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25 February 2013
Against the odds

Against the odds

With only six MPs, the SNP group at Westminster is a small band among the crowded benches.

Mike Weir, who has been one of them since 2001, jokes that he and his colleagues are “the Chindits of the Nationalist movement - fighting behind enemy lines”.

Given the recent history, this comment doesn’t seem quite so risible. Last year a debate over the transfer of legal powers to Scotland to hold an independence referendum, saw Labour politician Ian Davidson accuse SNP members of purposefully avoiding the chamber while he was speaking.

And only this month, Labour boycotted their own debate on post offices after a row over the use of the word ‘separation’ - rather than ‘independence’.

Since 2007, the SNP has been in the peculiar position of being a minority group, but with the knowledge that their colleagues elsewhere had now formed their own government - and since 2011 had won a majority in the Scottish Parliament.

Weir, his party’s spokesman on energy and climate change - as well as business and skills - describes his party’s role as “fighting on all fronts, pushing Scottish interests, constituents’ interests and fighting Scotland’s corner in Westminster.” But he says: “It is difficult sometimes, particularly at the moment where the atmosphere can be sometimes less than pleasant given political developments elsewhere and the fact that we’re facing a Tory government that are, frankly, abysmal, but we fight on.”

Politics in Westminster can often see politicians with deeply opposing views kicking lumps out of each other in the debating chamber, but sharing a camaraderie away from it.

Weir, though, is not so sure: “I would say there’s less camaraderie than there might have been in the past - that’s politics.

“We are fighting a strong campaign for independence and a lot of people in Westminster are dead against that (though perhaps less than you might expect in some quarters) and there can be a febrile atmosphere at some times.”

But he adds: “We’re not there because we believe in Westminster, we’re the only ones there trying to make ourselves redundant, we want out of there, we want Scotland to be independent taking all its own decisions - if you want to be an SNP MP at Westminster, you better not have a thin skin.”

Elected to Angus in 2001, which includes his native Arbroath, he also served for a time as an SNP councillor in the 1980s in Kirkcaldy - where he also practised as a solicitor. He has been a member of the party and championing independence for more than 30 years.

With a referendum on the horizon it raises the possibility that if there is a Yes vote in 2014 he might have to find another job and that might not be standing for the Scottish Parliament.

He says: “I joined the SNP because I wanted to see independence. I want to build a better Scotland and I hope that after independence there will be a place where I can help in building that Scotland, whether in Holyrood or elsewhere.

“I will look at that when the situation arises, we’re focused on gaining that independence, whether or not I’m a politician after is a minor issue.” And he says that if Scotland were to be independent, it would not be an automatic assumption that fellow Scottish MPs would walk into the parliament in Edinburgh.

“Who is elected to Holyrood is a matter for the electorate. I would say we have some excellent MSPs at the moment and a lot of this nonsense about the better politicians being in Westminster is just people grinding their own axe for their own political reasons.

“Holyrood will continue to evolve, some people who are presently at Westminster may stand for the Scottish Parliament, but they are going to have to look at the way they are reacting because the atmosphere and situation at Westminster is very different.

“Politics, by its nature, tends to be confrontational but looking from the outside, Holyrood has managed to create a much better atmosphere than Westminster which is confrontational to the nth degree and can be quite nasty at times.” His own brief is proving to be a central focus for the debate over Scotland’s future, both the issue of North Sea oil and gas, but also the shift towards renewable energy and making the world “cleaner and greener”.

Weir was critical of the Energy Bill, which has just been through the committee stage at Westminster, particularly that it had no target for decarbonising energy production by 2030.

He says: “The Bill doesn’t have a decarbonisation target at the moment, which is a huge disappointment because that would be an important driver to give confidence to the supply chain.

“There are a lot of people interested in setting up in Scotland, but at the moment the UK targets run out in 2020 and there’s no guarantee what’s going to happen after. The point about a decarbonisation target for 2030 is to show we’re serious.” By contrast, he points out First Minister Alex Salmond’s own commitment on a decarbonisation target - even though some of the aspects required to meet this are still reserved to Westminster.

He says: “It’s where Scotland is going and it does mean something. The Scottish Government has shown its commitment to renewables and has gone out there and shown it’s serious about clean, green energy.

“It has been doing it by encouraging renewables in Scotland, as far as can be done within the powers of devolution. With the powers of independence we’d be able to take it much further.

“It’s not just an argument for independence,” he adds. “It’s an argument for how we see our society is developing.

“Energy is an important industry. We already have the oil and gas industry, we’re building up the renewable industry and when we get into, as we’re beginning to do, offshore wind farms, there’s a great cross-over of skills between oil and gas and renewable energy.”

He is also critical of the Westminster Energy Bill for not doing enough to tackle fuel poverty and energy efficiency and says more attention is needed not on just making homes better insulated, but concentrating on electrical appliances to ensure they are not wasting electricity — he wants energy companies to think more about helping people get more energy-efficient appliances.

“That could make a big difference to how we use our energy. We’ve concentrated in the past on lightbulbs, but that’s only one aspect. Look at televisions, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers, all of these use a lot of energy and if we could encourage people to use less energy and help them to be able to purchase them, that could do a lot to help energy efficiency as well.”

He is adamant that government and energy companies need to tackle the issue of fuel poverty, particularly the higher costs of pre-payment meters, saying: “It’s an appalling situation. A warm home is a basic human right and it’s something we have to address.”

One of the ways he tried to do this, though unsuccessfully, was via a private member’s bill that would mean pensioners in more rural areas who are off the grid and heating their homes with oil or LPG, would be able to get their winter fuel allowance early — in September when they have to fill their tanks, not in December or January when costs are higher and the situation is likely to be more desperate.

The Bill was “talked out” but he is still hopeful its ideas will eventually be adopted. “The campaign goes on. Sometimes government will come back with something of their own to try to take the credit. I’m hopeful that a lightbulb will go on somewhere and someone will say, ‘this is a good idea’.”

Away from politics, Weir is a music fan, particularly of the 1970s’ rock and country scene he heard when he was growing up. In an age where politicians’ personal tastes can often seem to be agreed by committee for PR purposes — he cites Gordon Brown claiming to be an Arctic Monkeys fan. But Weir’s Twitter account regularly updates followers on concerts he’s been to or of Saturdays spent listening to Johnnie Walker’s ‘Sounds of the Seventies’.

He is a huge David Bowie fan - already having the new album pre-ordered — and went to T in the Park the year that the star was supposed to be appearing but had to cancel after a health scare.

With a daughter in her 20s, though, his music taste has been infiltrated by more modern sounds and he even admits: “I did end up in the mosh pit in Glasgow when Green Day were playing once, which was an experience in itself.” Compared to the bear pit of being a minority party in Westminster — one wonders which is the tougher.

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