National Hero

GEORGE REID, presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, is being photographed on a farm in his Ochil constituency.

Clearly he’s a man who knows the difference between a spade and a bleedin’ shovel, and is not frightened to call the toss - a handy attribute when you’ve been placed in charge of the 431 million Holyrood building project. As the photographer prepares to snap him, Reid chucks his cigarette on the ground. Afterwards, he picks it up again and continues puffing. Pragmatic too, then. Waste not, want not.

"If it wasn’t for George, Holyrood wouldn’t be finished," says one parliamentary employee. "He got a tight grip on the project when he took over and immediately reined in costs. And he commands incredible respect from everyone. When you see him taking visiting dignitaries round, he charms them. But he’s also the kind of man who remembers to stop for a laugh with the security guards."

‘Good old George’ seems to be the general consensus, and certainly he gives you the impression of being a very decent sort of man. Quite waspish, though. Not the sort to suffer fools gladly. We have one of those interesting little moments where the room suddenly goes a bit chilly, and his parliamentary assistant stares down at her notebook and looks like she’s holding her breath. It’s a spat about nationalism, as we’ll see, though I thought my question was perfectly straightforward. "I take it you are not a modern historian," says Reid, fixing me with the incredibly blue eyes that dominate his face. Honestly, they can’t half be pompous, politicians.

Until he became presiding officer, Reid was a member of the SNP. He actually belonged to the Labour Party as a student, but he got fed up hearing party members say they would prefer a Conservative administration in London than a Labour one in Scotland. "Bugger that," says Reid. He became an SNP MP in 1974, before losing his seat in 1979, then finally returning to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. As presiding officer, he had to resign from the SNP to demonstrate his neutrality - although the idea that any presiding officer becomes impartial because they don’t officially belong to a party seems a bit like claiming to be vegetarian on the one day a week you have lentils for tea.

Actually, Reid does seem even-handed - he strikes me as a fair man - but we can’t possibly conduct an entire interview on neutral ground. You have to have one thing about your interviewee that makes you curious, and in Reid’s case it’s how he reconciles his nationalism and internationalism. Reid, you see, is the most passionate devotee of his constituency: home is where you can see the Dumyat, the bump of a hill at the end of the Ochils. He can trace his ancestors in this area back to 1650, a long line of shepherds, coopers, weavers and the occasional collier. Old women still come out of their houses and praise his late mother and say, "George, you’re real Tullibody." And Reid himself says, "I’m devoted to this place, utterly devoted to it."

But alongside that parochial devotion is a man whose whole life has focused on international interests. Always pro-European, he is also a linguist, speaking fluent Russian and French. He was a journalist as well as an SNP politician, and held senior editorial positions at both STV and Granada. When he returned to journalism after losing his Clackmannan seat, he made a film about border crossings and women who found themselves on the wrong side of frontiers. It led to a telephone call from the Red Cross. They wanted Reid to become their director of public affairs in Geneva, a job he did for 12 years, from 1984.

And that’s what makes me curious. Reid was always a gradualist, in terms of independence anyway. But did mopping up the devastating effects of nationalism in other parts of the world affect his political aspirations for his own backyard? The question is not to suggest nationalism is always destructive; arguing that would be as silly as arguing that eating one sweet will make all your teeth rot. But just as a dentist might have a more jaundiced view of the chocolate industry than the average man, because of all the decay he faces, would working with the Red Cross not encourage you to examine nationalism as a political concept, force you, at the very least, to construct a more robust and coherent justification for it? Switch your focus, in other words, from nationality to humanity?

Reid’s response is more history lecture than personal response. "Broadly, there are two types of nationalism in Europe. There is civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. I came face to face with some of the nastiest and most brutal examples of ethnic nationalism known to man. I have been through Croatia and seen the disembowelled grannies. I’ve been through the death camps. I’ve seen a lot of that in the Caucasus as well, because I spent a year living in Armenia.

"That is ethnic nationalism. That has never, at least in the last 30 years, been part of nationalism in Scotland. Here it’s civic and inclusive, and so it should be. It is based on people who want to belong to, and commit themselves to, a community. We’ve been pretty good in Scotland in that respect, in terms of people outside Scotland - English incomers, the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. I am not saying there is not a degree of racism in Scotland, but if you’ve seen disembowelled grannies you tend to get the question into perspective."

