• Sat. Dec 2nd, 2023

The Student in conversation with Graham Hutchison, Conservative candidate for Edinburgh West

How did you first get involved with the Conservative party? When did you know you wanted to go into politics?

Graham: I’ve had a lifelong interest in politics going back to when I was five or six years old; I was watching something to do with politics on the telly. I grew up in a split household: my Mum was a Conservative and my Dad was Labour voter. He’s now changed, he votes Conservative as well. But I always knew, from the point of view of the politics of aspiration, unionism, that kind of thing, that I was a conservative.

I did a school work experience placement with the city of Edinburgh councillor at the time, who only just retired in 2017, at the same time I was elected. I was advised around then to go get a career; to study something else and come back to politics later in life when I had a bit of real life experience. I’ve been a party member since I was eighteen, but I actively got involved in 2014, around the time of the independence referendum. I felt at that point that I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines any longer.

I went through the process of becoming an approved candidate for the Scottish Conservatives, and I stood in the Scottish Parliament election in 2016 in Glasgow Southside, and then for the City of Edinburgh Council in 2017 and was successful. That brings us up to now.

One of the main priorities of Boris Johnson’s manifesto is his promise to ‘get Brexit done.’  why do you think that this is now the necessary choice for the country, and why should people trust the Conservatives again after having the deadline extended twice? 

Graham: We had a referendum which was backed by everyone in the House of Commons except the SNP. It has been a difficult process. I don’t think anyone ever thought it would be easy. But at the same time, I’m a Democrat and I firmly believe that, having had that vote we have to abide by it. There wasn’t that nuance of hard Brexit, soft Brexit, and so on. 52% of people voted to leave and the outrage around how that plays out is very much coming from those who voted to remain. What we needed was to move forward as a country, and for every politician to get together, to deliver the best possible deal for the UK.

Boris Johnson has defied expectations since he has become Prime Minister: he’s gone away and negotiated a new deal when people said that wasn’t possible. It’s difficult to believe how Jeremy Corbyn, from an entirely neutral position, could successfully negotiate a new deal with the European Union; when he doesn’t believe in it himself and neither do his leading lieutenants. It’s very hard to imagine how that conversation would play out between Corbyn and Brussels.

The failure to meet the October 31st deadline, while unfortunate, was not down to any failure on Boris Johnson’s part. He went away and brought back that new deal and the House of Commons again rejected it. I do think now that only a Conservative majority government can deliver what the people voted for.

62% of Scottish people voted to remain. Why, as a Conservative, are you not for independence, and that we shouldn’t at least have the choice of a second referendum?

Graham: The first point there is that we voted as a United Kingdom. There’s no provision there: there was an opportunity, when the referendum bill was being passed in parliament, for the SNP to amend that bill to suggest something like a quadruple lock, where each part of the United Kingdom had to vote for it. That didn’t happen, so we proceeded on that basis, and we voted as a United Kingdom to leave. Scotland expressed its wish in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom; we’re now in a position where, while 62% of Scottish voters did want to remain, 38% voted to leave which includes a large proportion of SNP voters in the party; Nicola Sturgeon has conveniently chosen to ignore that. In 2017 general election, you can see in the North East of Scotland seats swinging back from the SNP to the Conservatives, when it had gone the opposite way in the 1990s. That shows there’s a fundamental issue there with the SNP’s Brexit stance.

Nicola Sturgeon is desperate to have a second independence referendum now because she realises that once Brexit’s delivered and once the UK leaves the EU, her position with these voters in the North East of Scotland will be entirely untenable to try go back in the SNP. To argue with fishermen in the North East of Scotland, with farmers in rural Scotland, and say “we’re going to take you back to the Common Fisherie’s policy, into the Common Agricultural policy,” is not going to work. She knows that; that’s why she’s so desperate now for a second referendum. Her line, the SNP line, in 2014 was a once in a generation vote; we can’t continue to have this constant constitutional flux.

If there isn’t a Conservative government, there’s potentially two more referendums next year. It’s not going to end uncertainty, it’s just going to perpetuate it. Do you then have a best of three? Where does it end? We need to draw a line on this constitutional uncertainty, the SNP need to stick by their promise the referendum was a once in a lifetime vote, and we need to move forward.

The manifesto also aims to increase funding for the NHS, an ambitious plan which many are doubtful of – how effective do you think the Conservatives can be in improving our healthcare system after 9 years of austerity? 

