Associate Profile Series: Stephen Gethins

GPG delivers specialist technical advice through a core group of retained Associates, who are former Ministers, Members of Parliament, senior civil servants/parliamentary staff and academics. We have built long-lasting relationships with Associates and we are launching this profile series in interview form to highlight the expertise and work from these high-level professionals that we get to work with on a daily basis. Stephen Gethins is a former Member of Parliament who served as MP for North East Fife from 2015 to 2019 . He previously served as the SNP’s Europe spokesperson from May 2015, after which he was appointed the SNP Foreign Affairs and Europe spokesperson.

Why did you decide to work in politics?  

I think we should all aspire to leave the world in a better condition than we found it. We all have varying degrees of success in that endeavour. For all its faults and imperfections, I found that politics is the best way to make that kind of contribution. At its best we can help those less fortunate than ourselves, tackle injustice and contribute to building a better future for future generations.

Give us a short overview of what you consider to have been a key moment in your career. What brought you where you are today? 

A few spring to mind. The first was being part of the team that helped deliver an election victory for my party, the SNP, in 2007. The party had never won an election before and some though it never would. Winning that first time was the hardest campaign I ever fought and required imagination in reaching out to voters who had never voted for the party before.  That win changed Scotland forever and once again showed that anything is possible.

During my time at Westminster I found that working with friends and colleagues in other parties was both rewarding and the way to make a difference. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee I was part of a team of MPs from across the political divide. We could only be effective by leaving our party allegiances at the door and focusing on the issues at hand such as the Rohingya crisis, the conflict in Syria and the UK’s relationship with the USA, China and Russia among others.

In the Chamber I was part of the cross-party efforts to stop a No Deal Brexit. By careful negotiation and listening to one another a number of us came together and managed to get cross party legislation passed. That was a time when parliamentarians needed to work together and compromise. I remain friends with many of those I worked with even though we disagree on some big political issues.

Finally the most important impact you can often have is at a local level. The connection between elected officials and the communities they serve is a fundamental building block of democracy. It was good to see the difference that you could make to individuals and their families. I was lucky to have an outstanding team in the constituency and we were able to help get family members to safety from areas affected by conflict, get street lighting put in where a number of elderly residents had fallen and raise funds for a new outdoor pool. That work was wide and very varied but incredibly rewarding.

What one thing about working in politics do you wish was different? 

I wish we could agree to disagree better. As the saying goes we have two ears and one mouth so we listen more than we should speak.

Which aspects of GPG’s projects and values encouraged you to join the organisation? 

Working with friends and colleagues in political life around the world has always been fascinating for me. Meeting those involved in politics be they elected officials, activists and citizens gives you an insight into another community that nothing else provides. I like the way at GPG I can continue to work with partners internationally and we can learn from one another in tackling important issues.

What work have you done with GPG, and which particular project with GPG stuck with you the most?

I have been fortunate to have worked with some excellent colleagues at GPG including those in Iraq and Lebanon and enjoyed learning from them as well as practitioners in those countries. The work in Iraq was focused on young people. That was incredibly rewarding not least in a country that is one of the youngest in the world. It is incredibly important that young people, particularly in Iraq, feel included in the political process if one is to build sustainable institutions.

I was also struck by the project on male allies and the role that we have to play in fostering equality and tackling discrimination. I really felt like I learned a lot and made me think about my own approach to politics and work in my own country as well as being able to interact with colleagues in Lebanon.

What future do you envisage for parliaments across the world after the pandemic? 

The pandemic has brought local communities closer together and at the same time underlined the need for global partnerships. Parliaments will have a pivotal role to play in providing a voice to those local communities whilst building ever closer links to international partners in every corner of the globe.

Share your thoughts on either a recent event or news story that caught your attention, or one which had a particular influence on you or your career. 

For me the biggest story anywhere is that of Climate Change. Given that the future of our shared planet is at stake there is no bigger issue and it should be a priority for politicians everywhere. It requires action at a community and a global level. The COP26 talks in Glasgow later this year will matter to all of us. We need world leaders to be able to come together and find common ground. However, it is an area where world leaders and our local communities must act together. Politics is at its best when it matters locally. That means that any action needs to be translated into local action. We all have a responsibility to act in our local communities. Giving people ownership over local sustainability will be the only way to deliver international targets. It is a great illustration that we are all affected and can influence politics. We all have responsibilities as well as rights as citizens.

Which books, articles, podcasts, shows or other would you recommend anyone working in politics should read/listen to/watch? 

There are almost too many too choose! In politics it is so important to understand the population you seek to serve. Too often we all fall into the trap of simply listening to our friends, colleagues and those who agree with us as being representative of the wider world. Their views are important but data matters. One of the first political books I read was Philip Gould’s book the Unfinished Revolution about how the Labour Party in the UK re-built and won after several defeats. That was fascinating.

In terms of politics in Scotland, where I live, I like to keep up with a range of sources, not least the excellent work by John Curtice at What Scotland Thinks and insights of the Centre on Constitutional Change. I also think UK in a Changing Europe did some fantastic work in the aftermath of the Brexit Referendum to help us understand the implications of the decision and each other’s perspectives.

The latter is especially important. I find that it is difficult to communicate in politics without having a good grasp of why those who disagree with you hold the opinions they do. Disagreement is fine but it is important to try and understand one another.

I also find parliamentary Committee Reports from all of the UK’s parliaments and assemblies incredibly valuable. As a Committee member you are expected to leave your politics at the door and work as a cross party team. You also have access to a range of external experts as well as a first-rate team parliamentary experts and clerks. I have found these reports a concise and insightful entry point when considering a range of issues.

Finally, what is politics if not to be idealistic and I still enjoy watching the West Wing, dated as it may be. It is politics as we want it to be even if the highly enjoyable comedy the Thick of It represents politics as it too often is.