Pauline McNeill first sat as a Labour MSP when the Scottish parliament reconvened in 1999. Whilst she has left and re-entered frontline politics since then, her engagement with international affairs has remained constant. CABLE’s Lindsay Hastings met her at the Scottish parliament to speak about Scotland’s international engagement, the Middle East, Trident, and music
Q: Why did you get into politics, Pauline?
I’ve been driven by the need to change things since I was a student. I was a graphics student and became Student President looking at changes in the college. I then became a student activist, joined Labour students, and then became President of the National Union of Students in the 1980s. I led many student demonstrations - about student financial hardship, but also about international issues.
That’s probably where I got my appetite for politics. As a student, I’d sit around with friends talking about what it would be like if we could do what we wanted to do in government. I spent long hours talking about social housing policy, poverty, what we would change. I think it gave me, and others in my generation, a distinct advantage.
I didn’t plan to get into politics: it really just happened. I sat on the campaign for the Scottish Assembly as it was called at the time, when the Labour party weren’t affiliated. I’m a devolutionist at heart - and still am. I believe in self-governance of Scotland within the United Kingdom and I haven’t changed my view. I fought hard to change the Labour Party policy on this issue during the nineties until, in 1997, we had the ‘yes’ vote to a Scottish parliament. Tony Blair - who gets no credit for this - literally brought about this parliament in the first year of a Labour government. It’s incredible.
“I’m absolutely sure we brought feminist politics to the Labour group and to the parliament, pushing on issues such as domestic violence which ultimately shaped Scottish government policy.”
In the years I’ve spent working in parliament, I’d say we’ve broadly achieved the changes I spoke about with my Labour peers as a student. There were a lot of Labour women in the first parliament, people like Margaret Curran and Johann Lamont. I’m absolutely sure we brought feminist politics to the Labour group and to the parliament, pushing on issues such as domestic violence which ultimately shaped Scottish government policy.
I came from being active in those circles and taking these ideas forward. I think the student movement is a really good place to start and to build your ideas.
Q: You have a strong interest in Middle East politics. Why?
I started to get curious about what was going on in the Middle East some time ago. I was shocked to learn the story of Palestine; how an entire people could be without justice. I realised that many people were ill-informed about what happened when the state of Israel was created, and of the six million Palestinians who were displaced.
I also knew a lot of international students. For example, Iraqi students who, during the days of Saddam Hussein, were involved in protecting other Iraqi students from the Ba’athists who would go after these students, even raid their homes, if they weren’t toeing the party line when they came here to study. It made me realise it’s a big world, and that what’s happening far away can have an impact on us here.
Working in aid of the Palestinians has taken me everywhere. I met President Assad just before the Syrian Revolution. I also went to Lebanon just before the 2006 war and met with the Prime Minister of Lebanon. Other world leaders my work has taken me to meet include the Emir of Qatar. I met Mohamed Morsi, who is still in prison, having been overthrown as Egyptian President by the military in 2013.
“The 2003 Iraq War was a watershed in my politics and in my understanding of the Middle East. I opposed the invasion of Iraq and stood up against my own party on it.”
The 2003 Iraq War was a watershed in my politics and in my understanding of the Middle East. I opposed the invasion of Iraq and stood up against my own party on it. I actually believe that even if the United Nations had supported the invasion, I still wouldn’t have supported the invasion. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see what has happened to the region since then. There are many factors that contributed to the birth and rise of Islamic State but there is no doubt in my mind that the 2003 war gave way to the birth of the Islamic State.
Q: What kinds of experiences have you had in the Middle East?
I was part of the British mission to observe the Palestinian elections in 2006. The historic second election. Even more historic, and quite surprisingly, it was Hamas who swept the board. That sent shock waves round the country. I remember as the result was unfolding, I was getting phone calls from all kinds of people who knew I had been out there.
Shortly after that, I joined a delegation on a boat from Larnaca to break the siege in Gaza. It was a small boat and we were right next to the captain when the Israelis were telling him he had to turn around. We refused to do so, stating that we were a humanitarian trip, and we were eventually let through. The greeting we got in Gaza was incredible. It seemed as though every person in the Gaza Strip had come out to meet us. I had been there once before - but the conditions were much worse on this trip.
