POLITICS

John Nicolson Interview: 'Scotland Made A Tragic Mistake Not Declaring Independence In The 1970s'

18/08/2015 16:09 BST | Updated 08/09/2015 17:59 BST

tom watson mp

The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. This week, it's TV presenter and journalist-turned-SNP MP John Nicolson ...

15 from 15

There's a common thread among many of the SNP new wave of MPs: the independence referendum. For John Nicolson, it was a chance for Scotland's redemption, arguing it was a "tragic political mistake" for the country not to declare independence in the 1970s when oil was discovered.

While the unionists ultimately triumphed, the vote prompted a tidal wave that swept 56 SNPs to Westminster less than 12 months later. Among them was John Nicolson, the journalist and well-known television face from BBC Breakfast and Newsnight.

Now the party's MP for East Dunbartonshire and Westminster spokesman on Culture, Media and Sport, Mr Nicolson is already a regular on TV and radio in battle for the party, and is likely to play a key role as the BBC's licence renewal could prompt a major shake-up of the corporation.

For his part, he fears a lack of BBC independence north of the border was one of the reasons why it did not not "cover itself in glory" during the referendum.

Here is John Nicolson's 15 from '15:

1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born in the south side of Glasgow.

2) What did you want to be when you were a child?

I wanted to be a journalist. My dad used to bring home the newspapers and when I was a very wee boy. I used to lie on the hall floor and open up the broadsheets – because they were too big for me to hold – and I would run down the columns and read about the world. I remember my mum saying to my dad: ‘I think he’s going to be a journalist.’ I remember saying: ‘What’s a journalist?’

I wanted to got into law for a while – I got into it three times but something always got in the way.

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John Nicolson (front left) with presenters Charlie Gibson, Roland Rivron and Sandy Gall (back) and Jane Moore re-launching LBC radio in 1996

3) When did you first become interested in politics?

I used to come home from school at lunch-time to listen to The World At One with Robin Day. I thought the idea of politics and the world was a fascinating one.

I was quite surprised to discover that Scotland wasn’t independent. I always thought myself as Scottish and Scotland as my country. We studied Scottish politics at school. The idea of Britain was a very hazy concept. So I always believed in independence.

I joined the SNP when I was 16. When I became a journalist and joined the BBC I left the SNP, because as you know the BBC is objective on all matters.

4) Do you have any political heroes?

Margo McDonald (former SNP MP) was somebody I admired. She talked with passion, about things I was interested in. She seemed so much more authentic than Labour Party politicians. After hearing her speak, and speaking to her, I went off and joined the SNP.

There was a group of politicians when I was at school called the 79 Group, who wanted to bring the SNP to the political left. I looked at them thinking that was my kind of politics. Alex Salmond was a member.

Alex Salmond has transformed the SNP. He’s changed Scottish history by holding a referendum. He was and is an extraordinary politician. Nicola Sturgeon is remarkable in that she answers questions. She doesn’t duck questions.

I’m a great admirer of Martin Luther King.

Of American politicians, I’m also a great admirer of the Senator I worked for, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. A towering figure in American politics.

He had a lot of interesting things to say about family cohesion, which were unfashionable when he said it but have been embraced by the left. He was prepared to say unpopular things in American politics. Very much against capital punishment. He thought there should be gun control. And he was very engaged in the Northern Ireland peace process. He said very early on you have to talk to extremists to bring about peace. He was castigated but he was right.

The broadcaster Brian Walden. I used to watch Weekend World with Brian Walden religiously. I adored it. I loved the way he would very fairly guide the politician into a corner, where every outcome has it's downsides and disadvantages. Politicians that promise a perfection are misleading. That was the great triumph of his interviews. There were downsides to their policies.

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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with journalist and broadcaster Brian Walden

5) When did you first stand for election?

This time.

The referendum seemed to me not to be a party political thing. The referendum was about the constitution, and it was about giving power to the people of Scotland to make their own decisions. It seemed to me vitally important as citizens that we engaged in the referendum and argued the case.

History will judge we made a tragic political mistake by not declaring independence in the 1970s when oil was discovered. We could have saved Scotland from the worst ravages of Thatcher. Saved Scotland from Thatcher altogether. We could have built an enormously powerful society and country with the oil revenues we had. We could have had Norwegian levels of prosperity.

