something of an exception. It is the latter that has caused most division within and outwith parliament. In February, MSPs on the committee refused to endorse Scottish Government plans to scrap the centuries-old requirement of corroboration. The setback, however, did not stop the Bill narrowly passing at Stage 1, as an amendment that would have removed the controversial rule change from the proposed legislation fell by three votes. The Bill was approved in principle by 64 votes to five, with 57 abstentions, including Grahame.

“To date, the case [for abolition] has not been proven... beyond reasonable doubt,” she says. “It’s not been proven there is sufficiency of evidence to take us where the Cabinet Secretary wants to take us, which is, in his words, access to justice. Now I have concerns that access to justice for some people means just getting their case into court and I do not think court is therapy, I do not think that a rape or sexual assault victim getting into court and then a jury turning round and finding someone not guilty, acquitting them or not proven, will make them feel any better, I think it will make them feel worse, that’s my take. And I know I have spoken to people about that who’ve been in those circumstances. My concern is we want cases that get to court and have a chance of success.”

Given the Lord Bonomy review into additional safeguards is not expected to report until early 2015, can anything possibly assuage her concerns between now and the Bill going before the chamber at Stage 3? Grahame says that she is “listening” to the debate. “I’m not prepared to make any commitment just now until I see what happens up and through Stage 2… When we were talking about corroboration before we even had the legislation, I said the jury is out – to use that awful expression – I’m not convinced. So I waited until I heard the evidence and I still wasn’t convinced. Let’s see what more we find out about this. I think the Cabinet Secretary had a good point in going into this, really, and I am not just saying that, I think he had a good point. It has made us focus on what do we mean by it [corroboration] and so on and all the other things, but I would have liked it to have been done another way.”

Through a separate piece of legislation, is that what she means? “Another way, let’s put it like that. That would have been a better way of doing it because there are important things in this Bill about early release, about questioning, they have all got kind of lost.”

Process aside, the SNP backbencher was far from impressed by Kenny MacAskill’s misjudged closing remarks in which he suggested opposition to the proposal bore links to the independence referendum. “I didn’t like the manner of it and I made that plain,” she says. “And I know why [it happened], he’s worked very hard on this, everybody has a moment when they get carried away. But, personally, I had sat with people on that committee and I know, while there might be some party politics in it, there were also genuine concerns, and I wasn’t prepared to have the committee members, whoever they were, [treated] as if it was some kind of cheap political posing and it wasn’t for some of them at all.”

Grahame brushes off a suggestion she is outspoken, rather it is that she speaks out when the situation calls for it. Still, the sight of parliament’s justice committee convener, who spent 12 years as a civil court lawyer, openly criticising senior leadership, must have been a boon to opponents. Has she felt other parties have tried to capitalise on it? “No, nobody uses Christine except Christine, and possibly my cats, and possibly, when I’m not paying attention, my brother, who can always lead me astray and then I get the blame – but then he’s been doing that since I was three. That’s it.”

Grahame, a veteran having been through four parliamentary elections, says she has never held ministerial ambitions and has never felt her freedom to speak up curtailed. It is not a universal feature, though, she suggests. “We are a very small parliament with therefore a small number of backbenchers so we don’t have the same kind of freedom of thought across all the parties that they have at Westminster. That’s a problem because all political parties, not just the fact that the SNP is in government, but opposition sometimes need people on their backbenches speaking more freely and it doesn’t happen in here the way it ought to, I think. Because I know there are people in the Labour Party who support the abolition, for instance, of mandatory corroboration, I know it, but they won’t speak out. I know people who feel differently in different political parties about issues which their party has taken a line [on] but they don’t speak out and that’s a problem.”

Younger MSPs who are often “very tribal” on first taking up seats on the SNP and Labour benches will lose that following time on the committees, she says. Yet, the spectacle of seasoned politicians shrugging off their political ties has become less common as parliament has matured. “I have seen the backbenchers being less rebellious over the 15 years across all parties, absolutely. I can remember Malcolm Chisholm coming out in favour of minimum unit pricing against the whole of the Labour benches. I can remember people like Donald Gorrie, [who] was always off message.

“One day I found his bleeper, we used to have pagers, and if you clicked his pager it was Liberal Democrat whip messages to Liberal Democrats that said, ‘Donald Gorrie in Evening News, do not respond’, ‘Donald Gorrie in Scotsman, do not respond’, ‘Donald Gorrie speaking to The Herald, do not respond’, ‘if STV phone about what Donald Gorrie said, do not respond’. That tells you that Donald Gorrie was a bit of a rebel. These people are not here now. Malcolm is, obviously, but there are not so many doing that and, in a way, it’s because we’re so small.”

Chisholm will soon be off too, the former health minister having announced he will step down at the next Holyrood election. Politics has yet to run its course for Grahame, though. Asked if she considers herself a thorn in the leadership’s side, she says: “No, I don’t think so at all. I think that the role of backbenchers and the role of people like me is to, in a way, hold your party to account a little bit at times; [though] not to freelance, because I’m very loyal to the Scottish National Party and to independence… Whereas in here, it may seem a bit [contentious], there’s fewer of us. At Westminster, it’s normal to have some backbenchers, particularly ex-Cabinet ministers who become real bombshells when thrown, so I think it is very important to do that. Sometimes the opposition misses the mark and you’re doing things. I don’t think [I am] a thorn [in the side], I don’t think so at all. The campaign about Megrahi, and things like that, have all been important things to do and if nobody else was doing it, I might as well do it. Again, back to the nine-year-old, if you’re not going to say anything or do anything about it, don’t moan. So I did.”

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