Maree Todd on her journey into politics

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 31 January 2018 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, on cuddles, currency and crying Celts

Image credit: David Anderson

“I still feel quite terrified sometimes,” admits Maree Todd as she reflects on her stratospheric rise from small town pharmacist to Children’s Minister in just 18 months.

The Highlander only joined the SNP a few months before the independence referendum, and in little more than a year, she was elevated to the top of Highlands and Islands list for the Scottish Parliament election in May 2016.

Like many of the class of ’16, Todd was politicised by the referendum that saw every punter become a politician for a few months.

“It was very exciting and it gripped the country in a way that I hadn’t quite predicted,” she said.

“There was a flourishing of democratic debate and interest that there has never been before. I can remember vividly going to the Helmsdale Highland Games, and the entire conversation at the bar was about currency. It was a great thing.

“It’s really important for a country to be engaged democratically, I really enjoyed the fact that people were imagining what kind of country we could be. It was a very healthy exercise in democracy which I thoroughly enjoyed.

“And, of course, I spoke up politically for the first time ever and that started a whole journey for me, personally.

“It was very daunting. Not only was I a pharmacist, but I am a woman, and I am a West Highland woman, so there are a lot of cultural reasons why it wouldn’t come naturally for me to stand up and say, ‘This is my opinion and it is worth listening to’.

“It was quite terrifying at first, but it was very empowering and once you start doing it, it’s not so scary.

“I always say that if I do nothing in my time as a politician other than encourage people in the Highlands, particularly young folk, and more particularly young girls, to think, ‘I could do that’ then I’ve done a good job.”

Her swift elevation to minister was an indirect result of the female empowerment that swept the globe after several actresses spoke out against decades of harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

The #MeToo movement stretched from Hollywood to Holyrood when her predecessor, Mark McDonald, was forced to resign over inappropriate behaviour.

Todd is determined to fight for women’s equality, including signing up as the first woman on the Scottish Parliament’s rugby team, but sometimes the fight can be bruising.

“(Conservative MP) Stephen Crabb’s son tackled me and it nearly did me in – he didn’t hold back because I was a girl,” she says.

“It’s very good fun and it brings people together, parliamentarians that wouldn’t normally spend time together.

“I’m the only non-Tory MSP in the team, and I was also the only female in the team last year, but we have recruited a few more girls, and the rules are adjusted so different ages and abilities can play, so that’s quite good fun.”

The Tories are also likely to continue to show Todd no quarter over the named person policy, whereby health, education and social work professionals will be appointed to monitor the lives of every child in Scotland, which has prompted opponents to call them ‘state snoopers’.

The policy had been rolled out already in parts of Scotland, including the Highlands, Edinburgh, Fife, Angus and South Ayrshire, and was due to come into force across the country in 2016 but it has been delayed by fierce opposition in parliament.

“I can understand the opposition to an extent but you have to understand it from my point of view,” says Todd.

“I’m from the Highlands, so all of my three children have a named person, and it is not at all intrusive, they’re not a ‘state snooper’ and we’ve had no contact with them.

“When I worked in Highland as well, I saw the real impact that this single point of contact made for people that were really struggling to navigate quite a complex system, and I also saw and was convinced by the evidence of early intervention, joined-up working, supporting families and preventing children from ending up in higher need, so I suppose it has been a little baffling to me to see the strength of feeling against it, but we’ll see how it progresses.”

Todd insists she doesn’t view her ministerial role as a challenge but as “an opportunity to transform lives”.

“I’ve got the best job in government,” she says. “Every other week, I get to spend time with kids, I get cuddles from babies, I get to plod around in mud with dinosaurs and small children at nursery. It’s fabulous, I’m really excited about it all.

“There is a whole load of stuff with which we are going to make such a massive difference. For someone who came into politics to make a difference, this is a massive opportunity for me.

“Things like the early learning expansion will transform lives. Things like the care review will have a massive impact on these children who are facing the most challenging situations.

“Understanding adverse child experiences is a big government thing and incorporating that across the board in every portfolio is just going to make a massive difference, so we will end up with this global aim of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up.”

As a government minister promoting a European manifesto that still retains independence as a potential escape hatch from the “economic threat” of Brexit, Todd may soon have to explain how her preferred option will help children.

Even the most ardent nationalist now accepts that independence may initially involve cuts, tax rises, borrowing or almost unprecedented economic growth to balance the £13bn deficit currently plugged by the UK block grant.

How would Todd tackle child poverty, probably the biggest determining factor in a child’s life chances, with potentially a smaller budget and years of further constitutional upheaval?

Her pleasant smile fades, her face hardens and her voice, which rarely rises above a soft Highland lilt, becomes firm and forthright, indicating the extent of her opposition to the UK Government’s choices in the areas of Scottish policy that it still controls.

“One of the reasons I became politically active was the coalition government’s welfare reform which I saw at first hand, working as a specialist mental health pharmacist,” she says.

“The impact that that had on vulnerable patients that I worked with was devastating, and actually, in some cases, made them extremely unwell and cost the state money.

“I don’t think people in Scotland support that approach to welfare, where the poor are punished, and I think we would see a very different system of support for poor and vulnerable people in an independent Scotland. I think that that could be transformative.”

A blizzard begins to blow over Calton Hill outside Todd’s window – decorating the scene of the five-year vigil for a Scottish Parliament like a snow globe – as she recalls her first flurry of nationalist sentiment as a young girl.

“I was six in 1979 when we had the first devolution vote,” she says, reflecting on the unionist wrecking amendment that effectively added people who couldn’t be bothered voting to the No pile by demanding a Yes vote amongst 40 per cent of the entire eligible electorate.

“The narrative in the wee West Highland village that I grew up in was that somehow, we were robbed by that result, that somehow, the goalposts moved in the middle of the process.