Graham: Austerity has been a challenge as we were left in that position after financial mismanagement off the back of the last Labour government. We are now in a position where, since Boris Johnson became leader, we can say austerity is at an end. We have extremely ambitious plans for key areas like the NHS, which has undoubtedly suffered, and they’re absolutely deliverable. They’re the only realistic plans on the table.

The proposed increase in public spending in the Labour manifesto totals to something like 27 or 28 times the spending proposed in the Conservative manifesto. Ours is the only manifesto out there which is realistic and deliverable on the NHS, and the challenge here in Scotland, where the NHS is devolved and performing badly, is for that increased investment to be directed where it needs to be: to the NHS and to education in Scotland.

What makes the Conservatives’ policies on the environment and the goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050 more appealing than any other party’s plans to fight climate change? The Liberal Democrats want to cut emissions by 2045 and the Greens by 2030. 

Graham: We were the first party to commit to being carbon neutral by 2050. That date has moved; it’s been 2040, 2030, we’re being told 2025 by some reporters. What we’ve committed to is something that’s realistic; we believe we can deliver. It’s not a race to who can get through the quickest possible time. Obviously, climate change is one of the major challenges of our age; any government needs to take it seriously. The issues we have with a party, such as the Green Party, is they have what we see to be an unrealistic date but also socialist policies which is what we might expect under a Labour government; we also have the Liberal Democrats who have entered into this pact with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party in England and Wales.

Essentially, the innovation which is required to deliver carbon neutrality is enterprise; that’s what delivers it. By moving from privatisation to state control, we’re removing that innovation that otherwise would be there, and actually there’s a real question over where a Labour government, propped up by the SNP or the Green Party, and whether their economic policies would make it even more challenging to achieve this.

In light of recent allegations of Islamophobia and antisemitism in the press, do you think that there is a problem with racism in politics today and how can we combat this?

Graham: Undeniably, there is a problem with racism in politics. I think the fact that the Chief Rabbi has had to come out and make the kind of comments that he has in the 21st century, and the fact that we are in the midst of an election campaign where this is even an issue, is appalling. It’s something which absolutely has to be stamped out. It isn’t by any means exclusive to one party. It’s the action that’s taken to combat it that is important. Two Conservative candidates in this election who have had past records of comments which were antisemitic were immediately removed as candidates. Obviously you don’t want that happening in the first place but the action that is taken in those circumstances is extremely important. There are still nine active Labour Party candidates with the support of the party in this election who are under investigation for antisemitism.

Unless that action is taken when these cases arise, antisemitism and Islamophobia become an acceptable part of political debate and we can’t move to that. We need to learn the lessons from history and not let a debate over where antisemitism or Islamophobia is in any degree acceptable creep into political discourse in this country. It needs to be eradicated and that’s incumbent on all parties and on the leadership of all parties to step up.

Boris Johnson promises a points-based immigration system after we leave the European Union. How would this be implemented, and why does the party believe this is the best system?

Graham: We, as a country and particularly in Scotland, require a skilled workforce coming in from elsewhere. As a nation, we want to attract the best talent and the best workers wherever they might come from. Quite often you hear the points-based system talked about as an Australian type system where key roles are identified. We need to make sure we’re bringing in the skilled workers that our economy requires to grow, and that at the same time we would be able to support anybody that is choosing to build a life in this country.

That’s why I feel that there has to be an element of control over immigration; it’s not about stopping it, it’s about making sure that we as a country are able to cope and to identify what we need. I think it’s an important part of our history and something that this policy will help to build on.

Labour have promised to increase the minimum wage and the Green Party wants to introduce a basic income. Many young people and students are struggling to make a living with the current minimum wage while also studying. What do the Conservative party promise in improving work for young people? 

Graham: One of the key things that the Conservative government has done over the last nine years is to raise the threshold for income tax. That’s made a massive different to a lot of the lowest paid workers. Essentially, no matter your age, whether it’s students working part time or if you’ve left school and gone directly to work, you should be able to keep in your pocket as much of the money you earn as possible. It’s a fundamental Conservative principle, and you then decide how to spend it. We’re proposing to reduce national insurance as well, so it’s measures like these which allow people to retain more of the money they earn. It’s a direct impact on their payslip at the end of each month: you’re seeing less deductions coming off and the threshold’s almost doubled in the last nine years since the coalition then majority Conservative government.

