Neil Findlay: Hope, despair and the future
The latest Independence Captured interview
This week at Independence Captured, we interview Neil Findlay. Neil is a socialist activist and trade unionist. He lives in the former mining community of Fauldhouse in West Lothian. He left school at 16 and started his working life as an apprentice and tradesman bricklayer. Whilst working, he went to night school and then university. On graduating, he worked as a housing officer and a secondary school teacher.
In 2003 he was elected to West Lothian Council and between 2011 and 2021 he served as an MSP in the Scottish Parliament. In Parliament, he developed a reputation as an effective campaigner, calling pardons for miners convicted during the 1984/5 strike, exposing the injustices faced by mesh-injured women and supporting blacklisted construction workers. During the Covid pandemic he was fearless in holding those in power to account for the many mistakes made.
He has just published a new book on Scottish politics, called Hope & Despair - Lifting the lid on the murky world of Scottish politics. It was a fascinating chat, all the more so because Neil and I took very different positions, often sharply put, during the 2014 independence referendum. I hope you enjoy the exchange.
Jonathon Shafi (JS): Neil, thanks for talking to Independence Captured. We were on opposing sides of the referendum campaign in 2014 and take a different position on independence. At the same time we have a lot in common politically beyond the constitution. Almost ten years on, it would be great to get a bit of an overview of your assessment of Scottish politics today and how you think things have changed.
Neil Findlay (NF): Well actually that fits what I've written about in the book. So we can look back a bit and then get up to the present day. Certainly 2017, for me as a socialist, was a high point. We had just had the general election, and Corbyn had performed way beyond the expectations of many. At the same time we had we had elected a left-wing leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. So it was an exciting time for me and one full of opportunity.
We started off in that period with the real belief among many of us that we could actually see a platform for radical and genuine change come to power at a UK level. And then, of course, we had a whole series of events that came along with Brexit and all the chaos around that, and where at Westminster the place was having a collective political breakdown. Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament endlessly debated Brexit too. We had the Salmond inquiry which brought about important divisions within the SNP which prevail to this day. We have the major schisms and faction fighting within the Tory Party and we had a civil war in the Labour Party too.
The establishment, in my view, was beyond spooked by the 2017 election and the prospect of a left-led Labour government and decided that there was no way this should be allowed to happen. The powerful decided there was never going to be a Corbyn-led government. It just couldn’t be allowed to happen. We fought in very difficult circumstances, and since then, I have to say, it's been a very challenging period.
And then, of course, we had the pandemic, which brought into sharp focus the inequalities that blight our society, and in particular the effects on working-class communities. Alongside that, we have a crisis around our public services, in my view the glue that holds society together. These have been picked apart systematically. In every area we see a pile-up of disasters, whether that be in the NHS and social care, the education system or social work. So I suppose my view of the current political situation is pretty much one of despair, from a period which I believe had genuine hope.
JS: That's interesting because, for people like myself in 2014, we saw that as a big moment of opportunity. And then Corbynism was seen as another huge opening. Regardless of your view on the constitution, there is a growing agreement that there is a real paralysis in Scottish politics and suffocation of the political debate. Do you see your book as making an intervention in that kind of context? How do you think we can re-energise politics in Scotland?
NF: Yeah, there has been severe paralysis. And actually, I don't think there is very much between the view society that I have and you have. I think part of the tragedy of Scottish politics is that the polarisation around the constitutional debate means that often it’s not about what people say, but about who says it. And if you have been on one side of the debate or another, then it's almost as if 50% of the people just will not even give you a hearing because of your particular constitutional position. In those circumstances, poor governance and bad government get a free pass, because people will excuse the dreadful decisions that have been made at times simply because of the allegiance to one side or the other on the national question.
The constitutional debate as a whole is in a pretty desperate state, in my opinion. I think people like you and I, and many others, could come together and start to campaign on issues that we agree on. And that we actually see that both of us have a credible and respectful position in relation to the constitution. You believe in independence, and I believe in much further devolution. But if Scotland ultimately moved to that position, and then decided that actually the next step is independence, I wouldn't be weeping into my pillow if that was a natural progression that people wanted to make. But personally, I don't think it's the best option for us at this stage.
