NEIL Findlay is not a man given to understatement. 

Scotland’s public services? “In an absolutely fucking dreadful state”. The ascendency of a socialist Labour leader? “What I’d dreamed of all my political life”. His feelings when the wheels came off the Jeremy Corbyn project? “Abject despair”. The general state of Scottish politics? “Woeful”.

But for a man who deals routinely in superlatives while he’s speaking, the former Labour MSP also expresses an apparently genuine desire to find common ground with his opponents – including bridging the constitutional divide he argues is currently paralysing Scotland.

All these things are discussed in his newly published diaries Hope and Despair, which span from 2017 to 2021 – taking in everything from the rise and fall of Corbyn to the devastation of the Covid pandemic and the Brexit wars which felled Theresa May.

The book promises to lift the lid on the “murky world” of Scottish politics. According to the former Labour MSP – who was at the top of the tree under the doomed leadership of Richard Leonard – much has to change.

Scottish Parliament is 'soul-destroying' 

He is scathing about the quality of the Scottish Parliament, blaming “all-powerful” party whips for a quality of debate and rigour he suggests is worse than in Westminster. The “awkward squad” – a club of which he is a proud member – are silenced by their party leaders.

The quality of debate is “soul-destroying”. The sudden reinvention of former minister Fergus Ewing as a backbench firebrand illustrates the paucity of independent minds in the Scottish Parliament, he says.

“The state of Scottish politics right now is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” says Findlay.

“It’s pretty woeful. The parliament for me is the most disappointing thing. The biggest thing that’s missing from the parliament is the lack of independent voices who are willing to speak out on big issues – or any issues.

“It’s just soul-destroying to watch people and I watch them time and time again. The whips are all-powerful in the Scottish Parliament, far more powerful and far more rigid than in the Westminster parliament.

“If you look at Westminster, no matter who the leader is, you will always have an awkward squad, you’ll always have the Tony Benns, the Jeremy Corbyns – when he was on the backbenches.

“In the Tory party some of these mad right-wingers. But they actually perform a role – they’re willing to challenge their own government, they’re willing to hold them to account and they’re willing to say when they think things are going in the wrong direction, they’re willing to speak up and say it.

“There’s almost a complete absence of that in the Scottish Parliament – such to the point that Fergus Ewing, who sat and took the ministerial shilling for a dozen years is suddenly lauded as some sort of heroic maverick backbencher and you think, Jesus.

“If that’s the barometer of where we are then it does show where the absence is of those people who are willing to stand up and say, stop this is wrong, this is not right or equally, advocate for something that is not particularly popular but because they believe in it.”

Why it was time to walk away

Findlay retired as an MSP at the 2021 Holyrood elections. There were many reasons he felt it was time to pack it in, he says.

His wife Fiona was diagnosed with cancer towards the end of his first term as an MSP, which triggered in him the “absolute cliché” of re-evaluating what he wanted from life.

She has since recovered but a few years after her diagnosis Findlay found himself fighting a brutal civil war within Labour as politicians in the London and Edinburgh parliaments turned against the left-wing leadership.  

He is venomous about Leonard’s opponents in Scottish Labour, accusing them of engaging in the “most horrible tactics” to undermine the former leader.

“I just thought life’s too short for this,” he said. “This is not what I came into this for.”

Findlay would probably characterise himself as a fairly straightforward sort of person. He has particular contempt for those in his party who he said would brief the media and leak incessantly in what was ultimately a successful effort to defenestrate Leonard.

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“There were times during that period when the parliamentary group couldn’t have a private meeting without it being relayed almost in real-time to the media standing outside,” said Findlay.

“I said it often: ‘Why bother wasting time in texting and emailing the media, why don’t we just invite them inside because it would save a bit of time with the leaks?’

“And I challenged people, I challenged [Anas] Sarwar, I challenged Jackie Baillie and others regularly and I knew who was doing it and I knew some of the people round about them who were doing it.”

Findlay insists that, on the whole, he enjoyed being an MSP – but an air of deep disillusionment hangs over his reflections on his time at Holyrood.

He said: “I was lucky that I got elected to parliament, very lucky and I had 10 years and it was the experience of a lifetime but I just thought, nah there’s more to life than going to Labour group meetings every week and hearing the latest round of moans and everything getting leaked to the press and all the work and hard graft that people were doing, honest, decent people being undermined by people who were supposed to be on their own side and I just thought, stuff this, this is not for me anymore.

