“Why d’you go into politics, to just do what you’re told, or to actually try and represent people, and to improve things and call out when you think something is wrong?”
“So what would you say has been your best work so far this term?”
I’m sitting at a small, round wooden table with Miles Briggs, a Conservative MSP for the Lothian region, just after getting him coffee with the researcher that collected me from the front desk. He was second on the Conservative’s regional list, behind Ruth Davidson. He seems like quite a cheerful, if somewhat stressed man, with a blue suit and a slight English accent.
“Mm, good question… in terms of work, I guess campaigns. So, I’ve been heavily involved in lots of campaigns across the Lothian region, from trying to save the Edinburgh Cleft Palate baby unit – which was for babies with a cleft lip, if you lived in the east, so the borders or Aberdeen, you’d get your surgery there in Edinburgh – that’s been centralised by the government to Glasgow. I tried to prevent that, but haven’t been successful.”
“Why did you try to prevent it?”
“Well, right,” Miles began to wave his hands emphatically, “They say-” (I’m guessing he meant either the Scottish Government or the SNP, judging by the level of vehement disapproval) “-they want to [centralise the unit] because it will have better outcomes – I disagree, I can see the loss of an excellent surgeon to our health service, and I just think in terms of patient travel and the time… if you’ve just had a beautiful baby but then the baby’s born with a cleft palate, you want the baby to be given the best opportunity for the best outcomes, for the rest of their lives, and that’s where I was disappointed that they closed that. But that was just one of my early campaigns.” He paused to breathe.
“More recently, I’ve been involved with a campaign to try and get taxi access for disabled people back to Waverly station. So, there’s lots of campaigns like this as an MSP, you can either start one yourself or get involved with one. But I’ve got kind of fingers in all pies at the minute-” he chuckled “-across the Lothian region.” (Having a look around at the sheer amount of papers and folders neatly shelved in the office, I can see why he’d feel stressed.)
“So, would you say your best work’s been done out of Parliament?”
“Probably, yes,” he answered with several bobbing nods, “We’re all basically in Parliament Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday, and I really enjoy the Health and Sport committee which I sit on in the Parliament, but the rest of the time you’re here it’s like, you know, doing desk work…” (Cue bitter glance to the item of furniture to my left…) “So it can just feel like you’re behind the desk for hours writing letters, so I really enjoy on a Monday and a Friday, and also at weekends, getting a chance to get out and about, so that’s a big part of it.”
I smiled and nodded, subtly rearranging my notes. “Okay, so you mentioned standing for Edinburgh because you live there – how do you make sure you’re representing your constituents accurately and fairly?”
“Okay, well, I really passionately believe that you’re elected to represent everybody, regardless of how they voted. […] A bit part for me is making myself accessible, and listening to people. By and large, people aren’t shy coming forward, telling you what their problems are, for example, I work heavily to try to stop the business rate increases. Today we’ve seen kind of a tiny step forward on that from the government, who are in some extra transition to give support for businesses, but that was very much on the back of a lot of businesses from Edinburgh and the likes coming to tell me how they could be affected by the rates’ increase. But, to answer your question, for me it’s actually making myself accessible, so I do surgeries, newsletters, I did a calendar…”
“…yeah, to over 28,000 people at Christmas time, with all my contact details on it, so that people are able to access [me]! And, by and large, in Parliament, a lot of people do come to tell me issues, or I have surgeries across the region where they can also come and see me. Or just email – or phone – everything, we’ve got everything, we’ve almost got our website built as well!” Miles beamed at the mention of this technological extravaganza.
“That’s really great! So, okay, difficult question… if there was a conflict of interests in the way you were voting, between what the party wants and what the constituents want, how would you vote?”
“Good question! And actually I haven’t really had that, at the minute…” He trailed off, glancing thoughtfully down at the recording device. We made eye contact as he looked back up, and he jolted back into his answer. “I would always put my constituents first, and it’s easy to say that because I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet!” He laughed. “So, I think it more comes down to, actually, when you’re in the government, say for example if I was part of the governing party who try to do things like closing the Cleft Palate Unit, as this government has, I personally would vote against [that]…”
“At the moment, I haven’t really- ‘cause we’re all stood on a manifesto to hold the government to account, and to try to get various policies put into place, I support all that, I stood and was elected on that, so I’ve not been put in that position. But I do see a lot of SNP backbenchers who are being put in quite a lot of difficult positions where, at no point did this government tell the local electorate that they were going to shut things… or put up taxes… I think, that’s where the conflict of interests-”
“But you would always vote with your constituents?” I repeated, wanting to make sure I had a definite, final answer. He nodded firmly, losing his cheerful demeanour for a moment.
“I would always vote with my constituents, to support what I thought was right for my constituents. Especially when you’re talking about closing health services, which usually people get really involved with.”
“Okay, that’s cool…”
“I think people should always vote with their conscience on these issues, as well.”
“Could there ever come a time,” I began thoughtfully, “when you’d decide for your constituents, maybe they’d push you to do something but in your gut you’d feel it wasn’t the right decision for them…?”
“Yeah, I haven’t quite been in that position, I’ve only been doing this job since May…” (it was late February) “…but what I do think is important to always remember is, you are a representative. You come here to represent people. You’re not a delegate. So you’re not here and then waiting to be told what you’re doing here, you’re here to try and raise concerns and work hard. And sometimes, you know, for example in the case of the [UK Government] which [is Conservative like me], I don’t agree with what the Work & Pensions Department are doing to close Bathgate’s Call Centre out there. So I’m being involved with parties, all parties, to try and prevent that. I’ve had meetings with ministers and I’ve written letters saying I just don’t agree, so in cases like that, it’s important to make the voice of your constituents heard. I’m not going to… fear, y’know, making that voice heard, and…” (He looked at the recorder reluctantly, but persevered in his answer.) “Why d’you go into politics, to just do what you’re told, or to actually try and represent people, and to improve things and call out when you think something is wrong? That’s important.”
[PART 2 TO FOLLOW SHORTLY…]