The former Scottish Labour leader talks Brexit, IndyRef2, and her proudest moment in parliament so far
In this month’s issue of DIVA magazine, we talk to Scottish Labour politician Kezia Dugdale about life after the jungle. Here, in a divamag.co.uk exclusive, she tells us how her views on Scottish independence have changed, and why she thinks there should be a second ratifying referendum on Brexit.
DIVA: You resigned as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in August 2017. What was the driving force behind that decision?
Kezia Dugdale: It wasn’t in my view a weakness to resign; it was an act of strength. Very few people get to pick the moment that they go, and the terms on which they go, and that was really important to me that I had those. It was a mixture of the personal and political. Ok, I was only leader for two years – by the way, that’s quite a long time in Scottish Labour terms [laughs] – but within that time, I did four national elections and one referendum, and that is an almighty strain on your life. I lost my best friend to Motor Neurone Disease last year, and he taught me the importance of living life to the max because it’s short. That sounds like such a cliche but genuinely, watching someone deteriorate before your eyes and die within two years of a terminal diagnosis taught me a hell of a lot about what really matters and what’s really important. I’m very aware now, at age 36, that I want to be able to live life and live it really well.
Like many, my views on Scottish independence have changed over time. Have yours?
There’s no doubt in my mind that if there was another referendum tomorrow I would vote no because I still think the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom are worth fighting for and are to Scotland’s benefit. When I get into a debate with people who are passionate Yes supporters, I always challenge them to prove to me how someone who is poor in Scotland will be better off as a consequence of independence. They rarely can. That doesn’t mean that my position isn’t more nuanced than it has been in the past, but there’s no scope for nuance in Scottish politics. There’s no scope for nuance on Brexit. When you have referendums, you force binary choices and primary colour decisions. The reality is these are big, complex issues that don’t fall neatly into these categories for everyone. But you have to pick a side and my side in an independence referendum would be no.
It’s impossible to predict, I know, but how do you see Brexit impacting Scotland?
It’s hard to think about the constitutional question in Scotland at the moment without thinking about Brexit and what will happen there. If by some means the United Kingdom can stay within the single market and the customs union, the threat of a second independence referendum diminishes quite considerably. If we get hard Brexit, and by hard Brexit we mean leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, suddenly having trade barriers with Europe that Scotland has very little say over, then you’ll see support for a second independence referendum rise quite considerably again. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people will say yes next time; it means they might want the opportunity to revisit the question. It all comes down to Brexit and personally, my political priority – and this isn’t hugely popular – is to try and stop Brexit. I haven’t heard one single person say that Brexit will mean more employment rights, higher wages, better environmental standards, better job security. Nobody is arguing that. It can only mean a bad thing. So why, as a Labour politician, would I accept that? I’m part of a group of people within the Labour Party who are trying to make these arguments at every opportunity. There is nothing inevitable about this. I personally believe, and again, this isn’t Labour policy – not yet, at least, but I will argue for it to be – that there should be a second ratifying referendum on Brexit. The people should be presented with the deal and get the opportunity to ratify or reject it. The stakes are so high and the choice is so stark that it’s worth going back to people and saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen – is this what you want?’
You’ve had an impressive career so far, but what has been your proudest moment as a politician?
My proudest moment as a parliamentarian was undoubtedly equal marriage. Watching that and having a vote on that in the Scottish Parliament… that’s going to be really hard to beat, as a moment in time. Aside from that, on a personal level, the response I got to a speech I gave about the rape clause. That was a big moment for me because I didn’t really realise what I was doing until I had done it, and to come back to my office and find out that the video, a day later, had been watched hundreds of thousands of times was quite startling. It’s not very often that happens from a debate in the Scottish Parliament, let me tell you!
You won an award for that speech as well, didn’t you?
I did. Just before I went into the jungle, I won the Donald Dewar Debater of the Year award, which I hope goes some way to prove that I am serious about being a serious politician. It’s really important when women, and young women, [are recognised]. How often do women win awards for debating? There are lots of prominent female politicians who are great at what they do but rarely for the art of making an argument. So in that sense it’s important. You don’t do this job for trophies and awards, but when you get them, it’s nice, and to be able to tell my constituents my peers think I’m good at what I do has got a value. It shouldn’t be overplayed but there’s a place for it.
The theme of our issue this month is activism. What would your advice be for our readers on being the change they want to see?
I meet lots of young people, often who are still at school. I really like going into schools and taking a modern studies class or whatever the English equivalent would be, and talking to young people about their hopes and ambitions for the future. Sometimes somebody will say, ‘I want to be a politician, how do I do that?’ or ‘How do I get to do what you do?’ and my advice is always ‘Stay away from political parties!’ [laughs]. That is probably the antithesis of what I should say to you, but it is my advice. Pick a cause first and get active in that cause, that campaign, that end. Whether it’s an Amnesty International campaign or a local community campaign to improve the quality of a local park, fine-tune your skills and learn your politics through an issue you really care about.
Read about Kezia’s experience on I’m A Celeb and her thoughts on LGBT visibility in the March issue of DIVA.
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