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The Annual Scottish Political Event
Stewart Stevenson MSP, Formerly Scottish Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change - Edinburgh meeting of 25 January 2011

Stewart Stevenson MSP with a copy of the Airdrie - Bathgate Rail Link book.d

Stewart Stevenson MSP with a copy of the "Airdrie - Bathgate Rail Link" book.

© John Yellowlees, 2011

In his term until resignation last month over the handling of the M8 becoming blocked by snow as Scottish minister for transport, infrastructure and climate change Stewart Stevenson MSP became the first member of the minority SNP administration at Holyrood to lose a vote - on Edinburgh trams, a subject which his uncle Sir Alexander Stewart Stevenson recalled had gone wrong once before, in 1929 when Edinburgh made a mess of converting its cable-drawn system to the Leith one of a third rail until Stewart Pilcher was appointed from Aberdeen to sort it out.

Now TIE chief executive Richard Jeffrey was the best man to sort out the present project, which reflected poorly on politicians who had agreed a quick fix without listening to their project managers. That when politicians interfere in professional matters things go horribly wrong was illustrated also by the Glasgow Airport Rail Link, the cost of whose infrastructure at the airport had risen from £5M to £77M when the Government decided to cancel it.

Politicians react to the need to make choices initially with caution, then increasingly in anticipation but afterwards inevitably with hindsight. Even if a politician brings knowledge from a prior life, his acquisition of it ceases on assuming office and he becomes a non-expert. Sophocles said that there was no enemy worse than bad advice, and Stevenson's own view was not to take life too seriously since you don't get out of it alive!

While studying maths which he applied at snooker, Stevenson met his wife to whom he had been married for 42 years. During his 1304 days in office, he spent only just over 400 nights at home, and made 3380 journeys, attending 2769 meetings of which over one third were outwith government offices.

In his four summers he aggregated only 38 days on holiday, and bequeathed to his successor Keith Brown the responsibility of being duty minister on Christmas Day. When he discussed with his wife last year whether or not he should stand again, her response was "I'm not ready to have you home yet"!

sstevenson02.d

Stewart Stevenson MSP enjoying the post meeting hospitality with members.

© John Yellowlees, 2011

When the SNP came to office in 2007, their team had no ministerial experience. The oldest minister in any Government yet at Holyrood, he became the longest-serving transport minister in these islands for twenty years. Transport ministers were an underappreciated breed - none had gone straight afterwards to the Lords, nor had any been knighted for their service in that role.

On 6 December when he made his fateful appearance on Newsnight Scotland, he had had no sleep in twenty hours and had lost ten pounds in the previous ten days. However afterwards he had done an interview with truckers on Radio Five which went much better, and it had to be remembered that the advice then was that the M8 would be cleared by midnight.

He became so tired that next door in his hotel afterwards he fell asleep with his shoes on - with hindsight he should have sent an official, but he did not trust weather forecasters who had got the area of snowfall right but the depth wrong. Economists and weather forecasters were the only professions where you could be wrong 80% of the time yet keep your job. Forecasts could be widely divergent between RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth which were only eight miles apart, and nowhere in Scotland had the Met Office any facility to measure snow!

A minister was like a non-executive director who could challenge assumptions, and his insistence on revisiting a previous study resulted in a decision that light rail could be accommodated on the existing bridge, saving £1.5bn on the cost of the Forth Replacement Crossing. Sir Alexander Stewart Stevenson had chaired the Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee in 1935, and Stevenson himself drove across the new Forth Road Bridge on its first day of operation in 1964 - proof of its lifechanging potential came soon after when his father a Cupar GP drove a heart patient to the Western General in only 37 minutes despite the availability of only two miles of motorway north of it.

Three out of his four ministerial trips abroad had been cancelled days before they were due to happen, so all that he managed was four days in China with twenty engagements. At least being a minority administration meant there wasn't need to consult coalition partners all the time, and he had been surprised by how much was decided at desks rather than in the Parliament. He left office because he faced a vote of no confidence in a week when the Lib Dems wanted to divert attention from their difficulty at Westminster over tuition fees, and while he could have survived the vote and kept his job there would have been a continuing issue for him over the outcome.

A cousin of his father had been munitions minister under Llloyd George, whom the father had served as election agent in his last contest the rectorial election at Edinburgh University in 1942. His grandfather had been a Rechabite schoolmaster at Cromarty who persuaded Lloyd George to include the Royal Hotel there in his nationalisation of pubs to control drunkenness among munitions workers, and it remained state-controlled until 1962. Another reminder that political decisions could have long lasting consequenes was the requirement to bond whisky for a minimum of years so as to help manage its availability in wartime, which improved Scotch's quality and thus laid the foundations for today's successful distilling industry.

The private sector had enabled the Government to get it right on delivery of Airdrie-Bathgate, but some contracts undoubtedly were overmanaged and for the next ScotRail franchise he had sought to reduce its prescriptive nature. He had refused an increase in planning fees until the Government got quicker decisions, and the holding of charettes had helped build consensus. He had had to answer 4647 Questions and made 400 speeches, a hundred more than the next-busiest minister. He was disappointed with the handling of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, and had retained Regional Transport Partnerships because the Government could not afford to fight on too many fronts at once. There had been a better case for retaining Transport Scotland, which created useful distance between government and delivery.

Report by John Yellowlees

 

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