Politics in the blood
About twenty-five years ago, Claudia Beamish took her three-year-old daughter, Freya, to London to protest against the introduction of the ‘poll tax’.
As they stood in Trafalgar Square, campaigning against the controversial community charge, her father – Freya’s grandfather – was in the House of Lords calling for exactly the same thing.
For her father, Sir Tufton Beamish a former Conservative MP by then a life peer Lord Chelwood, it was one of the final acts of a distinguished political career as he looked to change legislation to vary the charge by income rather than applying one rate for all.
His daughter, on the other hand, was still years away from joining the world of party politics that would eventually see her chairing Scottish Labour and becoming an MSP.
Sir Tufton Beamish was a former British Army officer, a veteran of Dunkirk who had also escaped capture by the Japanese in Singapore after rowing to freedom.
He served as Conservative MP for Lewes in Sussex from 1945 to 1974 – a seat previously held by his father, before entering the House of Lords until his death in 1989.
Born in 1952, when her father had already fought and won three elections, Beamish said: “I grew up in a very political family and in those days – certainly in the Tory Party, I don’t know about the Labour Party then – you were expected to be involved, so we went to things with my parents. Perhaps now it is different but then it was like that.
“I’d probably had enough of politics by the time I left home and I took a big break from it.”
By first becoming involved in the peace movement in Oxford and editing the campaign bulletin for the demonstrations at Upper Heyford and Greenham Common and also her job as a primary school teacher, she began to take an interest in politics once again.
Having been brought up in Sussex and London, it was a move to Scotland, first to an ex-mining village, where she began to be more involved in environmental issues and community activism – particularly on the proximity of open-cast mining and its impact on communities.
It wasn’t until 1995 that she joined a political party – and by then it wasn’t the party of the household she had grown up in, but the Labour Party.
“By that time it really wasn’t a difficult decision. It was the obvious decision to work holistically within a political party. The natural party to join was Scottish Labour.”
She adds: “I think I found my own place. It always surprises me when people say on the doorstep, ‘I vote Labour because of my parents – or dare I say it, my husband, sometimes people say that – or Tory or whatever.
“For me, it was quite a journey which meant that I did learn a lot in growing up about politics.
“I don’t really know what ‘in your blood’ means, but if anything is in my blood then that is.”
She stresses, though, that this did not mean turning her back on all her father’s politics. “My dad was president of the RSPB growing up and also was very involved in conservation issues and a passionate European as well – there are some things which I have carried forward and other things which have changed.”
Since her election in 2011 on the Labour list for South of Scotland, she has been appointed shadow minister for environment and climate change and with the shadow cabinet secretary Claire Baker, has made a point of pushing environmental issues in debates.
Before her election, Beamish had been chair of the Socialist Environment Resources Association for five years, which had been involved in shaping some of the party’s manifesto.
She said: “I think [the environment] is at the heart of our policies to the extent that they are issues that affect people in their everyday lives, like food and fuel poverty – we have food banks and people not able to pay their bills.
“I believe we are looking at a way forward which enables people to understand why we need to move to a different way of life – slowly – and I hope that in Scottish Labour we’re getting over how that can happen, because I believe it can happen, although maybe not as quickly as it should.”
Although she has criticised the Government on environmental issues, including over the failure to meet its first two annual carbon emissions targets and the speed at which it is making the housing and transport sectors lower carbon, she said she acknowledges the difficulties in doing this.
She says too that her experiences as an MSP have changed her perspective on many issues.
“As someone who’s worked in, not exactly one-issue politics, but community activism, you do work differently,” she says.
“I spoke here in the open-cast debate and as shadow minister for environment and climate change, I’m keen that we do not use as much fossil fuel as we’re using at the moment. I’ve also spoken in the carbon capture and storage debate.
“But I believe that it’s really important that as we have a transition away from fossil fuels that it’s a just transition.
“That is going to mean that it is a slow process, communities in Ayrshire and south Lanarkshire, which I represent and in central. I don’t believe you can just jump from one thing to another.
“So now, as a politician, I have to take, perhaps a wider range of issues into account. Not that I didn’t care about people’s jobs then, but it’s a different focus.
“If I give you from my portfolio a different example, I’ve become keenly interested in marine issues, for coastal communities and a whole range of employment possibilities in Scotland, having been through my first bill with the aquaculture bill and with looking at marine protected areas and the whole National Marine Plan, where renewable energy fits into that.
“So I have to try my best to look at it strategically to see where we can have what I believe is very important, which is sustainable development with marine and terrestrial as we go forward and see how we can have development but we’re not going to ruin everything for future generations.
“It’s taking, as best I can, a strategic view and looking at how the conflicts can be resolved in a way that is good for people, but good for the environment as well.”
On the day she speaks to Holyrood, Labour leader Ed Miliband was up in Scotland for a two-day visit and the party’s gala dinner – and the interview is delayed while he met the Labour MSPs at the Parliament.
She says the party is now on issues like the ‘bedroom tax’ and food and fuel poverty, trying to shape policies in terms of how they will be in the next administrations – both in Scotland and at Westminster.
But has Labour in opposition been tackling those issues sufficiently?
Beamish, who chaired Scottish Labour for 18 months before being elected, said: “I believe very strongly that our political party members should be in that process of forming the next manifestos and obviously with the UK party, we would make our contribution to forming the manifesto for Westminster and here as Scottish Labour – I was a Scottish Policy Forum member for 10 years – I believe in that process very strongly.
“So we’re not rushing these things and I think it’s very important with things like the response that Ed Miliband gave to the ‘bedroom tax’, people were impatient to hear what he was going to say and what Labour, UK-wide and us in Scotland, were saying but I think it was right as we are hoping to form the next administration at Westminster that he was sure that things were costed carefully before the commitments were made.”
She adds: “We are looking at radical solutions for cost of living issues. I feel quite annoyed when the SNP challenge us about what they call a ‘Cuts Commission’, because it’s not. It’s looking at what is the very best way forward to help working people and vulnerable people and pensioners and students to have the best life they can and the best future they can and we can’t have everything free.
“Not everything is free now, it’s an illusion to think it is. So I think we’re on strong ground.”
She adds: “I hope we’re all connected with each other and I think we are at the moment for those dialogues to happen. It’s a balanced way forward, people working together – after all, we are all party members whether it’s Johann or Ed or me or my branch members.”
Miliband’s visit to Scotland raises the issue of the party’s relationship with the UK party – with some questioning the influence that Scottish Labour has over its own affairs.
But Beamish said: “We’re part of the UK party, I believe we are very strongly connected and there is a listening between the two in a way that is as it should be.”
Beamish has two children with her partner Michael – Freya who lives in Hong Kong and Michael – who is at university. So is it a political household?
“When the children were growing up, we had to ban open cast which was regarded as the ‘OC’ phrase at meals,” she says.
“Our family is quite political, Michael is very supportive and a committed Labour member in his own right.
“My son, I’d say, is more interested in global politics at the moment, whereas Freya is a member of the Labour Party and probably makes a better speech than me.”