Interview: the referee MSP hoping to unseat Angus Robertson

Douglas Ross is becoming fairly accustomed to dealing with insults. As both a Conservative politician and a professional football referee who frequently runs the line at Old Firm matches, personal slights tend to come with the territory.

MSP Douglas Ross in action as a referee.

“The worst thing is social media,” he sighs. Unlike most referees, who do not have public Twitter profiles for obvious reasons, Ross’s role as a Tory MSP for the Highlands and Islands means that fans can easily register their disapproval of his performance on the pitch, often in colourful terms.

“It can make it difficult sometimes,” he says. “If you give a decision against a team, you’re seen to be biased against them and all their fans and therefore their voters. But actually it’s very rewarding.”

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The 34-year-old, who started refereeing boys’ matches 14 years ago and has gradually worked his way up the rankings, was recently given another difficult job: unseating the SNP’s depute leader Angus Robertson in Moray at next month’s general election.

The seat is a key target for Ruth Davidson’s party, as the area voted strongly to stay part of the UK at 2014’s independence referendum and is also the most pro-Brexit part of Scotland, with 49.9 per cent of voters backing Leave last June.

The Tories have high hopes that the seat will be one of several to turn blue on 8 June, despite the Greens revealing yesterday they will not field a candidate and split the pro-independence vote.

Ross said the Greens’ decision not to contest the seat, along with most others in Scotland, “smacks of desperation” and shows the party “will do anything to prop up the SNP and hold on to their shirt-tails”.

Although Ross says he will resign as an MSP if elected, he intends to keep refereeing if he becomes an MP. “My only priority in that job would be representing the people of Moray as their Member of Parliament. But I also have a hobby, which has been made quite high profile,” he says.

“I train almost every day because I have to, but that’s in my own time, and most of my games are on a Saturday.

“Other MPs go back to their constituencies and go hillwalking or do other things with their families. What I do on a Saturday is referee football matches.”

His second job has seen him officiate at four Old Firm matches in the past year as well as travelling Europe to help referee games involving teams such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Attending midweek games has landed him in trouble in the past. Last year he missed a parliamentary committee to run the line at a Champions League match in Portugal, prompting calls for him to step down from his frontbench role as justice spokesman for the Tories.

Although he has started turning down such matches as a result, he refuses to give it up. “I think it would be wrong that just because you’re in elected office you should have to give up something you’re very passionate about and you enjoy.”

So how does doing an Old Firm game compare to the adversarial nature of Scottish Parliament? “Given my role running the line, all the shouting is coming from behind me, whereas in Parliament normally my own supporters are behind me and the baying crowds are in front of me.”

Ross faces a tough task to defeat Mr Robertson, who has become one of the SNP’s most familiar faces at Westminster thanks to his weekly grilling of Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions.

However, the Tory is hoping that his increased profile may prove to be his undoing. “People saw Ed Balls on the TV every week when he was shadow Chancellor and it didn’t help him much,” he says, referring to the Labour politician’s shock loss in 2015.

“There is a perception that since Angus has become depute leader and also leader of the group in Westminster, he is in London a lot, speaking up for SNP interests but not so much for Moray interests.”