From a young person’s point of view, I’d very much like to see the minimum wage apply universally across the board. There are apprenticeships where companies are directly investing in training, and I do think that’s slightly different. But, if somebody’s going straight into work, fundamentally I agree with that principle whether somebody is seventeen or twenty-eight, they have the same entitlement to a minimum wage; and that’s something I’d very much like to see us move towards.

Do you think that English students should have free tuition in Edinburgh if the Scottish ones do? The Tories increased tuition fees in the last decade for students, and Labour and the Green Party have promised to write off all student debt. Why should students vote for the Tory Party regarding higher education? 

Graham: In Scotland, we have a myth of free education. What that means in practice is that it’s much more difficult for Scottish students to get places at Scottish universities, because it’s financially less desirable. That has presented a challenge where you’ve then got Scottish students having to go to England or elsewhere and pay tuition fees, when the SNP are trumpeting free tuition. There’s a contradiction there.

It’s fantastic that Scottish universities are drawing students from around the world, but our priority should be to have the best educated population that we can have here in Scotland and we don’t want to be denying any Scottish students the opportunity to study at St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, wherever it might be; instead of having to look south of the border.

There’s a balance between a sensible charge for university education and a system like they have in the United States which we don’t want. There’s a sensible compromise. Let’s not be silly and say it’s free: it’s not, it’s paid for by taxpayers. There should be a sensible tuition fee for people who have the privilege of going to these universities.

What are the key concerns of people in your constituency and how do you plan to tackle these issues?

Graham: At the moment, I represent the Almond Ward in the City of Edinburgh council, which geographically forms a large proportion of the Edinburgh West constituency. There’s a lot of issues in the west of Edinburgh; if you look at housing growth over the last fifteen, twenty years in Edinburgh; a massive proportion of these houses have been built in the west of the city. Obviously now, this largely lies in the suburbs but that impacts the Edinburgh West constituency as it comes right into Wester Coates and Haymarket. It directly impacts because there’s not been enough investment in infrastructure. If you go to the park and ride in Ingliston or elsewhere, if you arrive after nine am, you won’t get a parking space. People who are trying to be good citizens, trying not to add to congestion and pollution by using park and ride are unable to do so because of inadequate public transport facilities. They have the Edinburgh Gateway station which was built as an interchange; if you go through that channel in the morning, it’s empty because of poor connectivity. In Edinburgh, there’s a major issue where planning has become a process of somebody who looks at a map, and shades in a field saying “we can build houses here.” There’s no infrastructure built to support it.

The Conservative manifesto includes a promise to reform planning legislation where the delivery  of infrastructure will be required up front in the planning process. It’s something that is badly needed in the west of Edinburgh. We want to get cars off the road, it’s too congested, you look at projections where it says the population of Edinburgh will grow by 2050; it’s not possible, there’s nowhere for these cars to go. At the moment, we’re offering house estates that allow for 2 cars essentially per house, we’re not offering any kind of alternative. If Edinburgh wanted to be truly transformative, the trams should have been extended to the west of the city where there’s poor transport links, to be built into a park and ride provision. It would have enabled that future development again, as well as transport infrastructure that goes to schools and so on, where the councils at present are approving applications for homes and primary schools, but then is running a budget process and saying “we don’t have any money for that.”

We need massive investment and strategic infrastructure. Again, with the airport there’s major concern in terms of noise impact. There was aborted airspace change programme put in place around eighteen months ago where the Civil Aviation Authority put the stoppers essentially on the space change; in some ways that was positive as the community engagement hadn’t been good enough, but on the flipside there had been positive changes built in that won’t take place for the foreseeable future. As an MP, I’d look at moving that forward positively with the Airport, pushing for the infrastructure and investment at the city deal. So for example putting £40m into infrastructure; there’s a lot more required there at a strategic level.

There also has to be an appreciation that as well as building and improving active travel networks, so getting people out of cars and onto buses, but also bikes and encouraging people to walk. We need proper cycling and walking infrastructure, but also there are certain points – the airport’s a prime example – where what it needs is a direct line off of the M8 motorway onto the roundabout into the airport, which was part of the original plan when that motorway was built twenty five years ago, that’s something that’d help ease congestion on roads like the A8, which we’re trying to downgrade and make more attractive for people to walk on.

Image: via Graham Hutchison