Ian Blackford interview: "In the 2016 referendum, no one voted to be poorer"
Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in Westminster, sat down with The Parliamentary Review to tell us about his time in Westminster, the gap between business and politics, his constituency, Scottish politics and Brexit. He also addresses issues that a constituent of his, Gordon Simpson of Simpson Builders, raises with the Review.
Thomas Wilson: At The Parliamentary Review, our mission statement is to bridge the gap between politics and business – particularly SMEs. In your view, is there enough of a dialogue and interaction between the political class and SMEs?
Ian Blackford: I don’t believe there is. Here in Westminster, it can feel as though you’re in a bubble. So no, I’m not convinced that there’s enough interaction between politics and small businesses. More broadly speaking, I don’t think there’s enough interaction between Westminster and wider society. As someone with a bit of experience of the Scottish Parliament, I actually feel that this gap is not as wide in Scottish politics.
Thomas Wilson: It’s interesting that you say that. In what areas do you think Holyrood does a better job of engaging with the public?
Ian Blackford: Well, the Scottish Parliament is a new institution, whereas Westminster is centuries old and has strong system of traditions. The Scottish parliament was born in the modern world, and is therefore more user and business-friendly. To give an example of this, consider that in Westminster we might have four, five, six, maybe even seven votes in an individual sitting. This means we could be spending two whole hours in voting lobbies. The Scottish Parliament avoids wasting its time in this way by adopting electronic voting.
It’s also worth noting that, when the prime minister holds cabinet meetings, he or she does so mostly inside Parliament. In Scotland, by contrast, there is a tradition – particularly in recess periods – of the cabinet travelling around the country. For instance, the Isle of Skye – where I live – has been visited twice by the cabinet since the SNP got into power. It’s gestures like this which go a long way in helping to ensure that parliament is more accessible for SMEs and the wider public. Doing so, I feel, is deeply important and it’s a responsibility that we as politicians all have. I should add, however, that there are many individual MPs who do a lot of great working in helping to bridge the gap.
Thomas Wilson: Now, it’s often alleged that the political class is out of touch with the rest of the country. We’ve heard it before: they come straight of out finishing their PPE degree and into politics. You, however, started off in the private sector – very much in the private sector. Do you think politics has much to learn from the private sector?
Ian Blackford: There are things to be learned from the private sector, but not exclusively so. I think it should also be mentioned that there are politicians who’ve come from a variety of walks in life. Many of our SNP members had distinguished themselves in other areas before entering politics. Dr Philippa Whitford was a well-regarded breast surgeon; Joanna Cherry was a QC; George Kerevan was an accomplished writer and academic economist, to name a few. In becoming SNP members of parliament, they’ve brought with them a lot of experience and wide ranging skillsets. I’d like to think that my time in business, and the experience I gained in management and leadership more specifically, also has something to contribute in politics.
We need to recognise that the decisions we take and the statements we make ultimately have consequences on real people.
Thomas Wilson: A constituent of yours, managing director Gordon Simpson of Simpson Builders, who featured in The Parliamentary Review is one those businesspeople who believes that the gap between business and politics is too wide. In writing for the Review, he tells us that one of the issues that most affects him is Brexit. He says that the uncertainty surrounding it makes it difficult for him to plan for the future, particularly when prices are fluctuating as a result. To people like Mr Simpson, what would you say?
Ian Blackford: As politicians, I believe it is our responsibility to create an architecture within which people can make sound investment decisions. I fully appreciate the remarks Mr Simpson has made here – there is too much uncertainty. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently noted (during the Autumn Budget) that we are drifting to the bottom end of the G7 in terms of growth rate and that investment is only modest – especially compared to recent history. There is clear evidence that the outcome of the 2016 referendum has had an impact on people’s ability to make decisions.
It’s worth noting that, as politicians, we can get engaged in a fair amount of debate, but we need to recognise that the decisions we take and the statements we make ultimately have consequences on real people. Of course, I don’t doubt that most people come into politics to improve people’s lives, but we all need to be doubly sure that we fully understand the effects of everything we do.
I fear at the moment that there will be a cost – a demonstrable cost – to the economy if we leave the EU. I believe this will be particularly acute if we also leave the single market and customs union. If we left the European Union without a trading arrangement, I believe it will have a markedly negative impact on jobs and investment. Over the course of the next few months, this is something we need to reflect upon.
As things stand, the UK is leaving the EU. Ultimately, we will have to wait and see how that develops, and we will have to consider options when we receive a meaningful vote. We have to think about Mr Simpson and others like him, and ensure that we provide the certainty that they and their businesses need for growth. At the end of the day, it has to be about people.
Thomas Wilson: Gordon was also keen to provide an example of how SMEs can be left out of the loop. He spoke, for example, of how the procurement of affordable housing is tendered on land that’s too large for smaller companies to compete. He added that, if the land was better divided, smaller companies could take part in such projects. He also spoke of issues relating to red tape in the planning system. What do you make of SMEs being denied opportunities like this?
Ian Blackford: I think, again, it comes down to politicians having the responsibility for creating an architecture that businesses can operate in. When creating policies, we need to carefully consider and reflect on what we can do to help SMEs thrive – including in relation to the planning situation. By that same token, we also need to ensure that infrastructure and connectivity is improved – not just digitally, but also in terms of transport. We have to make sure circumstances permit the flourishing of companies and individuals.
