Johann Lamont on life, Labour and party leadership

JOHANN Lamont suggests coffee at the House for an Art Lover, in Bellahouston Park.

She confesses to a certain lack of confidence, but Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont will tackle anyone in an argument. Picture: Greg Macvean

There had been some talk of meeting at her house, in the Southside of Glasgow, but this, she says, would have meant her staying up all night and tidying to make it fit to be seen by someone outside the family. The wonder is that she has a home life at all. Being a Scottish Labour leader battling to prevent the break-up of Britain cannot leave much time for the domestic sphere, and her man, Archie Graham, is hardly a house husband; he’s the deputy leader of Glasgow City Council and the chap in charge of delivering the Commonwealth Games. “We kind of just guddle through,” she says.

You might call them a power couple, except, of course, only Archie is in power. Alex Salmond stands between Lamont and the First Ministership, like a silverback gorilla guarding the entrance to a close.

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In the year and half she has been party leader, does she think she is getting the better of him? “In some ways that’s for other people to judge. But I feel like I’m doing the job I set out to do,” she says. “The Labour Party in 2011 was in an exceptionally bad place. We’d been hammered in an election. We didn’t see the scale of it coming.” Her job, she says, has been to demonstrate that Labour wasn’t going to just roll over and lick its wounds. “This man who has achieved all of these things,” – she never, I notice, uses Salmond’s name – “I am going to take him to task, I am going to ask him to answer questions. I’ve done that and there is a confidence that comes from that.” The bigger challenge, she admits, is to rebuild public trust and belief in Labour.

Lamont is 55, dressed soberly in a dark trouser suit. She speaks quietly but with much greater fluency than during television interviews. She can be awful on telly. One recent encounter, in which she was asked repeatedly whether or not she favoured keeping Trident, has been transcribed on politics blog and makes grim reading – a masterclass in prevarication, hesitation and the making of fudge. Yet, in person, and engaged in a longer and more open conversation, she is articulate, reflective, self-deprecating and at times very funny. It would be unfair to condemn her for not being a sound-bite politician; she ought to be applauded for it, but the trouble is we live in a sound-bite age.

She was born in Glasgow in the summer of 1957 to Archie and Effie, who had moved separately from their native Tiree, meeting and marrying in the city. Archie was something of an absent father, away at sea for long stretches, working as a carpenter – “which was bizarre because he was absolutely haunless” – for MacBrayne’s, on the Mallaig to Skye ferry, and on the King George V cruise ship taking tourists from Oban to Iona. He took part in the seamen’s strike of 1966. “He was lovely,” Lamont recalls. “Quite a laid-back character. He was one of these guys who liked the quiet life. My mother did the worrying for both of them. She would fight with anybody, take on anybody, if she felt she hadn’t been done a proper deal.” She remembers her mother arguing with the factors about the state of the housing in Anderston, the part of Glasgow where they lived.

Effie was very religious. “She was brought up in a church-going family anyway,” Lamont says of her mother, “but she had been converted by Billy Graham in 1954/55 in Glasgow. We used to go to a lot of things with the church. I remember going to see Billy Graham in a cinema in Glasgow and he was down in London. I used to go and hear preachers, and then we always went to church and Sunday school. That mattered a lot to me. There was something really powerful about testimony. We’d go to these wee church meetings and someone would go up and tell the story about how they had become converted.”

People would stand up and talk about how they had been lost but now were found. This was formative stuff for the young Lamont. It gave her the idea that lives could be changed. Poverty, alcoholism – these things were not destiny, but obstacles that, with help, could be overcome. These were also her first experiences of public speaking. It is no surprise, she believes, that she was later a great admirer of Neil Kinnock and his “powerful preaching style”. Interestingly, though her husband and teenage children attend church, she no longer does so. “I value and respect it,” she says. “But I suppose I’m always questioning it still.”

More important, perhaps, than the religious faith of her parents was the fact that both were native Gaelic speakers. Lamont and her brother David would spend every summer with her mother’s family on Tiree, helping with the croft and livestock, with the result that she now considers herself both Gael and Glaswegian. “Gaelic was spoken all the time in the house,” she says.

“My granny would come out and stay with us in the winter, and we would listen to the reports from the coastal stations and have a discussion in the middle of Glasgow about what the weather was like in Tiree. Later on, my brother married a Lewis girl and moved up there. So,” she laughs, “after that we had discussions about what the weather was like in Stornoway.”

