Jack McConnell interview
Jack McConnell takes it easy and waxes lyrical with The Drum.There are two Jack McConnells. One of them is certainly that man you see on the news quite a lot. He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera, talking in a loud voice, and he seems to be quite annoyed a lot of the time. You know the one. He’s the First Minister.
The other one is really quite a chatty bloke. From Arran and, indeed, still a member of Lamlash golf club. When he speaks he waves his arms around like a caricature Italian. He coughs quite a lot, struggling to get over the tail end of a winter cold. He’s a football fan, and he reads books by Iain Rankin & Ken Follett. He’s wearing a discreet pair of Saltire cufflinks, and is shorter than you might expect him to be. A squadron of personnel beaver away on his behalf in the quarters adjoining his office. He’s very, very busy. A coat-hanger smile beams from his face. He’s the First Minister.
Aged only forty-one at the time of his appointment, Scotland’s third First minister, after the ill-fated tenures of his predecessors Dewar and McLeish, seems remarkably relaxed. He’s beginning to make an impression on the post, as his policies and the Scotland he is trying to shepherd begin to bear his characteristic fingerprint. But what is he actually doing, and who is he really? Surely not only that ever so slightly nervous looking guy from the evening news? Not a bit of it.
As a result of enjoying a relatively low profile prior to becoming First Minister, a great deal of his personal and political pedigree has never impacted on the public consciousness. While with Stirling Council, one of his jobs included promoting the Singing Kettle. I don’t recall Jackie Bird ever mentioning that. A keen interest in all things cultural and artistic is beginning to evidence itself in the kind of Scotland McConnell wants to emerge. Recent political initiatives have put cultural activity at the heart of the policies of his administration, as expressed at last year’s St Andrew’s day address. What appears to be emerging is something as new to Scottish politics as devolved government itself. A grand plan. “While I was keen two years ago when I took over as First Minister to promote stability and a bit of focus and direction in the government and concentrate on basic priorities, I have been keen since then – at the right moment – to move that on and say ‘there’s more to life than just the basics.’”
Principally, in parallel with dealing with the usual thorny issues in public life, such as employment, transport, education, health and crime, his approach aims to encourage people to re-engage, open their minds, live a little. Enjoy not just bread, but roses too. “We also need alternatives to this for young people, and the arts and leisure and creative activities are a central part of that. You have to get the basics right, but unless people are expanding their horizons and ambitions and the way they look at the world, then the basic skills they’ve got are never going to be fully realised.” What seems to be underpinning this philosophy is a desire to re-establish Scotland’s status as a creative and cultural centre, akin to its historical heyday. “While the general message was important, it’s also central to moving on from getting the basics right, and saying we are going to be really ambitious as a country. That creativity is what Scotland has always been about.”
The relaxed McConnell quickly metamorphoses to the annoyed one when confronted by the difficulties he experiences in projecting his intentions to the electorate via print and television. The apathy of the Scottish media towards all things positive and the general media tendency towards journalistic laziness in its political coverage is a source of frustration to McConnell and, no doubt, to the bulk of his contemporaries. “People don’t see the other side of Scottish politicians, the more personal side. In the two years of being First Minister, despite the high profile that I have, and the demands of the job, I can’t think of a TV chat show that I have been on. Maybe that is something that needs development in the Scottish media, a chance to get underneath the personalities and see a bit more of them.” You can kind of see his point. Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie observed that, despite everything he has tried to achieve politically, what the public remember him most for is the time he appeared on Tam Cowan’s irreverent “Off the Ball” football show. On the other hand, it would be a journalistically backward step to go Tony Blair’s way, appearing on the Richard and Judy show and venturing opinions on Glenn Hoddle’s suitability as a football manager, comments which are widely considered to have resulted in the England boss’s sacking. But McConnell and others at his level of the political spectrum and, indeed, higher, believe firmly that the persistent negative attitude in the press and print towards all things political is having direct and severe long-term effects on the health of the country. “I genuinely hope that some day one of the editors of one of our national newspapers is going to wake up in the morning and realise that the reason the readership is declining is because the readers are fed up reading it. Rather than have proper, robust criticism based on analysis and consistency, all we have in Scotland, it appears, is a kind of sniping criticism. Always trying to find the negative in something rather than the positive. There are things that are wrong with Scotland today that have been wrong with Scotland for a very long time. What we need is a concerted effort as a country to tackle them.
“But there are also a lot of good things happening in Scotland, and I know that companies question their investment decisions because of the negative atmosphere that there is around. I know that overseas investors coming into Scotland question the atmosphere of the country because of what they see written in the press.” Take a quick look at today’s or any other day’s mass readership headlines, and you can pretty easily see his point. However, he has sufficient faith in the enthusiasm and initiative of Scotland that these difficulties can be overcome, despite the “limitations” of the journalistic culture. “The thing that drives me most is a combination of the opportunities that are available for young people and the way that people in Scotland today look at themselves and their ambitions, and the fact that there are still several thousand young people in Scotland who have virtually no chance of succeeding at all because of the circumstances that they are in. And, more generally, I believe that the vast majority of young Scots are positive, they have a great outlook on life. There’s a lack of confidence and a lack of ambition and aspiration there. I hope, being a slightly younger First Minister, I can tap into it and push forward with it, and make sure that in everything, from the business culture we have, to the education service, to what we eat and the exercise we take, and the artistic, creative world that we have in Scotland and the role models that we have, the volunteering that goes on, and all these different aspects, these youngsters are going to grow up in a much more healthy society.”
His enthusiasm is evident. He talks with an energy that comes from something deeper than too many cups of coffee. While obviously aware of the social and political realities that can obstruct any objective, he remains if not a Utopian, at least an idealist. His upbringing may have coloured his approach, and his life and professional arc have not followed the typical path of the career politician. Born and raised on an Arran farm five miles from the nearest village and three miles from the nearest house would, one imagines, provide a distinct perspective on life, in addition to an islander’s sense of dislocation. As he states himself: “If you have grown up on an island, that never leaves you. It’s there, it lives in the bones.” His professional background is in education. A former teacher, he maintains a real fondness for the classroom environment, despite frustration at the limitations of the education system at that time. His political track included a stint as Education Minister, a role he relished, although it was only two years into this portfolio that Henry McLeish’s chair became unexpectedly vacant. For his own part, McConnell takes a positive view on the subject of his succession, believing that for the sake of continuity, it is beneficial to nurture at least one successor, although he remains tight-lipped about whom that might actually be.
It is too soon into his tenure to judge Jack McConnell on his results. However, he carries his vision with conviction that is irrefutable. Convincing in conversation, no doubt. But the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. Or perhaps Elvis might have said something about the relationship between conversation and action, and the reduction of one and the increase of the other. In other words, indeed those of that other beloved King, Sean Connery, “What are you prepared to do?”
“I like doing this job because it’s a great privilege and I am very proud that I have a chance to do it, but I take the job really seriously, and the reputation of government in Scotland really seriously, and I desperately want devolution to be a success. I first voted in March 1979 in the devolution referendum. Two months later Britain voted for Thatcher, and we went through all of that, and I have always believed passionately that a Scottish parliament can make a difference. Ten years from now, I want to look back on the time when I was First Minister, and say ‘We really made a difference.’”
The clock is running, Jack. And we’re all watching.