Election Essays: Iain McGill, Scottish Conservatives

Iain McGill at the waterfront in Leith, not far from his childhood homes in Restalrig and Easter Road. Picture: Neil Hanna
Iain McGill at the waterfront in Leith, not far from his childhood homes in Restalrig and Easter Road. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I’M A very typical Tory. I started off in a tenement in the Restalrig area of Edinburgh until too many brothers and sisters arrived and my parents moved to a bigger house just off Easter Road, in the most densely populated area of Scotland.

We were a foster family – my parents still foster today, more than 30 years after they started, taking the most vulnerable of children into their home and providing love, safety and security. It was often chaotic but a great grounding in life.

‘I’ve never seen that kind of aspiration from other parties’

I went to Drummond High and left the school with next to no qualifications – certainly none that are worth anything. University was certainly not an option for me. I became a postman in Leith.

I’ve been an ambulance driver in Albania, a hovercraft pilot in Africa taking part in massive international aid operations, I’ve run holiday clubs at Pilrig Park School which meet the additional support requirements of young people with complex needs including those with autism, and I’ve worked as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities and in homeless projects.

Volunteering around the constituency, I’ve a long track record with the likes of The Yard adventure centre, McCrae’s Battalion Trust and Street Soccer Scotland, and I travel every year with Homeless World Cup to referee their ever-growing football tournament.

You won’t often see me in a suit and tie, I’ve never had a job that requires one. I’d much rather get my Hearts scarf on at 3pm on a Saturday then go for a pub crawl round Gorgie than go clay pigeon shooting on a rural estate.

When other people my age were going to university to study subjects like English, Politics and History, I was slogging away in a Royal Mail sorting office, and pounding the streets making deliveries of a non-political kind.

Yet many people like to stop me, particularly if I’m out ­canvassing in my Edinburgh North and Leith area, to tell me I don’t seem like an archetypal Conservative. I’m not sure if this is because of my accent, which I suppose is unmistakably Leith, or simply my appearance and manner.

Maybe it’s because I prefer a pint in an old man’s pub to a gin and tonic in an upmarket bar. Maybe it’s because I’d rather join the Tartan Army for a Scotland away adventure than head to Murrayfield for the rugby.

In any case, what always attracted me to the Conservatives was that none of that mattered.

The very basis of being in the Conservatives is this; it doesn’t matter who you are, what school you went to or what background you come from, as long as you work hard to provide for yourself and your family, you’re all right with us.

I looked at Margaret Thatcher and John Major, children from families who basically had nothing.

The fact they became Prime Ministers through the Conservatives appealed to me; it proved that if you worked hard enough and earned everything that came to you, it would be possible to achieve more or less anything you like.

I’ve never seen that kind of aspiration or mantra from other parties, and it’s what has kept me in the Scottish Conservatives all these years. It’s why I’ve stood in several elections of various sorts, and why I’m happy to go out and walk the streets day and night spreading the word.

I love going around Leith doing that. It’s where I grew up, it’s where I live now, and it’s where generations of my family have lived. When I go door-to-door, I really feel like this is my patch, my stomping ground, that no-one knows this place and what it needs better than me.

It’s an interesting place to campaign in; despite being geographically tiny almost every street and every block of flats has different complaints and issues needing addressed.

But it’s not just MPs, MSPs and councillors who can make a difference. Candidates can too.

I’ll quite often be going round the doors with my latest literature and record of achievements, and by the end of it I could be helping out folk with their tax return, a submission on a planning application, or even how to do their online shopping.

That’s the job, and it’s what you sign up to do.

It’s a hellishly overused cliché that you should get into politics to make a difference, but that’s got to be the motivation. Anyone else will just get found out. And if you’re not willing to help people out as a candidate, you sure as hell won’t be able to as an elected representative.