She was not, however, at ease with the language. She worried that it would mark her out as odd or different. “I used to go to a Gaelic class on a Saturday morning, but I never felt myself that I could speak it properly. There’s a phrase in Gaelic that means, ‘the taste of English’ – you speak Gaelic, but there’s a taste of English off it, as if you’re a learner, so I always felt quite uncomfortable with that.”

She took French and German instead of Gaelic at Woodside Secondary (refusing, on principle, to sit scholarship exams for private schools) and before long all but lost the language. She feels that as a personal loss now. It is still the language of her heart – she is proud to have been the first person in the Scottish Parliament to use Gaelic in the chamber – but no longer her tongue.

This sense of dual identity – urban and rural, Glaswegian and Gaelic – is crucial, because it has shaped her attitude to Scottish nationalism. “That just didn’t register with me at all, because my experience was of the difference within Scotland, as opposed to being a common bond for all Scots.” The idea of the country being run from Edinburgh, rather from London, did not have a particular emotional appeal, as from the Outer Hebrides Edinburgh itself appears alien and distant.

Are her parents still living? She shakes her head. “My father died in 1987. My mother died in 2001. That was really hard. When my father died, I had to look after my mother. I felt myself put the focus on her, but when she was gone I was devastated. She had been that safety net that a lot of working parents have – that person, you know, who would look after the kids, somebody to lean on a wee bit.”

Lamont has two children, Fay and Colin, both now teenagers. Her relationship with her mother was deepened by their shared experiences of parenthood and by the fact that Effie was able, after many years, to help her daughter once more. “She said herself that it was all right to be loved, but to be needed was something even more precious, because she knew that I was depending on her a lot. But then she got taken away from us. A really strong, healthy woman who walked everywhere and worked hard all her life. She was diagnosed and she was dead within a year.

“My father had a long battle with cancer, but at least with my mother I got to say the things to her that the Scots aren’t very good at saying to each other. I could only show it to my father, but with my mother I could say it because I knew I needed to say it. The kids were still very wee at the time, and the parliament was in one of our siege moments, I don’t doubt, so it was very difficult.”

Effie was 72 when she died. Her influence over her daughter is palpable, as is Lamont’s continuing sadness at her passing. “She had a very healthy disrespect for authority,” she recalls. “One of the things she used to say a lot when I was young was, ‘We’re all equal in the sight of God.’ She didn’t like people who were pompous or arrogant, and that’s a very strong thing for me. If I ever think I’m getting carried away with myself, I think that’s a good philosophy.”

I wonder, though, whether she has internalised that philosophy too deeply; whether, instead of just keeping her grounded, it actually holds her back? It’s interesting that one of the reasons Lamont was uncomfortable with Gaelic was that she felt she wasn’t a good enough speaker. Earlier, when talking about the church, she had said something about not being good enough for it. Does she, perhaps, suffer from a lack of confidence? “I was very, very shy and still am,” she says. “Extremely shy. But I knew I was clever at school and that gave me huge confidence. I’d be really frightened of going into a room, but if I knew I was going to have an argument with the people in the room then I wouldn’t be frightened about that.

“I was very conscious when I went up to university and went to my first seminar – I was only 17 – that there were all these terribly confident people giving their opinions. I thought at first, ‘I don’t think I can cope with this,’ but then I realised they were talking rubbish. Their confidence was not in their ideas. They only had confidence in speaking.”

Her self-esteem has its foundations in her intelligence. She is aware of her shyness and its potential to be inhibiting, and several times in her life and career has, quite consciously, willed herself to push through it. She was, for example, elected to the Scottish executive of the Labour Party while still in her 20s, and though intimidated by the meetings forced herself to speak at them. This approach continues now with the ritual combat of First Minister’s Questions. She becomes very anxious on Thursday mornings, but regards the nerves as keeping her sharp. She has had mixed reviews for her performances. Some say she never lays a glove on Salmond; other pundits argue that her quiet, probing approach unsettles him.

She herself believes that 20 years as a teacher serve her well as party leader. “As a teacher, you couldn’t ever allow things to get out of your control. If you can’t do it, it’s the worst job in the world because it eats at your personality, it says something about you.”

