We may be in the era of the ‘career politician’, those who have reached the ballot box via the role of party researcher, councillor and then MSP or MP but some buck the trend; they go into political life after being successful elsewhere first. Jim Hume slots into the latter category.
Born into a Borders farming family, Hume, who was one of only five Lib Dems to survive the SNP landslide last year, has carried his background in Scottish rural life through into the Parliament.
He took his first fledgling steps into the world of politics as a member of the National Farmers’ Union and while his sons now run the family farming business in the Yarrow Valley, the South of Scotland list MSP is his party’s spokesman on rural issues and the environment, as well as housing and transport, putting his knowledge to good use.
But he is by no means alone, with both current and former MSPs from across the political spectrum coming from similar roots.
Hume’s party colleague Tavish Scott has a farming background, as do Tory MSPs Alex Fergusson, Alex Johnstone, John Scott and Jamie McGrigor. And Hume points out that former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell also came from sheep-farming stock on Arran.
He is pleased to see so many represented at Holyrood.
“I think that’s good,” he says. “If you look at the cross section of Scotland you’ll see that there’s quite a large portion of it is rural and that should be reflected in here as well.
“In Parliament, we have people who used to be nurses or doctors and from other careers. I think it’s a strength of this Parliament that we have people who had life experience before they went into politics.” He adds: “When I hear Dr Richard Simpson talking on health issues, I listen to him because I know that he has this knowledge and it’s not just a researcher that’s given him a briefing.
“That’s the same with myself and others like Alex Fergusson too; we get some respect. You know the subject and how it’s going to affect people on the ground.” It was farming that led him along the long path into politics, serving in the Lothian and Borders regional branch of the National Farmers’ Union, which has about 1,300 members, and eventually serving as president and a director of NFU Scotland.
That role, along with others for the Borders Forest Trust, and Scottish Enterprise, gave him a taste of working closely alongside government and lobbying MPs and MSPs for support.
That time gave him experience of being at the centre of major events, as during 2001, he wasvice president of the NFU branch, when the outbreak of foot and mouth disease was leaving many farmers’ businesses - and in some cases, lives - in ruins.
Livestock infected with the disease had to be taken away and destroyed as efforts were made to stop it spreading and creating even worse damage to the industry.
Hume became a lobbyist for MPs and MSPs in his region, trying to get aid and information for farmers who were affected.
“That was a traumatic time,” he says. “You would have farmers in tears, big burly farmers.
“Generations of them had perhaps been in the same place and were now seeing their many generations’ work going down the tubes.
“It was a harrowing time, as you can imagine.
It was a like a war and you would hear X farm has been taken out.
“A lot of these farms were old-fashioned hefted sheep stock. On the hills, the animals are attached to that ground genetically for hundreds of years. If you move the sheep and chase them off the hill, they’ll go back.“That’s something you can’t just replace and put back up there.
“I finished an MBA in 1997 and was invited to go on to local branch and was vice chairman during 2001. From the very beginning we would have meetings with MPs and MSPs, now I’m on the other side of the table.” Following the foot and mouth outbreak, his work with the Borders Forest Trust meant the work he undertook involved aiding business recovery, including giving help to farms and loans for hotels and businesses which had been affected.
He says: “I could see the machinations of getting round a table and putting a package together, then reacting and funds coming down.” It was five years after the outbreak that he moved on to mainstream politics, standing both as a regional list MSP and a councillor for Galashiels.
Although he was chosen by the Lib Dems as number one on the list, giving him a good chance of being elected to Parliament, at the time the only MSPs serving the constituency were those from the constituency.
When the two counts were held in May 2007, he was elected for both Holyrood and Scottish Borders Council.
He continued in both roles, drawing both salaries, but not claiming any expenses for his council role, and he insists he was able to do both jobs well. He points out that people from other parties have done the same, including First Minister Alex Salmond, who, at one stage, served as both MSP for Gordon and MP for Banff and Buchan.
He says: “Obviously, you are very busy and it’s hectic, but things were very much joined together.
I found that quite useful on the ground level.
“It gives you a super insight into the whole process. I had been involved with lobbying, conservation and economic development with a government body like Scottish Enterprise.
“You can understand the full implications; you can bring experience both ways, up and down.” But he admits that not restanding for the council this year has meant he can “get a little bit of his life back”.
“It’s hugely time consuming,” he says. “I never counted my hours but it’s certainly a lot and doesn’t leave many hours in the day for a personal life.” The Rural Affairs Committee covers a huge remit and as the sole Lib Dem in an SNP dominated committee, he still maintains he wants to hold the Government’s plans to account.
This includes pushing for a better deal on the Common Agricultural Policy, where Scotland is seen as losing out because it does not receive the same level of environmental payments as other parts of Europe.
The committee is also looking at the Government’s Zero Waste Bill, which aims to cut rubbish being sent to landfill sites and boost recycling rates.
But he warns: “Last year carbon use in Scotland went up rather than down, although we are still on target. We don’t want to end up having the most ambitious targets in the world, but ones that we can’t achieve.” One aspect of SNP policy he has been most critical of is how successfully it is encouraging the use of sustainable transport and alternative fuels and he thinks there is more the country could be doing.
He said: “The SNP in 2007 stated that they would have by 2020, 100 per cent of public transport using alternative fuels, but an FOI to all authorities, local authorities, police authorities, showed in 2010 there were just 3.5 per cent.
“And on electric vehicles. We asked councils about charging points for electric vehicles. There were 131 across Scotland and only 24 of them were accessible to the public.” In 2006 he was asked to consider joining the list of candidates by Jeremy Purvis, who was then MSP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, and the party’s finance spokesman.
Following the 2011 election Hume was one of only five Lib Dems remaining, and many senior figures like Purvis had lost their seats.
This year was even more dramatic with the Lib Dem vote dropping in council elections - but still he believes the party can find its way back to prominence.
“It was a good campaign by the SNP last year, you can’t deny that. People interpreted it as a choice between Labour and the SNP and other parties got squeezed.
“There was a trust issue as well, perhaps more to do with Westminster.
“I think they were correct to go into coalition.
Labour didn’t want to, they wanted to go into opposition because they knew the bad news that was around the corner. They would have had to alter the budgets the same as any other party, but the Liberals decided to do the grown-up thing and take responsibility.
“To be honest, this year with the council candidates, the feeling on the door has been different this time.
“There was not the toxicity on the doorstep that there was last year. There was a low turnout and maybe that affected things, but we will still be working hard.
“We still have the second largest group of MPs in Scotland, there are still 71 councillors all over Scotland and we have a small MSP group but it is certainly an active one.”
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