THAT phone call at the end of June came as a complete surprise – Tavish Scott announcing his resignation from the post he seemingly loved and had held for the last 20 years.
Having represented Shetland on the Holyrood stage since 1999, Tavish’s departure from politics is nothing short of the end of an era for the islands. For two decades the Liberal Democrat MSP dominated five parliamentary elections, winning the last one in 2016 with a whopping 67.4 per cent of the vote.
Whoever is going to succeed him in speaking up for Shetland will be decided at the end of August, but what is already clear at this early stage of the election campaign is that despite a record eight candidates having put forward their names it looks like it could be a battle between the Lib Dems and the SNP.
So why the sudden change of heart, and why leave party politics at a time when the Lib Dems are re-emerging as a defining political force with a newly elected leader and a clear anti-Brexit message?
It is true that the journalistic mind instantly senses some kind of hidden scandal, but as Tavish walks into one of Lerwick’s new eateries for one of his last interviews as a politician it quickly becomes clear that here is a man who has just shed a heavy burden, called Edinburgh politics, and has a newly discovered spring in his step as he prepares for his new job at Scottish Rugby.
Having been approached by the sport’s governing body with an invitation to apply for the role as head of external affairs, it was very much a case of being offered an “opportunity at the right time and the right place”.
The 53-year-old couldn’t be clearer that it wasn’t the demands of representing his local constituents that made him quit as the isles’ MSP, but the increasingly polarised nature of Edinburgh politics.
“I will miss the Shetland side of the job, the day to day nuts and bolts of being the Shetland MSP,” he states. “I loved all that, but I will not miss the Edinburgh politics side of it. It’s sterile, the independence debate is going round and round, and Brexit is now going on for three years.
“When politics is dominated by independence and the opposition to that, then you are running in circles and that, to be honest, is why I am looking forward to a new challenge.”
He says he has given “everything I could to be effective on Shetland’s behalf”, and feels grateful for the way local people have treated and spoken to him over the years (‘Boy, du needs do something about that …’) as this has helped to keep him firmly grounded with no danger of developing any sense of self-importance.
All of that is reflected in the amount of ‘best wishes for the future’ messages he is still receiving from grateful constituents, be it via Facebook and e-mail, or face to face during this interview.
“I have always thought that part of my success has been to be able to have any number of confidential discussions about sensitive matters and to keep them to myself and to act on them on behalf of constituents”, Tavish adds, while also been given the space “to let your hair down” when out socially, acknowledging the fact that everybody watches you in a small community.
The one regret he has is the toll the job as MSP takes on the partner, children and the wider family, the father of four says: “It is very hard on your closest”.
“There is no doubt that you become self-obsessed doing this job, particularly when there is a lot going on. There have been too many Fridays where I have come home absolutely shattered and the only thing I wanted to do was to fall asleep on the couch with some rubbish on the TV because I had nothing left to give.”
It is the only advice he wants to give to those standing to succeed him as the MSP for Shetland: “Doing this job you have to have your eyes open on this one.”
Twenty years of devolution
Looking back as someone who has always regarded Scottish devolution as just the first step towards a federal United Kingdom with regional parliaments across England to balance Westminster’s dominance, Tavish is clear in his opinion that the parliament in Edinburgh has nevertheless been successful in shaping a modern and more tolerant Scotland.
“There have been massive changes in social politics in Scotland: same sex marriage for example, those changes were very hard to envisage 20 years ago. Even the smoking ban. Scotland is a very different place now, and all to the good,” he says.
During the first eight years of the parliament, the Liberal Democrats under Jim Wallace formed a number of coalition governments under three different Labour first ministers, with Tavish serving as transport minister under Jack McConnell between 2005 and 2007.
He describes these two years as the happiest and busiest in his parliamentary career. “We got a lot done such as the introduction of the Air Discount Scheme. I have never worked harder in my life,” Tavish says.
“It was actually us who abolished tuition fees, who introduced free personal care for the elderly and it was us who brought in the smoking ban.”
And he was particularly pleased that his time as a minister was endorsed by local people who re-elected him as constituency MSP with two thirds of the vote, while Labour was ousted in the 2007 election, allowing the SNP for the first time to form a government.
That wasn’t meant to happen, at least not in the eyes of the strategists behind the 1997 referendum. They had hoped to silence the calls for Scottish independence by giving the country its own devolved parliament and thereby cementing Labour’s dominance of Scottish politics – a strategy that has failed on more than one level.
What it has led to, he says, is “defining politics in Scotland today as a straight battle of what people euphemistically call unionism versus nationalism, which sounds too close to Northern Ireland for me, because I am not a unionist, I am a federalist”.
As a former leader of his party for almost three years between 2008 and 2011, he adds: “As soon as politics started to become dominated by the constitution, and that is really what we are discussing here, then it becomes polarised.
“All that the SNP is here to do is delivering independence; they are not here to deliver better education, or putting business back into the ADS scheme, or making sure the ferry contract is not handed by a bunch of trainees from the RMT, which is what I fear might happen this summer.”
Describing today’s parliamentary party politics as “dispiriting”, Tavish jumped ship as soon as he had the chance to do so.
But leaving Holyrood behind doesn’t mean Tavish won’t talk politics any more, which brings us straight to the next big but equally “dispiriting” topic: Brexit.
Responding to former Lib Dem party leader Nick Clegg’s views that the break-up of the UK was now more likely than not because of Brexit and the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October under Boris Johnson as the new prime minister, Tavish says he doesn’t concur with that view.
In fact he goes as far as predicting that in his view Brexit is unlikely to happen.
“I don’t think Scottish independence is inevitable because I don’t think people will vote for more chaos on the basis of the chaos we’ve already got,” Tavish says.
“I don’t think Brexit will happen because the consequences for the economy never mind the constitution of the United Kingdom, never mind the Irish border, never mind all the things they have no answer for at the moment. What I do think however is that it will split the Tory party, and that is a good thing.”
Tavish, meanwhile, starts his new job as head of external affairs at Scottish Rugby on 5 August.