It's a bit like coming home after a burglary and finding half your possessions have been taken. Do you decide that you'll just let the burglar carry on or do you call the police and say 'that's it, you're not having the other half'? This seemed to me like the opportunity to stop the robbery of Scotland's resources and to deliver for the Scottish people a different type of society.

I was disappointed - but no terribly surprised - when Scotland voted 'no'. I did Nicola Sturgeon's tour (he was MC chairing many of the events), and a number of people said I should stand. So I did.

6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?

I got a Kennedy scholarship and a Harkness fellowship to Harvard. After that I went to work as a speechwriter in the Senate for Senator Moynihan. A BBC producer had heard me debating as an undergrad and phoned me up in America, and said he was launching this new series, Open to Question. Young people are going to cross-examine famous people and we'd like you to be the presenter. How do you fancy it?

I found myself in studio with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an audience of 50 and a satellite feed to South Africa and (anti-apartheid activist) Donald Woods in the studio.

The editor said 'interview Archbishop Tutu, bring in Donald Woods, bring in the audience. They'll be a count down out of the show. Don't make any mistakes because the satellite feed is only 30 minutes and it's a 30-minute programme.' That was my training. I was in my early-20s.

After that I went down to London and was a reporter on On The Record, Panorama, Public Eye and Assignment. I was on Newsnight for many years, presented BBC Breakfast News on BBC 1, and was on ITV as well. I freelance doing travel writing and write a bit about architecture too.

I think Open to Question would do very well if it was re-launched. There was a huge event during the referendum campaign where they were asking questions of Nicola Sturgeon and ... I can't remember who else was there but I remember George Galloway was there wearing a most peculiar hat.

I don't know if he thinks it makes him down with the kids? I saw the hat and thought 'he doesn't realise how funny that is'. And he is putting himself at a huge disadvantage, walking through the door in that hat. You could almost hear that collective snigger from the audience. After that, there was no coming back for him.

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Ian Botham and John Nicolson, now an SNP MP, on Open to Question in 1986

7) What do you do to relax?

I love to read, I love to travel. I cook. I go to the movies as often as I can. I love architecture and design. I love looking at buildings. Especially buildings that are faded, calling out to be rescued.

In Glasgow, I love the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Glasgow School of Art. My favourite architect is Alexander "Greek" Thomson, so I love his buildings, especially his churches. I love the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I love Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings. I'm very fond of the Moorish architecture of southern Spain. I love traditional Highland Victorian houses. In a lot of Scotland we are losing the distinctive vernacular of Scottish architecture - replacing it with builder's kit estates.

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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?

Culture, Media and Sport is fascinating, not least because at the moment we're dealing with the BBC and charter renewal. We would be dealing with it very differently if I were Secretary of State. For the SNP, the BBC was a bit like a lover who had been unfaithful. It made us sad but we wanted a reconciliation. But with the Tories, there's a visceral post-divorce hatred.

I would want to return broadcasting to Scotland. I'd like to give BBC Scotland more independence, I'd like to see a separate 6 O'Clock News for Scotland. At the moment we have the absurd position where you could have Armageddon in Carlisle and they would headline the report in Scotland on an air show in Carluke. They will not cover anything out of Scotland. It makes for a strange provincial-ism.

I'm a great champion of public service broadcasting. We should be very careful with what we wish for. Without public service broadcasting we hand over broadcasting to Rupert Murdoch. I don't hear a lot of people objecting to the licence fee. They think they get a lot of good broadcasting for their money.

My problem with the BBC is a lot of people in Scotland think the BBC is biased. In fact, the BBC Trust has published a report showing of all the BBC areas the BBC is least trusted in Scotland. That's an appalling state of affairs. The BBC did not cover itself in glory of the reporting of the referendum.

Let's just call it bad news judgement (rather than bias). When Mhairi Black gave her speech - which has now been listened and watch more than 10 million times - BBC Scotland did not run a clip of it. They ran a bit of it with the sound down with the presenter talking over it. Then gave more air time to the Speaker ticking someone off. A lot of people think that's bias, I just think it's poor journalism and poor editorial judgement.

So when people say 'it's biased because you must come in everyday and you're given your instructions on how to run down the SNP or rundown Scotland', that's not how it works.

The BBC is Establishment to its core. It's pro-monarchy, it's pro-union, it's pro-status quo. It's not that journalists are told what to say, it's just the whole atmosphere in which they work is of The Establishment. We have to try to get away from that.

To have a large number of people protesting outside BBC Scotland as they did ... now the Better Together camp said that was all orchestrated by Yes Scotland. It absolutely was not. It was a spontaneous demonstration by people who just got very angry by what they saw on their screens every night. Something has gone badly wrong when a news organisation has protestors outside its door.

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Protest at BBC Scotland during the referendum campaign

9) What is your favourite film?

I like Frank Capra. Mr Smith Goes to Washington. In my top 20: Apocalypse Now, Fargo, Vertigo, Brokeback Mountain, The Deer Hunter, Gattaca, and almost anything by Almodovar but especially his early films.

10) What is your favourite band/artist?

I love my college era music. I was a bit of a New Romantic. I spent many happy hours dancing to The Bluebells, Duran Duran, Orange Juice, Depeche Mode, The Eurythmics and Talking Heads - and feeling gloomy with Morrissey, Lloyd Cole, and Marc Almond.

I love music from the 60s. Burt Bacharach in particular. Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, the Supremes, Lulu and Cilla sang unforgettable music from his song book. And Bossa nova. Joao Gilberto and Vinicius de Moraes are favourites.

I grew up listening to jazz at home. My mum lived up the same close as the boys from the Clyde Valley Stompers and she played their trad Jazz at full volume on our 33/45/78 player. These days I prefer the great vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Annie Ross.

Of the classics, Bach and Britten are my favourites.

My most recent concerts have been Mika, Morrissey, and The Drums. I'm going to hear Bebel Gilberto soon.

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Bebel Gilberto

11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?

I've really enjoyed getting to know my SNP colleagues. I didn't know most of them before the election and they're a very impressive bunch. There's always a look of nervous apprehension on the Tory font bench when often they find themselves facing someone who knows quite a lot about the subject matter. If you're Jeremy Hunt and you look across and see Dr Philippa Whitford, a breast cancer surgeon, tackling you on the NHS, it's not a comfortable process.

A lot of us feel the Speaker is glad we are there. You see a little twinkle in his eye when he sees us. I think we make the Labour Party feel incredibly uncomfortable because we say what they think but cannot say. And they are deeply embarrassed, a lot of them, to find their leadership telling them to sit on their hands and abstain on cuts.

12) What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?

The obvious things: some of the absurd rules.

You are discouraged from clapping but you are encouraged to make weird grunting sounds. Most people would think it's bizarre. The voting is ridiculous. That you ring a bell and people start charging from all across the Commons to walk through a door is absurd. The fact we have to sit to half eleven at night to register a vote - it's terrible for people with young families.

I'm surprised and disappointed at the low standard of debate. Sometimes you will hear some really vacuous contributions, endless cliches, lots of nonsense from ministers about how we're listening and learning. "Working families". Endless repetition of platitudes. Then somebody will say: 'I think we've had a simply splendid debate.'

13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?

We must get rid of the House of Lords. There are more members of the House of Lords than any other Parliament in the world outside the People's Republic of China. It's clearly ridiculous when people who were involved in sex scandals, and have been convicted of fraud, are turning up for £300 day. And they're going to get that for the rest of their lives. That has to be wrong.

When we're doing up Parliament, I'd boot them out, put the Commons in to the Lords, and don't bother bringing them back again.

14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?

My constituency is fascinating and varied. It's visually beautiful. It's where people live longest. It was the constituency that fascinated Margaret Thatcher above all others as she couldn't understand why a constituency that had the highest percentage of graduates in the country kept voting anything but Tory. As so often she mis-understood Scotland.

15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?

I answer questions - as a political journalist I found it incredibly irritating when people wouldn't answer the question. If you answer the question, even if they don't agree with you, they're not going to feel that terrible sense of disappointment that you often get with politicians. People like authenticity. That was Tony Blair's downfall, when scales fell from people's eyes. Worst? The typical interview answer, I suppose, that I'm a perfectionist.