Secretarial: I Work For... The change in Scotland has been amazing
Wednesday 20 January 1999
When I was younger the SNP had only 7 per cent of the vote and were generally seen as nutters and extremists; we used to call them the Scottish Nose-Pickers. I was always political, and joined the Young Conservatives while at school because I was impressed by Thatcher's belief that everyone should stand on their own two feet.
Gradually I made my conversion, applying this philosophy to the Scottish people who, I believed, should stop blaming the English for everything and learn to take power back into their own hands. After the disappointment of the 1992 general election I joined an organisation called Scotland United and became quite radical. I chained myself in protest to the Scottish Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey and a year later, after the budget, did the same thing to the gates of Downing Street. Afterwards Alex Salmond invited us for a drink in the House of Commons. He likes people with a bit of get up and go and non-conformity; why have conservative people working for you when your objectives are so radical?
The SNP are revolutionaries, we want to change the destiny of 5 million, but those who try to claim links with us on the basis of racial purity or some Braveheart fluff are missing the point entirely. I'm not a nationalist, I am an internationalist. Trainspotting was a hugely influential film for my generation; our hearts stopped when we heard Ewan McGregor's character say that he hated the Scots for the fact that they allowed someone else to colonise and rule them. It wasn't an anti-Scottish or anti-British message; it was just the truth, and it made us think.
While working as a guide on the Ghouls and Ghosts tour in Edinburgh I was asked to join the SNP by their press officer, who heard my fire-and- brimstone account of the Cannibal of Canongate, the story of a guy who was eaten alive the day the Union was signed. Since I was studying 18th- century Scottish history, I worked for the party on a voluntary, part- time basis. One of the best things about Alex is that he encourages his staff to look for talent in his young supporters. He asked to meet me and let me blather to him during a taxi ride to his house, and by the time we arrived he had offered me the job of part-time personal assistant. I took a year out of university to work for him and then got a job in his office at the House of Commons after graduating.
Alex is a great motivator because you know that however hard you work, he is working harder. He will blaze at you for two minutes if you have done something wrong, but then it's forgotten. He also has a way of finding out what's going on in the office by leaving pauses which he knows you will fill. In your anxiety to fill the silence you can end up confessing everything, but I'm wise to this trick now.
He has another annoying habit of asking a question he knows that you don't have the answer to; but he also encourages you to challenge him. He loves hearing other people's opinions, and during a shopping trip with his wife, for example, he may spend two hours speaking to people in the streets. He's able to dominate every room he walks into and he has great personal charisma. I even got a letter from a young chap complaining that his girlfriend had a massive crush on Alex - apparently she wouldn't stop talking about his beautiful brown eyes.
Since the '97 referendum there's been an amazing change in Scottish attitude and confidence. When you are in opposition you never really have successes, so to have a leader who actually wins something gives you credibility. I'm convinced that within 10 to 15 years Scotland will be independent, and the SNP now have to change from a wee family firm to an international company. I enjoy the fact that I never know what's going to happen each day.
I try to get in at about 8am. I read the papers, open the mail, talk with journalists, constituents and MPs, write several press releases and deal with the mechanics of booking taxis and lunches and briefing for debates. I usually don't leave until about 8pm and I sometimes work weekends, which means that it's almost impossible to have a social life or a relationship.
I do occasionally go on a bender, clubbing for six hours as a means of escape. Some MPs like to go to the football to unwind, but I have an image of myself as an MP meeting my constituents at a club.
I'm still just a wee laddie of 27, yet already I've had the opportunity to change the most important piece of Scottish legislation that there's ever been. If the SNP wins next year I would hope that my ideas would still have access to Alex.
Politics excites me, but there are many other things I'd also like to do with my life, such as return to South Africa where I spent some time working for an anti-apartheid Catholic organisation. I was brought up by Jesuits and was deeply influenced by liberation theology.
My heroes are the priests of El Salvador who were prepared to sacrifice their own lives standing up to the dictators.
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