Let’s agree that those are intellectually coherent positions and ones which should both command respect. Should a referendum come, we may vote differently from each other. But in the interim, there's a whole host of class-based issues that we could unite around and build a much bigger, stronger movement of people in support of that agenda. And that would hold governments, local government institutions, public bodies, businesses and others to account for their actions. I think that's where we could come together. And that could help to break that impasse that we have at the moment which suits the status quo.
JS: You're writing this book in a period of unparalleled SNP dominance. I think we can see that there's not going to be a collapse in the SNP vote overnight. But certainly, the crisis which has engulfed the party and the fact that they don't have a way forward when it comes to independence will start to make an impact. But alongside that there is a failed policy agenda, which reads like one debacle after the next right. Where do you think the SNP is going? Do you think that the constitutional dynamic is still so strong, that despite all of the problems, the SNP will remain the dominant party?
NF: I think the key player in this is the Labour Party, because part of the reason why the SNP has been so dominant is that the only alternative has been hard unionism from the Tories. People in Scotland reject that. Labour has, in my view, almost criminally sat on the side-lines and completely failed to develop a coherent and a credible alternative. In my view that should be for a devo-max option. Now, that was attempted under Jeremy Corbyn, and some extensive work was commissioned on the constitution. But when Starmer took over this was buried.
Yet if Labour had a credible constitutional position that was radical and looked like it could be implemented, and that people recognised would bring benefit to their communities and themselves, then I think the SNP would be in real trouble. And for me, that's not a tactical thing. I want to see that kind approach as a matter of principle. It just baffles me why they've never done it.
JS: I wanted to ask you about one of the topics which is referenced in the book and one of the issues which you've pioneered during your time as an MSP: mesh and mesh survivors. This was something you were very passionate about, and it’s also an example of how powerful campaigns can be. Have you any reflections you’d like to share on this?
NF: I was appointed way back in 2012 or thereabouts to shadow health secretary. When I took over my predecessor handed me a huge pile of issues in a big folder. My research assistant and I came across a few questions from the media about transvaginal mesh and the two of us kind of looked at each other. And you know, we are a couple of working class guys. It's not the type of conversation - intimate woman’s health - that we would normally have around the breakfast table or in the pub.
But I kept on reading into the matter, and became educated on some of the vital questions around it and thought that we had to make it a priority. So we met the women who had raised concerns and had problems, about half a dozen of them, and we sat around a table and all looked a bit nervously looked at each other. But we talked it through and struck up an amazing relationship. They were absolutely fantastic people. And once we started to realise what we were dealing with it was clear a deep injustice was at play.
As well as having to break a difficult issue into the mainstream of politics and the press, we were were also up against the medical establishment who were an absolute denial that there was any problem with the mesh product. We were up against the government advisors as well as hugely powerful multinational companies such as Johnson and Johnson and Boston Scientific who had invested heavily in the product and were selling it globally. So trying to move a campaign when you're up against those absolutely immense forces was extremely difficult. But we did it. And the reason we did is simply because we never gave up.
At the start no MSPs were interested in the story. We couldn't get support from any quarter. And then Alex Neil, who was the health minister at the time, suggested that we take a petition through petitions committee. That was a long haul, but we did it. And it was huge. We had a session where the women involved appeared and the convener of the committee said it was the most moving and difficult session he had ever attended. And this eventually brought about the temporary suspension of mesh.
When Alex Neil was moved from health and went to the back benches, he came on board and supported us. Then Jackson Carlaw joined too. So we had a kind of unholy alliance, but it was a pretty powerful team and we worked very well together, putting aside political differences.
The use of mesh is still effectively banned in Scotland. The women won compensation. And we successfully argued for a fund to help those affected with some daily living costs.
JS: I want to turn now to the issue of care, which I know is something you work closely on. This again is another area where people can work together across the constitutional divide. Specifically, something like a National Care Service could be a big advance. Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed some big headlines around this, but it has since hit the rocks. How do we take this conversation forward in Scotland?
