A north-east MSP says he will look back with pride at the last 22 years after making his final speech in parliament.
Labour’s Lewis Macdonald was one of the first MSPs elected to the newly-formed Scottish Parliament in 1999 – having previously spent decades campaigning for it to be set up.
He went on to serve as a government minister for six years, representing Scotland abroad, before becoming deputy presiding officer of the parliament last year.
And having made his final speech last week, the north-east MSP has now reflected on more than two decades representing the north-east at Holyrood.
“For me, I look back not just on 22 years as a member but also the years before that of campaigning to get the Scottish Parliament set up and trying to influence the way it was designed so it would represent the whole country,” he said.
“It’s the end of 22 years as a member but more than 40 years as a campaigner.
“I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament in the 1970s when I was still a student. We had the campaign for a Scottish Assembly, then we had the referendum in 1997 and all the years in between. Getting it set up, being selected as a candidate and then getting elected was the culmination of 20 years of campaigning.”
Mr Macdonald admitted he felt a great sense of “responsibility” to ensure the parliament worked for the benefit of the people of Scotland.
“It was meeting a real need at the time because things had to change in a way that would bring power closer to the people,” he said.
“That had always been my opinion and ambition, so to be part of delivering that was fantastic. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of that, but also a huge responsibility because when you tell people something will bring power closer to home, you then have to deliver that.
“The last 20 years have been about making sure we did that in a way that meant something to people.”
‘There are a lot of highlights’
The north-east MSP reflected on the highlights of his time in office – the first of which came during a TV interview shortly after the 1999 vote.
“There are a lot of highlights,” he said.
“When I was campaigning to be a Labour candidate in 1999 our youngest daughter was just a year old. It so happened that SHMU were following the candidates and doing a piece on the first election.
“When I won and was elected they came up to the house to do the last interview. Iona leapt off one couch and ran across to jump on my knee on the other – it was the first steps she ever walked and that was a really special moment.
“The official opening of parliament and all that went with that, like the royal opening and sense of excitement, was fantastic to be part of. There are also a lot of work highlights – walking into the new building after a troubled start gave me a real sense of the power of democracy.
“In 2002, the parliament came and met in Aberdeen. At first, we were based in the General Assembly building, which meant every two years we had to vacate it. We only had to do that twice and on the second of those, parliament came to Aberdeen for a week and met at King’s College where I had been a student. A real highlight for me was standing up as a government minister and addressing debates on oil and gas and the AWPR while it was here.
“The smoking ban being passed in 2005 was something I was involved with. It was controversial and I was fortunate to be asked to close the debate when we passed the bill, and then I had responsibility for approving a lot of the regulations.
“In 2016 there was a threat Aberdeen would not have a major trauma centre, and I campaigned against that proposal and won the argument. The day before the election Nicola Sturgeon came to Aberdeen and agreed the city would have a major trauma centre after all, and in some ways that was one of the biggest achievements. It meant for the foreseeable future we can now say with certainty Aberdeen will be one of the four healthcare centres in Scotland.
“A personal highlight was a year ago in the midst of the pandemic when parliament wanted a new deputy presiding officer to make sure parliament could continue, and I was elected unanimously. That was a real honour because to get support from all parties on the basis of the job you’re there to do is a nice way to finish, although it was in the most difficult circumstances.”
Across a period of six years, Mr Macdonald served as a government minister under Jack McConnell – taking charge of a number of areas including transport, energy and health.
He was transport chief when the AWPR was approved, and responsible for energy when Scotland’s first offshore windfarm was given the green light.
“Becoming a government minister was a great honour,” Mr Macdonald said.
“Working with Jack McConnell as First Minister and a number of different colleagues as a minister was a fascinating experience and a great opportunity to make a real difference. Jack was the boss but I was on the transport side when the Scottish Government agreed to build the AWPR, which was a big moment.
“I was the minister responsible for approving Scotland’s first offshore windfarm in the Solway Firth, which was the beginning of something which is now going from strength to strength.
“One of the highlights for me was going to China to promote Scottish technical education qualifications because the Chinese government was looking for a new supplier. I went out there with the SQA and managed to persuade them Scotland was the best country to look to. That was quite an experience.”
‘There were difficult times too’
As well as periods of success, the last two decades also brought significant challenges for the north-east MSP.
“There were difficult times too,” Mr Macdonald said.
“Covid has been one of them – I’ve been convener of the health committee for three years and one of our jobs is to hold the government to account over its handling of the pandemic. There’s no doubt that at times, it has been a very difficult job to do effectively.
“When we were in government there was the foot and mouth outbreak which we had to deal with, and that was a challenging thing to cope with. Those stand out as the two national emergencies.
“The other thing that stands out in my mind is 9/11. I was about to give evidence on something fairly routine when the news broke, and I think we all knew at the time that it would change an awful lot of things we did.
“One of the things I wanted to see which we did achieve was a parliament which was accessible and people could visit. All of that was really important to me and 9/11 didn’t stop that, but it meant we had to manage a much higher security risk than we would have expected before. It was difficult to get the balance right.”
Despite stepping back from the cut and thrust of the Scottish Parliament chamber, Mr Macdonald has no intention of retiring.
“I am hoping me stepping back from frontline politics will coincide with life getting back to normal over the coming months, and that I’ll have the opportunity to do things and see people,” he said.
“One of the reasons for stepping back this year is to have the opportunity to do other things, whether that is writing or working on things which come up over the next period without having to commute between Aberdeen and Edinburgh on a weekly basis. However, I’m in no rush to find my next project.”
“I look back with immense pride and gratitude at having the opportunity to be an MSP,” Mr Macdonald added.
“I couldn’t have done it without my wife Sandra – she has been a fantastic supportive partner in my political life as well as my personal life. There’s also all the local party members and local organisations and groups.
“The thing that’s distinctive about representing Aberdeen and the north-east is our economy is different to the rest of Scotland. When the oil industry is struggling it is often at a time when the rest of the country is doing well and vice versa. The big thing about representing the north-east is making sure the rest of Scotland gets what is happening here.
“There is a real sense of having achieved a lot, and I am thankful for having had that opportunity.”