Thomas Wilson: The SNP has an historically strong presence in Westminster at the moment. Given this clout, what is your Brexit strategy moving forward?
Ian Blackford: I’m not sure when this will be published (editor's note: the interview was conducted in November) – this is a fast-moving situation (laughs). We have a degree of expectation that the government is going to reach an agreement with the European Union and that they will consult parliament accordingly. On behalf of my party, I’ve signalled that SNP MPs will be seeking to reach a compromise with the minimum requirement of staying in the single market and customs union. When debating this issue, we’ll make sure we get this point across strongly.
I often make reference to the fact that, whichever way one voted in the 2016 referendum, no one voted to be poorer. If we leave the single market and customs union, I think there’s a very clear threat to the economy, to jobs and to prosperity. I suspect that, as things develop, the government will kick the longer term arrangements with the EU into the future. However, in the near term we will stay within the customs union and single market, and I welcome that.
Another area we have to consider carefully is access to labour. There’s no question we have benefited from free movement of labour. If the UK decides to adopt a restrictive immigration policy, Scotland might have to consider whether it can pursue a differential deal, whereby Scotland can determine its own immigration needs. This is particularly important for Scotland, as we have an ageing population. The rest of the UK does too, but in Scotland the demographic challenge is even greater. One way to remedy this, of course, is by improving our access to labour.
Thomas Wilson: Other nations in the UK might be wondering: How has the conduct of Brexit negotiations impacted the independence debate within Scotland?
Ian Blackford: There is often the assumption that the United Kingdom is a family of four equal nations. I would argue this is not, and has not, been the case, particularly over the last couple of years. One of the things that’s annoyed not just the SNP but much of Scotland is, what we call, the “power grab.” When the Scottish Parliament was established, the Scotland Act defined what reserved powers Westminster had – if powers were not listed in these reserves, they were by default devolved matters. Agriculture and fisheries policies are examples of devolved matters. In the process of Brexit, some of these powers are being taken back from the EU into Westminster’s hands. The Sewel Convention was supposed to prohibit such measures, but the UK government has said that it doesn’t apply because we’re in unusual times. This is very disrespectful to the outcome of the 1997 Scottish referendum.
Obviously, I support independence and it’s something I want to see delivered, but we were told that after 2014 that, if in the UK, our membership of the European Union would be secured. This is no longer the case. In 2016, we won the Scottish elections on a mandate that, in the event of a change in material circumstances, we would seek to trigger another referendum. I still think it’s right to have this debate, but we’ll consider whether it’s appropriate to do so once we’ve got to the end of the Brexit process.
The Highlands and Islands area is a beautiful place to work, live and do business in.
Thomas Wilson: I’m conscious of your time, so I’ll make this the last question.
Ian Blackford: No no, there’s no need to worry.
Thomas Wilson: In your constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, what would you say are the biggest issues facing SMEs?
Ian Blackford: There are a number of issues in the Highlands and Islands area. Often we are remote from markets, so the cost of transport and inward goods (which people often face a surcharge on) is a problem. Energy is also a big issue, as there are different distribution charges throughout the UK, which has resulted in a premium being paid by the Highlands and Islands area. They pay 2p per kilowatt-hour more than other parts of the UK – that’s a differential of above 15 per cent. The fact that this part of the UK which is windier and wetter than average only adds to the problem.
I want to be clear, though: The Highlands and Islands area is a beautiful place to work, live and do business in. Access to labour is very important, so we want to make sure that everyone in the area – especially people who’ve grown up there – can see opportunities and potential in working for SMEs in the Highlands area.
Looking around, it’s encouraging to see the established business networks, not least the Chamber of Commerce in Fort William. It’s fantastic to see businesses collaborate with each other in this way. But as politicians, we need to do as much as we can to understand the needs of businesses and champion them.
In my time of being an MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I’ve seen a number of important announcements regarding economic development in the Highlands and Islands. Perhaps the most important of these is the decision by Liberty to acquire an aluminium smelter in Fort William. This is a massive opportunity not only for direct employment, but also for other SMEs in the area who can supply Liberty. It doesn’t stop there, either: There’s another important investment in the fish feed industry in Skye, and we hope to see the development of Kishorn Port which would be instrumental in getting employment in that area. Industrial development and making sure there are opportunities for large businesses and SMEs together is really, really important. As a local MP, one has a responsibility to ensure that you support that as much as you can.
Thomas Wilson: That’s a nice optimistic note on which to end. You see the challenges, but nonetheless have hope that Ross, Skye and Lochaber has a bright future ahead.
Ian Blackford: You have to be. You have to know the area and the content. It’s often said that “you don’t own the land; you belong to the land.” In other words, you have a responsibility for future generations. Whether you’re an MP or a local business, it’s about making sure you create the circumstances which allow your communities to be sustainable for the long term. If we can leave the Highlands and Islands in a better place than the one we inherited, then I think we can all be pleased with that.
Thomas Wilson: Ian, thanks ever so much for your time.
After the interview concluded, he continued: “I’m a constituency MP first and foremost.” At this point, he expressed sincere hope and genuine enthusiasm for his constituency. He told the Review that MPs are temporary stewards and should act as such. He was keen to add again that it is incumbent upon them to leave the constituency in a better place than when they found it. Before departing, he said he would welcome the opportunity to meet Gordon Simpson of Simpson Builders.