My old school, Drummond High, is much changed now. But when I was there it was a terrible place to be. It chewed up me and my friends and spat us out. There was no aspiration from anyone. You had to know your place and that was it. The concept of encouraging people to develop, let alone excel, was simply nonexistent.

Thankfully, most of us have done all right for ourselves, but it’s been through hard work and in spite of that school, as it was in those days anyway.

As a teenager I remember beginning to develop an interest in world affairs. I was fascinated by the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. It showed me how politics actually mattered a great deal; it could change everything. In East Germany, it had a profound effect on people’s lives.

And as I looked on, it was the left who were putting up walls, and the right who were bringing them down again to make sure everyone had the same opportunities.

That shaped a lot of my views, and I think it’s why I am a Conservative at heart.

It took me a while to actually join the party, although my job as a postman in and around Leith on leaving school certainly makes canvassing those same staircases now a lot easier.

On the night of the 1997 general election, I was doing the night shift at the sorting office on Brunswick Road. I definitely wasn’t a member or heavily involved at this point, but I must have been pretty vocal about my allegiances in the lead up to it.

As everyone knows, we got wiped out that night, and I got a right slagging from my colleagues. It was merciless. But I was passionate about the message of the Conservatives and that this would not deter me. I decided that this was the time for me to start doing something about my convictions.

After standing in 2003 for the council, I got the bug, and it’s now something I love doing.

This will be the first ever election where I’ve been defending the record of a government, rather than being in opposition and criticising that of another. That’s not something that bothers me at all, and if anything, it makes the job easier, because there is no end of positive achievements I can point to.

I’ve always been a believer that if you can get the economy right, everything else ought to follow. A strong economy can give you strong hospitals, strong schools and strong local services. As soon as that economy begins to slip, even with the best will in the world, so too will the resources that depend on it.

I set up the Harmony Employment Agency 10 years ago, and we provide care and support staff across Scotland, mainly to charities and housing associations, from our base in Leith.

Working at the sharp end of the health and social care sector, that really helps provide an up-to-date picture about how things are going nationally, and what impact a range of policies are actually having on the ground.

Of course, when you’re on the doors the vast majority of people want local issues dealt with first, and very rarely is someone solely focused on national policies. But when it comes up, it’s nice to be able to comfortably defend it.

And the fact I’ve been candidate here before helps. People begin to get to know you, they see you about and get used to seeing your name and face on the ballot paper.

That earns you respect over time. People start to favour you above the party you represent; no-one can turn to me and say I don’t know or understand the area.

I think that could be something the SNP struggles with across Scotland in this election. Yes, the party’s polling ratings have been good, but the rise has been so quick that strength in depth isn’t something they have. And if their candidates are not totally committed and in the know about local challenges, people will soon see through that.

I’ve run homeless projects here, I’ve helped offenders rebuild their lives here, and I’ve assisted young people here who fear they may have taken a wrong turn in life.

I’m not sure I’d ever want to stand anywhere else.

People joked with me about Malcolm Rifkind’s seat in Kensington and Chelsea and whether, at some point, that kind of so-called “safe seat” would appeal to me.

Of course it wouldn’t – that would be the last thing I’d want to do. I think you have to be passionate about your area and really want to represent it and the people who live there.

I’m big on doing a good job locally. That has to be the priority for every candidate.

I always knew my family had a long connection with the area, but it was confirmed to me recently when my sister started doing the family tree.

We got my Great Uncle’s war records and found the letters from the Japanese to the family in Granton telling of his capture, and subsequent death at their hands.

My dad’s cousin managed a tea factory in Leith that’s now a homeless hostel that I worked in as a support worker, and my grandparents met in a factory just off Easter Road just after the war. It’s now sheltered housing, and my uncle, their son, is resident there.

Leith changes, but I often think about that history when I’m campaigning in the area; this is my place, and I wouldn’t feel quite this comfortable anywhere else.

Iain McGill is Scottish Conservative candidate in Edinburgh North and Leith