Shortly after that, I decided to take two humanitarian convoys to Gaza through the Egyptian side. It took me months to put it all together. We had to wait at the Rafah border for two weeks before we got through into Gaza with two trucks of medical aid and a few doctors. I was summoned to meet with the Minister of Defence, and with Ismail Haniyeh himself, while I was there.
When we talked, I faced them up on a few big issues. For example, I said the Hamas Charter is something that gives people cause for concern and needed to be changed. What I learned about talking to people at that level is that whilst I often didn’t agree with them on key issues, I did understand where they were coming from.
I asked if I could go down one of the Palestinians’ smuggling tunnels - just so that I could see for myself what it was like. I believe I’m the first elected European politician to do so. They were very conservative and at first they refused to let me to go down because I was a woman.
But they allowed me down. You’re basically hung on a rope down into the tunnel. You can stand up when you get to the bottom. In the tunnel I was in, you could walk under the border and into Egypt. The tunnels are all different shapes and sizes - they even take cars down there. Well, there was a power cut when I was down and I was fighting with the dark, fumbling around. But I’ve always taken the view that you have to see these things for yourself. You can’t be frightened to go. You can’t talk about it properly if you haven’t seen it for yourself.
“Israel has grabbed land and has no interest in sitting down and talking with anyone - the Americans or otherwise.”
I’ve also been to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon among others. Particularly Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon which have grown in size dramatically as the situation in Syria has developed. The conditions in these camps are really dangerous but it’s unbelievable the strength of spirit which exists there. When we went, we sat around singing with people. Despite the appalling conditions and the situation they are in, they continue to have aspirations for their futures.
There are millions of refugees displaced around the world and it’s one of the big issues for the Palestinian leadership. Their people were kicked out of their homelands and the leadership feels that it can’t let them down. I’ve met people who have been displaced several times in their lives because of different conflicts. These people want to go back to their family homes and they’re surely entitled to do that.
The refugee question will not go away and Israel’s belligerence is one of the greatest barriers to solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel has grabbed land and has no interest in sitting down and talking with anyone - the Americans or otherwise. They consistently walk away from the table and blame the Palestinians.
Q: How active is the Scottish parliament on this issue?
I think the Scottish government has a reasonable record. Any time there has been a crisis - like the crisis in Gaza - they’ve offered to take aid. They’ve said all of the right things and I think as Labour has now said under Jeremy Corbyn - and as has the SNP conference recently discussed - they would recognise a Palestinian state. Something really important coming up is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, on the second of November. It’s such an important date and it must be marked here in Scotland. I’m really hoping that there’ll will be a debate in the Scottish parliament on it.
“The SNP recently invited me to their fringe meeting on Palestine and I was delighted to take part – I think I’m the only MSP to be invited to a fringe meeting of another party.”
Scotland’s parties have worked together on the Palestinian question. We’ve also hosted the Palestinian Ambassador who came up from London to keep us up to date with all the political machinations. The SNP recently invited me to their fringe meeting on Palestine and I was delighted to take part – I think I’m the only MSP to be invited to a fringe meeting of another party.
I work very closely with all political parties in parliament; certainly with the SNP and the Greens. We had a recent meeting of MPs and MSPs - Tommy Shepherd; Anas Anwar; Ross Greer; James Dornan; Sandra White - to discuss the Palestinian question and to commit to working together on this issue going forward. We’re different parties but there’s nothing between us on this issue.
Q: Scotland has developed its international activity throughout the devolution period. Could it be doing more?
I think it’s really important to recognise the devolution settlement contained in the Scotland Act. The Scottish parliament has the right to talk about non-devolved areas. Of course, this include international affairs. The Scottish parliament should be discussing such issues more often. We have some cross-party groups but there probably is a need to have more, perhaps one on the Middle-East and North Africa.