That seems an overly cosy view of Scottish inclusiveness to me. An opinion poll in 2002 said one in 25 Scots admitted perpetrating racist abuse. In the last year, as the Scottish Executive has pointed out in its own anti-racist campaign, recorded racist assaults have risen by 100%. We have also, in the last 30 years, had the anti-English Settler Watch. "Do you think that’s still around?" asks Reid.

Actually, my question was not designed to draw exaggerated comparisons between Scottish nationalism and nationalism in war-torn Bosnia. But is it really possible to argue that there is never a connection between civic and ethnic nationalism - that they fit into two neat, separate boxes? "It’s not neat boxes," Reid retorts, and that’s when he says he assumes I’m not a modern historian. Why does he assume that, I ask sharply. (Reid has a first-class honours in the subject.)

Much later, he smiles and says I still haven’t told him if I’m a historian, like it was a genuine question and not a put-down. I’m not fooled for a minute. I am not sure I understand his question, I say, somewhat disingenuously. "Do you have a degree in history?" asks Reid. Nope. If I had one in psychology, would it make me Sigmund Freud?

"If you are a historian and look at everything since 1918," says Reid, "you will know that we have faced these issues in Scotland and Europe for almost a century." Well, my point precisely. Even a useless old non-historian like me knows that, had we run out of ink, we could have written the history of the 20th century in the blood spilled in nationalistic wars. Germany. Yugoslavia. The USSR. Ireland. The Middle East. Rwanda. Aryans against Jews. Jews against Arabs. Bosnians against Serbs. Tutsis against Hutus.

"That’s like saying what a terrible man John Smith was because Stalin was a socialist," says Reid. I see the point he’s making, but that’s not a direct analogy at all. "Well, I’ll give you this," says Reid, "there is a very nasty right-wing bloc in Flanders, which stands accused of racism. There is a court case coming up."

Earlier, he had talked about Flanders and Catalonia being role models for Holyrood. "It’s perfectly possible to be a nation within a state," he had said. Now, he acknowledges that Flanders has had its problems. "If you look at the equivalent of the SNP in Flanders, it is now divided." But if you look at Catalonia, he continues, it has been "passionately inclusive". He doesn’t mention the Basques.

Reid was repulsed by the violence he encountered in his Red Cross days. "I found the ethnic nationalism frightening, even more frightening than I thought I would. I’ve seen the most appalling violence. The real reason there is so much violence in Eastern European life is that communism robbed communities of any chance of civic engagement. The party decided. So the state falls apart and people go back to the tribe. What mattered was blood, where you come from."

He knows he made a difference in the Red Cross. "I did far more good than at any other time in my life, because I actually saved lives." In among the satisfaction, though, are vestiges of guilt. Once, in the early days, he set up a feeding station for 6,000 just north of Addis Ababa. "By the end of the week, we had 100,000. By the end of the second week, we had 200,000. You just could not appreciate that Ethiopian peasants would walk 400 miles for food, or that word would get back so quickly. It was dreadful, because if people are famished and dying you have to do intensive feeding seven or eight times a day. So we had this absolutely Dantesque situation of people on this side of the wall and all they did was eat, and on that side were people who had nothing and were dying. And that was difficult. That was very difficult."

There was nothing he could have done to prevent it, though. "No. But like anyone in that situation, you always blame yourself and wonder if you could have done it better." Bags of grain were dropped into the area from aeroplanes. "It makes great television, but it’s useless aid. They burst or kill people when they land. The only way to address famine is to have an early-warning system, to know it’s coming and have regional stores to get the aid in place and out before famine actually hits."

But it’s even more complicated than that. "A fundamental problem of aid is that both the Americans and the Europeans have vast amounts of grain stored away. In years of famine, you empty them out. But, of course, you depress the market totally for local farmers 100 miles away, who may be producing perfectly satisfactory grain. Suddenly you have ruined another community by bringing in so much. So the politics of aid, and the economics of aid, can be extraordinarily difficult."

In terms of satisfaction, it is not the massive aid operations that stick in his mind, but the personal encounters. The Afghan children he met, for example, who had lost their limbs in land-mine explosions. "They’d come down the mountains on the backs of donkeys. God knows how they survived with their legs hanging off. They’d be operated on by the Red Cross and have prosthesis fitted. It’s difficult for a kid, because it’s not just one fitting. Every time the child grows you have to fit again."

Reid bought some small Singer sewing machines. Not pedal ones, because the children had no feet, but the kind you wind by hand. "A number of them are now feeding extended families of 20 or 30 just by being a tailor. Being a tailor is being someone of substance in these communities."

