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Mairi McAllan: the SNP’s reluctant firebrand

The 31-year-old Scottish MSP has been tipped as a future first minister – but does she even want power?

By Chris Deerin

Mairi McAllan is a woman of intriguing contrasts. At just 31, having only been a Member of the Scottish Parliament since 2021, she has one of the toughest and most expansive jobs in the SNP government, as the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy. Despite this stellar ascent, she describes herself as “a reluctant politician”. Friends confirm this, saying she almost had to be press-ganged into standing by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, for whom she was a special adviser.

McAllan trained in the cut-throat world of corporate law, but also helped set up RebLaw Scotland in 2017, a movement that originated in the US with the aim of putting social justice at the heart of the legal system. And for someone working on the front line of Scotland’s particularly divided political culture, she carries herself a little differently to most, being softly spoken and emanating a priestly self-possession. “I’m quite quiet – I think empathy is the most important thing you can possibly have as a politician,” she says. In a party known for its youthful (and not so youthful) firebrands, this further sets her apart.

McAllan grew up in urban Scotland but now lives on a hill farm, where she gets stuck into the lambing and calving. She has also recently acquired some chickens. Has she given them names? “They’re all called Isa,” she tells me, “because the breed is ISA Brown. I didn’t want to get too attached just in case there’s a little fox that shows itself.”

There is a much more important matter that must be attended to, though. McAllan and her husband Iain, who have been together since school, are expecting their first child at the end of July, and she expects to return from maternity leave next March. Given she was promoted to her new post only in February this year, she doesn’t have much time to put her stamp on it before the looming break.

She is, therefore, a woman in a hurry. Indeed, she arrives at her office late for our interview, apologising for “huffing and puffing” after having to rush down to an unexpected vote in the Holyrood chamber. What does she make of the clash between her professional ambitions and current personal circumstances? Her brow furrows. “I feel quite a lot of responsibility. In one way, you want to be ‘yeah, we can do this’. Nobody should ever assume women can’t have a top position in whatever organisation and have a baby, but on the other side you shouldn’t airbrush the fact that it is difficult. Women are struggling with it all over the country. So, it’s a balance. Pregnancy definitely does drain your energy ever so slightly, and I’ve obviously been trying to get up to speed with a new and enlarged portfolio at the same time.”

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She might have been forgiven for having mixed feelings when Humza Yousaf offered her the job. “I know, but how could I complain that he gave the pregnant lady more work as opposed to what might have happened in previous decades where you were written off?”

To that end, McAllan is doing what she can while she can – she needs to, as the economy has long been seen as a weak spot for the SNP, and there is broad scepticism that the government will meet its ambitious net zero targets. She says her legal training is informing her approach to the economic aspect of her brief, and the government’s attempts to fix its poor relationship with the business community. “I have probably had one of the hardest-line commercial trainings that you could get. The rigour, attention to detail and commerciality that is required to become a corporate lawyer – I will work to bring that into this position. As a corporate solicitor you were essentially an extension of your business clients’ job or project, and it was your job to navigate the law, help them get it over the line. So as part of the reset with government I see that as part of my role and I will determinedly pursue it.”

She has inherited “a cluttered landscape” on economic policy. “One of the principle things I want to achieve is a decluttering, a determined focus on the actions that are going to drive the greatest results, and stripping out prose and theory and strategy and just [having] a clear focus on actions that we can take forward and seek to deliver.” She has committed to tackling inclusivity in the labour market, bringing more women and those on long-term sickness benefits into the workplace. “That is untapped potential as far as I’m concerned, working with employers and those who are furthest from the labour market to see what’s preventing you from coming back in.”

Her two other priorities are predictable, but no less important: supporting high-value sectors such as financial services, food and drink, advanced manufacturing, and life sciences, while also making the most of the energy transition.