There are various conflicts around the world that we are involved in, to some extent. Yemen, for example. I went to the first Yemeni conference and addressed around three million people through an online messaging app to convey the message that British politicians care about what is happening in Yemen. There are people working hard to expose the UK government’s involvement with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Of course, decisions that pertain to Yemen are made at Westminster so it places more importance on what MP’s are doing down there because they have the ability to influence decisions.
“Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and is being bombed by coalition forces to which English and Scottish companies are supplying arms. It’s one of the biggest scandals of current times. This parliament should be discussing it.”
However, it’s hard to cut through it given that we have a UK government that’s intent on defending its interests and relationship with Saudi Arabia. Even in the last year, there has been more exposure of the role of Saudi Arabia as a destabilising force in the world, and more people are speaking out about it. Just in the last few weeks, Bill Kidd [SNP MSP] chaired a meeting on Yemen and we discussed, again, Saudi influence across the world and the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and is being bombed by coalition forces to which English and Scottish companies are supplying arms. It’s one of the biggest scandals of current times. This parliament should be discussing it.
Q: Trident is always a big issue in Scotland, Pauline. Where do you stand on it? And do you think it’s clear where Labour stands?
I’m opposed to Trident - and have been since I was a student. I’m not technically a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because I just haven’t got round to renewing my membership. But I actually sang at a CND meeting. I had to learn Bob Dylan’s, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in ten minutes!
I realise there are practical issues with dismantling Trident. But I think, particularly now, we need to work faster to rid the world of nuclear weapons. We should recognise that even under the last Labour government, there was a significant reduction in British nuclear warheads. We now live in a world where we’re just getting to grips with the craziness of the US presidency and the threat from North Korea and there are more nuclear weapons in the world. And it doesn’t help that countries such as Israel have nuclear weapons but don’t acknowledge them or allow them to be inspected.
Much more has to be done internationally. The whole idea behind the NPT [the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] is that everyone agrees that there needs to be a reduction in nuclear weapons around the world. A blind eye cannot be turned to countries that have nuclear capacity. India and Pakistan square up to each other on a regular basis and both have nuclear weapons.
“There is a huge onus on the countries who have signed on to the principles of non-proliferation to be more consistent in response to countries who continue to develop nuclear weapons.”
Politicians need to have a more outward-looking vision on this issue, and what is going on in the rest of the world - because it informs everything. People on both sides of the fence with regard to nuclear weapons need to come together and acknowledge the danger we face right now. North Korea is not a trusted nation in any sense and it’s not even attempting to hide the fact that it’s testing nuclear weapons. There is a huge onus on the countries who have signed on to the principles of non-proliferation to be more consistent in response to countries who continue to develop nuclear weapons.
I don’t think Labour’s stance on Trident is confused under Jeremy Corbyn. You could maybe say that as a party, we have more than one view on it. I think the big issue for any Labour leader if you’re anti-Trident is that there has to be a plan on what follows. For example, there are many jobs associated with Trident, so there’d need to be a credible job strategy in place if it were to go.
Q: What do you like to do away from politics, Pauline?
My big passion is music. I started a band three years ago called Mc4. We practice at weekends and gig about once a month. I love it. I spend all my money on music. In fact, there is one other thing. I was down at a retirement do in London and the reason I went down is because I was promised a night of dancing afterwards. So, we went to a salsa club and I came straight back and signed up to salsa classes in Glasgow. I am now an advanced Cuban salsa dancer.
So every second Sunday, I go and do my Cuban salsa on Sauchiehall Street. And once a month, you’ll find me in Blackfriars playing with my band, doing Blondie and Adele. It’s quite funny because people often come into the pub and do a double-take when they see me on the stage.
I’ve always thought it’s good to do things outside of work; it keeps your brain balanced and keeps you out the bubble. I’ve got a studio at home in my garage and when we’re in there, there’s no politics, just band politics - which can be much worse!
Interview conducted Thursday 21st September at the Scottish parliament. Interviewer: Lyndsey Hastings. Lindsay is on Twitter at: @lchastings_
CABLE would like to thank Pauline McNeill’s office for its assistance.
Feature image: Pauline McNeill MSP standing in the Scottish parliament. © CABLE Magazine.