“I didn’t understand that aged six, but Margaret Thatcher also came in that year and I suppose my entire childhood and formative years were spent seeing a government in Westminster which had less and less support in Scotland, to the point where we didn’t have a single Tory MP but we still had a Tory government, and they had to scrape together a Scottish Secretary who was Scottish but represented an English constituency. [* see clarification]

“That felt unjust and the democratic deficit of that situation has always been very clear to me. I guess that is part of the reason I am so passionate about independence.

“Certainly, at that time, I didn’t think at all that I would be a politician. Our family was very interested in politics, very interested in current affairs, very interested in social justice, but I don’t think at that time in my life I would have conceived of being a politician myself.

“I wanted to be all sorts of things. I wanted to be a fireman like my dad at one point.

“I was quite late in deciding on my career. I did a whole batch of languages in the fifth year before deciding on science in sixth year and going on to study pharmacy, so I don’t think I have had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do.

“I was fairly curious and able across the board academically, so there wasn’t a clear path laid out for me.

“I didn’t get involved with politics at all until the independence referendum, I wasn’t a member of a political party but I have been a default believer in independence my whole life.

“I joined the SNP in February 2014, seven months before the independence referendum, because I was determined to get involved in campaigning.

“The day after the referendum was pretty devastating. I knew from fairly early on in the night that it probably wasn’t going to go our way, but I still stayed up all night to watch it unfold, at home with my husband.

“I went to Ullapool on the Friday night after the referendum, to the village I grew up in, and there were men crying in the bar and I thought, ‘Gosh, you know you’re in a Celtic nation when there are men crying over politics in public’.

“It was pretty miserable and I found myself propping everyone else up, trying to see the positive side of things.

“That morning I could see that the world had shifted. For most of my life, independence was seen as being a fringe belief – even a lunatic fringe – but that day it was clear that nearly half of the country agreed with me, so that was a very positive thing.

“I felt that the process of democratic engagement was really positive and that people had really looked at these questions carefully, and that will serve us well as a nation, whatever happens.

“I sometimes struggle to understand why people wouldn’t want to govern themselves.”

It’s a question the entire independence movement is going to have to get to grips with, particularly if the First Minister decides to start the ball rolling for another referendum later this year.

The nationalist vote in the West Highlands and Western Isles was broadly in line with the overall Scottish vote, at around 46 per cent, and the region remained SNP yellow in the snap election in 2017.

However, the Tories took Moray while the Lib Dems reclaimed Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and held on to Orkney and Shetland, which were amongst the most unionist parts of Scotland in the referendum.

“The hospital where I worked in Inverness was quite strongly Yes, so it was quite hard for me to find people who didn’t also want to vote Yes,” says Todd, reflecting on the referendum in 2014.

“I knew that there were pockets around the Highlands where there was not the same positivity around it, and that certain sectors of industry weren’t so positive, so I just didn’t know how to call it.

“I did some ante-natal teaching across in Aberdeen and I met people from Norway and Europe who thought there was no question that Scotland should be independent, but Aberdonians weren’t feeling quite like that, so I knew there was a range of opinions out there.

“There’s a fairly large proportion of people who were born in England in the Highlands and islands, and I think for them it was an emotional thing.

“A lot of my English friends are quite passionate about social justice but they really struggled with it. They couldn’t see anything other than a sense of rejecting their own nation if they voted Yes – but obviously, there are also a lot of English people in the SNP.

“There are a lot of older people in the Highlands as well, so there will need to be real work done on pensions and reassuring people that an independent nation can support older people going forward.

“There was also concern about the EU, which seems incredible now looking back.

“I think the case for the Union was largely economic, but the impact that Brexit is going to have will destroy that case and we’re already starting to see an economic crash. The biggest threat to the future economy of Scotland is Brexit.”

Polls suggest Brexit has won some people over to the nationalist cause, but the SNP’s desire to take an independent Scotland back into the EU has also flipped a similar number the other way, suggesting the converts have cancelled each other out.

Todd has seen a similar pattern in her own community, but believes independence will ultimately reclaim the hearts of wavering ‘Yes Leavers’.

“There are obviously people who don’t believe in the EU, but I personally don’t know anyone who feels so strongly about that that it would overrule their support for independence,” says Todd.

“A good number of my friends are feeling very concerned about Brexit, and very unhappy about the direction of travel there.

“I have friends that work in finance and the armed forces, where perhaps there was a minority of Yes voters, and they now feel very strongly about talking about their belief in independence going forward and that is really positive.

“There are certain part of the Highlands and islands where the impact is even stronger and more apparent, for example, in Lewis where there are concerns about maintaining the Harris Tweed brand after Brexit.

“There is lots and lots of infrastructure funding, lots of support for agriculture in difficult areas where it is hard to farm.

“In Shetland, one in four of the doctors is European, fish processing is a big industry up there, our care homes are packed full of Europeans looking after us in our old age. I know pensioners are worried about whether an independent Scotland would be able to support them growing old, but there is that real concern about Brexit as well.

“One or two of my friends, straight after the Brexit vote, said, ‘That’s it, I’m done, I’m voting Yes next time, so bring it on’.

“Most people are in turmoil. They’re feeling very unhappy about the way things are, but they probably need to see where we end up before they make a final decision.

“It’s a tumultuous time. I always say this to my family, ‘Could I have come into politics at a more tumultuous time?’ I don’t think so.” 

* While Maree Todd agrees that her memory of growing up was of a sitting English MP being appointed as Secretary of State for Scotland during a Conservative Government, this is erroneous. A sitting English MP was in fact appointed as shadow secretary of state for Scotland in 1997 when there were no Conservative MPs in Scotland. We are happy to clarify.

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