On net zero, McAllan criticises the “fetishising” of targets. They have their place and help spur government into action, she says, “but on the other hand it underplays the magnitude of what’s actually required, which is total transformation of the way we live our lives and doing it with the speed that the emergency requires – that’s really, really challenging, especially when it’s so expensive. We should be flexible with something as new and challenging as the climate emergency. We have to learn as we go along.”

Among the many contrasts that seem to define McAllan, there is one she has yet to embrace, and will undoubtedly be wary of, but it’s one I think she’ll have to grasp if she is to become a dominant national figure. Hand-selected by the Sturgeonites, put into ministerial office as soon as she was elected and quickly promoted into high office, she is tipped as their future champion for SNP leader. She is fiercely loyal to the former first minister, and shares her social justice instincts.

But the Sturgeon years are firmly over, becoming ever more controversial, and the populace seems to have grown tired of an approach that often seemed to favour tax and spend and fiddling around with civil liberties while neglecting the major public services. Yousaf has struggled as a self-declared continuity FM. Does McAllan have what it takes to move her party and movement on, to recalibrate and modernise its offer to a weary electorate moving into the mid-century? Is she willing to shuck off enough of the Sturgeon legacy?

From our conversation, she’s not there yet. Despite the SNP’s decline in the polls, and the expectation that it will lose a significant number of seats in both the forthcoming general election and the Holyrood vote that follows in 2026, she is bullish about the future. “I have the privilege of representing the SNP when independence is round the corner, and I truly believe that,” she says. “Ten years on from the independence referendum, half the population is supporting it outwith a campaign. It’s going happen. That comparison I make between law and politics – things move slowly with law, with politics they can seem like they’re not changing until they do, and then it happens really quickly. I expect that’s what will happen with independence.”

To me, this risks sounding a little jejune. By 2026 the SNP will have been in power for nearly two decades, and, as with any party, will deserve and probably need a reasonably long spell in opposition. But then, who knows? McAllan argues that, despite the many issues impacting negatively on voters’ lives, “what’s different is that people don’t see the UK as being the means to rescue them. I think there’s a portion of people my age, slightly older, certainly younger, who have no emotional connection whatsoever to the UK. For my whole adult life, the UK has been an illegal war, 14 years of austerity tearing apart the very fabric of our society, Brexit pursued by scapegoating migrants and done during a pandemic, and a series of clowns, frankly, in Westminster.” Labour is scarcely any improvement, she insists. “It just feels utterly remote to so many people of my generation and those that will come after me. I think the combination of those things means that this genie has not gone back in the bottle. The UK’s fraying. Look at Northern Ireland, look at Wales, it’s a failed model and I think we’ll all be better off on the other side.”

Many in politics foresee a future SNP leadership contest – probably following a loss of power at Holyrood – in which McAllan will stand against Kate Forbes. Both are young, clever women, and young mothers, but have significantly different policy instincts. It could make for quite the battle. When I put this possibility to her, the reluctant politician resurfaces. “I’ve watched that job [first minister] done really closely, and in good times and bad times, and having seen what happened to someone I cared very deeply about, it’s something to think very, very carefully about before taking on. I do sometimes worry that I’m too much of a pragmatist to really be a politician. I want to think very carefully about what I want to say and about my position before I have to voice that, but politics also demands that you’re really quick. Sometimes I have to work at being more political, more willing to speak, not flippantly, but without very careful consideration of all the issues.”

She also worries about the state of Scottish politics, which she says is “utterly toxic”. “I’m conscious that people can make very sexualised comments about female politicians, and I get that a lot, where either you look good and you ought not to be listened to or you look terrible and you ought not to be listened to. That is something that women have to face that others don’t. I’m conscious of it, but I try very hard not to let it affect me because at the end of the day it is of no consequence unless I allow it to be.”

She allows her thoughts to return to her farm in the Clydesdale countryside and the contrasts ever-present in her existence. “I would not swap it for the world. There’s something about the lifestyle that I have now, leaving Edinburgh and going back to your little patch of hillside, that is blissful.”

[See also: JK Rowling is right to scorn Scotland’s new Hate Crime Act]

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