“And if that sounds a bit kind of weak – it was not done in a hurry, we had tried very much to convince the people who were leading the party at that time to take the bastards on but they didn’t do it in as robust a way as I had hoped.”

A fatal lack of ruthlessness

While Findlay retains a fondness and admiration for Corbyn – “the nicest man you’ll ever meet” – and Leonard, he faults them both for lacking the “ruthless” nature of their more successful opponents.

“The Machiavellian nature of politics is not what they do,” he said.

“They tried to appease people, try and bring them onside, try and bring them in the pen and they couldn’t wait to not stab them in the back but stab them straight in the front and that was the reality of it.”

Would he ever back independence

Scotland’s constitutional stalemate also played a role in Findlay quitting the Edinburgh parliament. He remains a Unionist – though he insists it is not a “knee-jerk” position and continues to advocate for the greatest amount of devolution while preserving the Union.

Could anything tempt Findlay, who defied Leonard in abstaining on a vote in 2019 on whether Scotland should have another independence referendum, over to Yes?

He said: “It's not knee-jerk, I am opposed to independence. I am in favour of what works best. And if it looks as though that was the best deal for Scotland, I would support it.

“At the moment, I do not think that would be the best deal for Scotland, I’d have to be convinced of that but I do think that devolving all powers where it makes sense and it is to our advantage to do so, I would support that but that would still leave some powers left at the centre to be shared and co-operated on because that just makes sense for me.”

He added: “I think if we put that to the Scottish people there would be an overwhelming majority for that change. Ultimately, if that meant that people said, ‘Actually that was quite good so maybe we should go the whole hog’. So be it, if that’s what people say in the long run, so be it.”

Findlay appears pessimistic about Sarwar’s chances of presenting voters with a “credible” constitutional position and the state-educated former bricklayer has a particular distaste for the Hutchesons’ Grammar old boys currently running both Scottish Labour and the SNP.

“The two of them were schooled in the same place and if you’re schooled in the same place and if you’re schooled in places like that, I think they serve self-confidence for school dinners.”

On Labour’s constitutional position, he brands those who would tie the party to a “hardline Unionist” position “utterly delusional”.

“At the moment, we have a stalemate in Scottish politics that suits the SNP and it suits the Tories because to be in that constitutional position of a polarised debate and a Labour floundering in the middle like it has been for 15 years with no policy whatsoever of any credibility despite many of us, trying, persuading, doing lots of research, putting forward policy papers and all the rest of it – completely ignored.”

Findlay says the SNP benefit from the current set-up because the limits of devolution present them with ready-made “excuses” for policy failures, such as the drug deaths crisis.

“The absence of some powers being devolved gave the Scottish Government a ready-made excuse to say, ‘Aw, the reason we can't deal with the drug deaths crisis is because we’ve not got the powers’.

“Now everybody knows that’s utter bollocks because England and Wales have the same drugs policy and yet they have nowhere near the crisis we have.”

Unimpressed with Starmer

And Starmer’s lurch to the right comes under fire as well, with Findlay saying what the Labour leader thinks is a “clever ruse” to win over Tory voters “will come undone”.

“I don’t think what he’s doing is particularly clever and he’s gaining because the Tories are bad, not because he’s good.”

Explicating the problems facing Scottish Labour, Findlay says the key thing the party needs to address – but are failing to – is why so many former supporters now back the SNP.

“Every time we’ve had this discussion after another election defeat, the opinion polls told us that the people most likely to come back to Labour were working-class voters who were previously Labour and now vote SNP,” he says.

How to be an optimist in bleak times

Speaking with Findlay, one gets the impression his appraisal of the current state of affairs in Scotland, the UK, the world, lands more firmly on the “despair” part of his book’s title.

But he insists he is an optimist. “My mantra is that if you’re a socialist, you’re an optimist,” he says. “You believe that things can be better.”

How can you be an optimist when you look at the state of more or less everything, I ask.

“My basis for my optimism is I have a genuine belief that people power and working people are the folk who drive political change.

“I don’t believe that we would have had, we wouldn’t have had trade unions, we wouldn’t have had the advances in universal education, universal health service, pensions.

“These types of things that are the civilising force in our society, things that are the making of a civilised society – they were never handed down by political largess – things like council housing – they weren’t handed down by somebody in high office or high power.

“They were won by working people agitating and organising and building movements that forced political leaders to bring about that change.

“That’s my optimism, that there’s goodness in people and that will prevail over all the absolute shite that we see at the moment.”