One thing she learned as a teacher was that you have to go back the next day; and so it is with Holyrood. You have to go back, so you need to put up a good front. “You learn that, no matter how hard it is, you can’t let it show,” she says. “I think I’ve taken that into political life more generally, but certainly into FMQs. I used to say, ‘If I come out with a pulse, I’ve won.’ If I can come out of there and I’ve not fallen over, I’ve not collapsed in a heap, then I’ve won. Because what is anybody expecting of me? They’re only expecting me to go in and have an argument. There’s an element of it, also, which is performance, and there’s a bit of me that quite likes performing. I used to be in a drama group in Rothesay many years ago and my speciality was Cockney maids.”

You can see her as a maid, can’t you? The supporting role, the comic turn, rather than top-billing. Lamont doesn’t – not as yet, but it can develop – have the gravitas of a head of state. Newspaper pundits like to characterise her as a tough Glasgow wifie, and depending on their point of view this is used to either demonstrate her lack of suitability for office or to make a case for the no-nonsense pragmatism she might bring to it. Lamont isn’t keen on the caricature either way. “I’m not going to get upset and angry about it. But it’s insulting to women that you can only be in certain boxes. You have to be a wee Glasgow wifie and the husband is afraid of you. A wifie?” she laughs. “I’m not even a very good wife.”

Some of her press coverage has been brutal. Analysis of last year’s speech in which she questioned universal benefits, including free prescriptions, saying that, “Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world,” saw her denounced as foolish or even stupid. She looks a little shocked when I mention this, her eyes widening. “I haven’t heard anybody call me stupid,” she says. “My daughter occasionally goes into cyberspace and gets very annoyed on my behalf. I just think some of the commentary in that space has got nothing to do with what’s going on in the real world.”

Yes, but this is in the newspapers, not just blogs. “Well, I remember when I made the speech about fairness, somebody said, ‘What she said is right, it’s just bad politics.’ Well, if it’s bad politics to tell the truth then we’re in a really bad place.” She accepts, she says, that there are things she could do better, that she could perhaps be clearer in getting her message across. “People are entitled to comment in any way they want. But I don’t think people think I’m stupid.” She pauses and considers, offers this fine distinction, “They might think I’m an idiot.”

Perhaps because her self-esteem is so rooted in that old image of herself as the clever girl from the tenements, this criticism seems to nag at her and she comes back to it later on. “The worst thing anybody could call me is stupid.”

She understands, I think, how corrosive this sort of criticism can be; how, for people who are a little fragile it can eat away at your guts, your head. She saw it in children starved of praise. Lamont taught English, first on Bute for three years and then in Springburn, Glasgow, from 1982 until 1991. She ended her teaching career in Castlemilk, as part of an educational social work project, helping children who were getting into trouble for poor attendance or behaviour. She loved it and misses it.

It is while talking about this period, much more than party politics, that she grows animated and compelling. There was plenty of darkness – dealing with children whose parents were violent or neglectful or both – but she could see she was making a real difference at times. One first-year boy would have panic attacks at the thought of entering the classroom and run home from school. He was in danger of dropping out of education altogether. Lamont’s solution was to say to him that if he felt he couldn’t go to class, he could come to her room instead and just sit until he felt able. “And he ended up being head boy of the school. At that time in his life it was a wee safety net that stopped it getting worse.”

Lamont’s view of society and its troubles was formed during this time, and it is why she makes a point of trying to refer to specific cases during First Minister’s Questions – most recently that of Maureen Fleming, the cancer patient from West Dunbartonshire who is considering becoming a ‘health refugee’ and moving to England so she can get a particular drug for free that is expensive in Scotland. Lamont’s passion and mission is to bring real life into the Holyrood chamber.

Whether this approach will prove a vote-winner remains to be seen. The most recent polls are encouraging for Labour. Support for independence continues to plateau at between 30 and 36 per cent, and net public satisfaction for Lamont is ahead of that for Salmond. Yet polls are polls and real-life is often something else entirely. If Lamont wakes up on 19 September 2014 and finds that Scotland has chosen independence, will she regard that as a personal failure? “Well, yes.”

But she will not stake her leadership on victory, and intends to carry on as there will still be a job to do. “If we lose the political argument for Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom it will be devastating. But people will still be living in poverty.”

Could the character actor, the lass o’ pairts fae Anderston, one day play the lead on the national stage? She knows, I think, that as a political leader she is unlikely to ever be loved. The best she can hope for, and this is precious in its way, is that Scotland might, one day, decide it needs her.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss