Stephen Gethins Interview: Kalashnikovs, Kylie And Cans Of Irn-Bru

Stephen Gethins with Nicola Sturgeon on the campaign trail last year

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. Today we hear from the first of "The 56", Stephen Gethins ...

The Scottish National Party tidal wave swept all before it at the general election, returning 56 of its members to Westminster – all but three of the MPs representing Scotland. "The 56" was born.

According to one of their number, Stephen Gethins, it "took 20 years to become an overnight success". An adviser to Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in the first SNP Government in Holyrood, the North East Fife MP joined the party in the mid-1990s but concedes something happened north of the border in the push for independence last year.

"Many people I've spoken to say last summer was a transformative period in their political lives. People who didn’t really vote before, or weren't that interested, or turned up and voted Labour because everybody else did. Politics changed," he says.

The party's Westminster spokesman on Europe, leading calls for 16-year-olds to get the vote in the EU in-out referendum, Stephen has worked in the EU and in the former Soviet bloc on re-building war ravaged countries. One project included tracking down Red Army Kalashnikovs and other small arms that had fallen off the map.

A highly-regarded member of the SNP top team in London, Stephen is likely to be an influential figure as the party squeezes the Government to deliver The Vow amid speculation a second independence referendum is on the cards. But who said nationalists don't know how to have fun? Stephen reveals he's a big Kylie fan.

Here is Stephen Gethin's 15 from '15:

1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Glasgow – though I come from an entirely east coast family – and was raised in Perth, and consider myself from Perth.

2) What did you want to be as a child?

I was always interested in politics. I remember my mum saying I always wanted to be up for what was the 9 O'Clock News. But I was really drawn by travel as well. As much as I loved Perth I couldn't wait to get out and go somewhere. I don’t think that's an entirely unusual phenomenon.

I wanted to be an explorer because I loved Indiana Jones. I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I wanted to be an archaeologist before I realised the reality of archaeology was spending a lot of time with small brushes.

3) What got you in to politics?

I have always – genuinely – believed in Scottish independence. The SNP was always the party I was going to join. I think it was linked to being quite internationalist in my outlook. I always thought 'why can’t Edinburgh be a capital? Why can’t we make our own way in the world and for the Saltire to be raised above the UN and EU?'

When I went to university, I went to the debating society, which I loved, and I found an outlet for that. I also joined the Dundee University Scottish Nationalist Association. I would say never look back, because I've always remained a member, but there has been other times when I haven’t been involved as time wore on.

I joined in 1993, just before I went to university. Still at school. Three MPs at the time, so a lot less successful. Somebody once accused me of being a career politician and not having a career outside politics. Well, that was a pretty poor career choice. We've come a long way but a lot of the people who I was friends with then are still there. The doctrine of hard work and chapping doors is still there, it's just the reaction on the doors has been better in recent years.

Stephen Gethins: "I have always – genuinely – believed in Scottish independence."

4) Do you have any political heroes?

Two late Scottish politicians I am really fond of. Alan Maccartney, who is an MEP who passed away in 1994, and Neil MacCormick, also an MEP. I liked the prism through which they looked at the world. That independence was about internationalism. That reach out to the rest of the world. I connected with that.

I've worked with Alex Salmond for many years, but that was someone who when growing up struck me as somebody to look up to.

There are the ones everyone says. Nelson Mandela, the astonishing way he came to power and with dignity. Trying to hold the country together and the way he tried to build a civic South Africa.

Pope John XXIII was an astonishing influence. Pope Francis – the way he talks about poverty, climate change.

Political hero: Pope Francis

4) What did you do before you became an MP?

I was freelancing in international development, doing some work in Tanzania, Namibia. I have a background in post-conflict reconstruction, so I spent a few years working in Georgia in particular but also in Armenia and Azebahzhan.

For one, I was working for an organisation called Safer World, where you're working on small arms dissemination. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Red Army stockpiles disappeared to the populace - and to a place like the Caucuses, which is one of the most multi-national, ethnically diverse areas on earth, with a history of inter-ethnic tension, that is not a great mix.

It was fascinating. It's been a really good learning experience for me being in here now, having that experience on the ground, in areas that are emerging from conflict. Now working on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I'm trying to figure out where next for areas like Libya and Syria and elsewhere. They're not comparable at all but just having that experience was valuable.

One project was basically to find out where the guns had gone. It was a little bit of education but also a little bit of figuring out what was going on. So you'd be liaising with the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, but also speaking to the Russians in South Ossetia at the time and ethnic groups.

I didn't physically look for them. But I went into people's houses and one said 'oh yeah, we've got five Kalashnikovs under the kitchen table'. Kalashnikovs were all over the place. One area people were selling hand grenades, and this guy would say: 'The hand grenades are free but the pins ...' in another hand '... will cost you a dollar.'

I worked in the European Union for a while for the Committee of the Regions – working with members from different local authorities taken from across Europe. Critically, it was seeing how the European Union was trying its best to make itself relevant to European citizens.

I was a special adviser in government, some of the financial stuff with (Finance Minister) John Swinney but also energy and climate change with Fergus Ewing (Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism) and Richard Lockhead (Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment), rural policy and a bit of Europe and international policy.

6) Which Government department would you like to run?

Foreign Office. We need to look at the way we do foreign policy differently. Recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Libya have taught us that we might win the war militarily, or briefly, but we keep losing the peace.

Firstly, working with our partners in Europe and trans-Atlantic and elsewhere in the world. But investing in state building. That's the lesson. You can’t just go in somewhere and leave it. The level of commitment you are giving is probably way beyond the life of most Members of Parliament.

To commit to military action without having a game plan for winning the peace – and I don’t see it at the moment – is not something our Parliament could or should sign up to.

7) What is your favourite book?

One of my prized possessions is Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean. I've got a first edition that my grandmother gave me. It's an extraordinarily well-written book. He was a soldier in the SAS and some people reckon Ian Fleming based James Bond on him. I don’t know. His adventures through the former Soviet Union as a young diplomat, his adventures through the Second World War, is fascinating. He was Churchill's ambassador to Tito. Covering all these areas I find deeply fascinating.

British diplomat. Soldier. Cameron Highlander. MP. Author. The real James Bond? Fitzroy Maclean

8) What is your favourite film?

I grew up watching Star Wars. I'm still a huge fanatic. The original Empire Strikes Back is pretty good. Wasn't too sure about Return of the Jedi. The prequels would bring tears to your eyes. I'm very hopeful and very excited about December 15. But also loved Indiana Jones as well, and I still adore Lawrence of Arabia. Everybody says it. Imagine seeing that in the cinema.

"We want two large glasses of lemonade!" Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence

9) Which are your favourite bands?

My tastes are quite Catholic, I was quite Britpop when growing up so was a huge fan of Suede. I liked Blur maybe more than Oasis. And I'm a big Morrissey and Smiths fan. The Clash I love. But I have to admit I am a big Kylie fan. I've been to two Kylie concerts, including the opening night of her world Showgirl tour. There's no excuse whatsoever. I went there enthusiastically of my own volition. The tunes are great and it’s just good fun.

And, despite approaching 40, I quite like Taylor Swift as well. I studied in Antwerp for a while and I do love bands like dEUS and K's Choice. It was an excellent Antwerp scene. More recently, Kate Ryan.

10) What are the best things about the Commons?

A lot of us are new. We're learning. The staff has been amazing here. From the Speaker all the way throughout the organisation. It's impressive and welcoming. The doormen have been extraordinarily good, stopped me from doing the wrong things.

11) What are the worst things about the Commons?

I do think this place does need to keep up with the 21st century. It is doing it to a certain extent – the broadcast stuff is accessible, committees have Twitter accounts. This is something every democratic institution needs to be vigilant about. Being relevant. I'm not sure this place is there – not least because you have the House or Lords attached. I have met some fine peers, good folk, but is that a fit way to run things in the 21st century? I'm not sure it is. And voting takes forever.

The UK is top heavy in terms of so much being focussed on London. In the House of Commons, you are not governing for London but the whole country. So try and get out there as much as you can. The Scottish government has been very good about taking the Cabinet and committees round and about – why not?

Geographically, it's very difficult for people to come to London and see the way it works. It's far away. It's expensive. So why shouldn't parliament try. I'm not saying the capital city should be shifted to St Andrews in my constituency – and I could argue the case – but there are ways and means of trying to get out and about.

12) How would you sell your constituency to a tourist?

You've got St Andrews, an amazing place to visit – golf courses, a university, beautiful town, fishing villages. The medieval village in Falkland. The rolling countryside. I don’t need to sell my constituency, my constituency sells itself. All that apart, you've got an amazing food and drink industry – farm shops, whiskey distilleries, and breweries.

13) Can you explain what has happened to the SNP?

It's like the old saying – it took 20 years to become an overnight success. To be fair, the SNP has been working hard for years. Having been a member since 1993, I can remember the good times and the not so good times. I can sympathise with folk from other political parties because I am well used to losing elections. We're worked hard – on winning trust to the straightforward stuff, chapping doors and speaking to people.

If you look at 2007, when the SNP first came in, people thought the SNP had done an all right job. 'No bad,' as (BBC Scotland's Political Editor) Brian Taylor put it. Which was praise indeed. So we were building on very firm foundations there.

When you got to the referendum, many people I've spoken to say last summer was a transformative period in their political lives. People who didn’t really vote before, or weren't that interested, or turned up and voted Labour because everybody else did. Politics changed. The SNP represents the aspirations of a lot of people who wanted independence and didn't get it, so let's have a very strong distinctive voice for Scotland in Westminster.

In fairness, you also had 'no' voters who still vote 'no' - and that's their right - who were voting SNP because things have changed for them and they want a distinctly Scottish voice. The SNP had the benefit of capturing the public mood and where it was. Not all of it, but the public mood nevertheless.

When in London, I've heard people call us a new insurgent force: but we've been in power for about eight years. We're a well-known quantity. From firm foundations, but it definitely had something to build on.

14) Which Scottish stereotypes wind you up?

(HuffPost: There was the myth Irn-Bru had been brought to Westminster for The 56 ...). Which was not true. I think every country in the world has to live with its stereotypes, the Scots aren’t different. (HuffPost: That everything's deep fried?) So we get told. Water off a duck's back. I've worked in Tbilisi and in Brussels – people pick up on stereotypes as a form of identity to pick you out from a crowd.

15) How could politics be improved?

Trying to make it relevant to folk. People say 'I'm not a politician' but everyone is impacted by politics. It’s our job to be relevant. The distance that some people see between themselves and politicians is something I would really like to change, and make sure people's voices are heard. Fair play to the Speaker who has just announced the education centre.

But we should be making it relevant from school age. That whole debate about 16-year-olds voting – it’s important because people engage with the political process earlier. If they engage earlier they're more likely to continue engaging with it. People talk about the quality of politicians – which is legitimate – but you want to draw from the widest pool possible.