If further proof of Reid’s pragmatism were needed, it would be his response to the group of prostitutes who visited him. They were from the west coast of Africa, and they worked the docks in one of Mauritania’s ports. "They said they wanted to set up a market garden and that a new generation would be educated. I said, ‘What the hell.’ I liked them. I gave them the money." He grins. "You get the audit commission saying, "You’ve done what?" But they were in profit at the end of the first year, and have been in profit every year since. They are now one of the biggest food collectives in Africa. And indeed the children are going on - one has gone to university, so I feel good about that. These are the individual pieces of happiness, and I don’t think I am going to do anything like that in Scots politics, ever."

Reid became known for being willing to get his hands dirty, particularly in the aftermath of the Armenian earthquake. He waved goodbye to his wife on the morning he left for Armenia, not realising he wouldn’t see her again for more than five months. He arrived to find a disaster scene with a less-than-focused rescue operation. "The Soviets tend to knock off at five o’clock. Quite amazing. The first day I couldn’t get a telex because all the lines were down. I knew bloody well there must be a telex, and I went to the Armenian foreign ministry. They were all lying around drinking brandy, and there was this... tart, I suppose… who was the receptionist. She said, bugger off, it’s five to five. There were 30,000 dead 18 miles up the road. She had nails like this," he says, indicating long talons. "She wasn’t bloody well typing, because she’d break her nails." Reid persuaded her to use a long pencil to tap out a message on the keyboard - 30,000 dead…

After sending the telex, he returned to the rescue operation, climbing into a hole to help a child. "I think I went down the hole to encourage them. I think that’s what that was about. There was a wee girl stuck and there was water coming in at the same time, and I went down among other people and dug away. We got her out."

Did he get emotionally involved with such operations? "No," he says immediately. "You can’t afford to. You go back to being a television reporter or producer, and you see it through the eye of a camera. If you become hooked emotionally, you’re dead. You just can’t do the job. We lost a lot of people that way, very good people, who just couldn’t stay remote from it."

But, of course, he was emotionally tested, particularly when he went to the eastern border of Croatia, which sweeps up towards Serbia. "It was an interesting insight into myself. I’d seen an awful lot of dead bodies, but they were digging out all the grannies who had really been appallingly mutilated. That did get to me in a very big way. I think it would really have got to anyone."

Reid says that although he left Westminster he never left politics, not when he was a television producer and certainly not in Geneva. "If you want my life, it has always been the interface of communications and politics; that’s what I do." In a way, party politics was an accident. He was about to move to ITN when he was asked to stand for the SNP in Clackmannan. Reid contacted the ITN chairman. "Are you going to win?" the chairman asked. The Labour Party held the seat with a 10,000 majority. "Not a hope in hell," replied Reid. Get it on your CV then, he was told. He won with a 10,000 majority.

His family connections with the area helped. His father was a well-respected man who started out as an office boy at Maclay’s brewery in Alloa when he was just 14. He ended up as chairman and managing director. "Stick out your tongue, boy," the firm’s cashier had told him on his first day, and she wet stamps on it. "My father was a very kind man, and he never forgot that," says Reid. In the 1950s he was employing people with learning difficulties at the company. "That was quite radical back then. Both he and my mother were very involved in voluntary work in the community, so I come very much out of that tradition."

Like his father, Reid is a family man, with a wife and two daughters, who remains devoted to his small corner of the world. But he is also the lad o’ pairts who has gone off and made his mark in the world community. He brings back such considerable skills and experience, it makes the Scottish Parliament rather lucky to have him. Reid likes that feeling of returning, of closing the circle. When he left party politics in 1979, the referendum debate was about to be lost. "Scotland missed the bus for 25 years," he says. But now that we have run and caught it, Reid is relishing being in the driving seat. "All my adult life has been about getting a Scottish Parliament, and I have been very privileged to be part of seeing it happen."

There are so many issues the Scottish people must discuss, he says. How will Scotland generate its future wealth? What part will the arts play in creating a "buzz society" in Scotland? Will devolution be extended to regions within Scotland, regenerating local communities? His impartiality as presiding officer makes him stop short of commenting on whether he would like Holyrood eventually to become fully independent. But he does quote Donald Dewar: "Devolution is not an event, but a process."

He’s happy with where that process is leading. "In politics, you have to be happy with where you have reached. You have your moment in time. If things had turned out differently, I would have gone down different routes. But I am content with where I am."