NF: I've never been involved in the health system professionally. So when I came to focus on it in the parliament it was a very steep learning curve. But it was an excellent education for me. We realised very quickly that health inequalities and social care are the two biggest issues affecting Scotland and particularly in working class communities. So I set up a commission to look at both. And that commission gave a whole series of recommendations back in 2013. Had the government taken on some of the recommendations in the Social Care Commission, we'd be in a very different place today. But we were in the most highly polarised period of devolution, and they were unwilling to accept anything the opposition said. I understand that but it should be a source of deep regret.
I've always kept an interest in social care and remained in touch with care workers. I've got friends and relatives who work in that sector. A lot of people at the start of the Covid pandemic in particular felt the need to band together behind political leaders, in a kind of wartime like feeling of national unity. But at the same time there was always a need for accountability and engaging critical faculties.
There were, and are, big questions to be asked around things like testing capacity, health infrastructure, decision making and so on. That time coincided with my mum going to a care home, three weeks before lockdown. It’s not until you experience something like that, that you understand the extent to which government policy feeds its way through and impacts on people. And I was seeing and hearing on a daily basis what was going on, and some of it was absolutely disastrous. The the lack of testing on those discharged from hospital to care homes being a key example.
All through the pandemic I was asking very serious questions of the government on a whole range of issues. Things like elderly people having “Do Not Resuscitate” orders placed against them without their family's knowledge as well as issues around the treatment and experience of care workers. I started to become a bit of a conduit for people who were experiencing real problems.
When the scandal emerged about the wave of untested people being sent care to homes, the dam broke on the information that I was getting. I regularly asked questions on Nicola Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman. Social care is very dear to me. My brother has advanced MS and has just been admitted to a care home about five weeks ago. He spent eight months in hospital waiting to be discharged to a care home because there was no place available for him. He is a relatively young man at the age of 50, but again the social care system cannot cope with these cases. Places for people like my brother to live among people his own age, his peers, just don’t exist.
The system is dreadful for workers too. If we want to ensure that we have a decent and dignified society, then we can't have it based on driving down the pay and conditions of the people who care for our elderly and loved ones. And yet local government and integrated joint boards are being put in such a position through underfunding. The social care system is fundamental to the success of the NHS, because if you don't get people through the back door of the hospital and into good homes where they can be supported, they'll remain in hospital. And that means you can't get people in the front door.
Of course, there is rampant profiteering going on in the midst of all of this. The care home takes could be anything from £1000 to £2000 a week per resident, and that’s often before other charges are applied. You have many people who have sold their house, hoping to leave something behind for their grand kids, only to have that money systematically ripped out of their pocket and order to make up the profits of care homes. And no one is doing anything about this. It is utterly disgraceful. Meanwhile the National Care Service has been another example in a long line of headline grabbing slogans without follow through.
JS: I think all of this underlines the urgent need for cooperation on these kinds of issues, regardless of views on the national question. Last question. Now that you are no longer an MSP, have you, to paraphrase Tony Benn, found more time for politics? By which I mean are you enjoying extra-parliamentary campaigning?
NF: When I was an MSP did a lot of extra-parliamentary projects anyway, and I always did trade union and community work. That was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. Since leaving parliament I was genuinely quite worried that perhaps we hadn't made the right decision. When you look at the parliament today there is a dearth of independent minded people who are willing to speak out on issues. Fergus Ewing has reinvented himself as some sort of maverick when previously he took a ministerial salary and passed budgets and took decisions which in my view were absolutely woeful. That doesn’t sit quite right with me at one level, but the fact is, at least he's willing to break out of party lines on issues. We need more of that.
But focussing on the extra-parliamentary work, my colleagues and I set up a not for profit, social enterprise called UNITY Consulting. We work with unions and campaigns to help them reach their objectives. When it comes to strike action, no one takes it lightly. But there's been some important victories and of course an uptick in trade union action. So these are things that are exciting to be involved in. We've also been doing a lot of factory gate recruitment with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union that has been very successful. And that's just been great to get back to proper grassroots organising, speaking to people directly and then signing them up.
My mantra is, if you're a socialist, you have to be an optimist. I hope that we see Scotland flourish but my major fear is the the lack of any real radical agenda while our communities are hit by one crisis after the next. We are going to need much bigger answers to the challenges of our era.
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