When people asked me what kind of child I was like at school, I liked to pretend that I was a rebel. Alas though, I was a very well behaved wee boy — a teacher’s pet if you will. Now, however, at the age of 22, I find myself sitting outside a classroom in Eaglesham Primary School, on a chair that is at least three sizes too small. But this time I’m not waiting to talk to the head teacher, but to Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy MP.
Murphy has been carrying out surgeries similar to the one I’m attending since he entered parliament in 1997 during New Labour’s landslide election victory. Whilst representing the constituency of East Renfrewshire, he has gradually worked his way up the ministerial ladder, finally taking a seat at the Cabinet table in October 2008.
Although he spent part of his childhood in South Africa, Murphy considers himself Scottish through and through. “I think I said this at the time, you don’t get to pick jobs in the government, but in this reshuffle I put in a bid for this job. It’s what I wanted to do. Anyone who loves Scotland would love to do this job.”
Murphy’s appointment to the Scottish Office also saw the role of Scottish Secretary split from that of Defence Secretary. There was a school of thought on opposition benches at the time that he had been installed as a taxpayer-funded Labour attack dog to help ease the pressure Labour was under in Scotland from the SNP.
Murphy believes though that it had been wrong to split the role in the first place and that Gordon Brown had been right to “beef up” the role. “I think the Prime Minster made a mistake by trying to split the role of Scottish and Defence Secretary. It was wrong for Scotland and it was wrong for the armed forces. Whatever it was that [the opposition parties] said I am, I hope over the past fifteen months, I’ve proven that’s not the case.”
Despite his love of the job, Murphy is more than aware that his tenure has been overshadowed by the most difficult economic conditions since Labour came to power. “It’s all been overshadowed by the recession. That’s been the big, dark cloud over the whole thing and I’m just trying my best to help Scotland and the UK through the recession.”
Although he now represents one of the most affluent constituencies in Scotland, Murphy’s upbringing on one of Glasgow’s poorest estates obviously still resonates in his politics. “You look around Scotland and the poorest families are drastically affected by the recession. That’s my personal priority — how do you stop the poorest becoming totally dislodged from society? “I’m not interested in a recovery that takes years and is so unfair that it leaves families, especially the poorest families, severely disadvantaged.”
During his tenure, Murphy has been dealing with an SNP minority administration in Scotland, which has led to a number of clashes between the governments in Holyrood and Westminster.
The release of the Libyan bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi in August 2009 caused major disagreements between the two governments. Murphy thinks, however, that conflict will always be a part of politics. “Events like this will always exist, for as long as there is politics there will always be friction between and within parties.”
Friction and politics have been part of Murphy’s life since his days at Strathclyde University, where he was elected President of the National Union of Students Scotland, whilst also being a member of the National Organisation of Labour Students.
Although he did not complete his degree once his tenure as NUS president finished, Murphy still holds Scottish higher education in high regard. He does, however, hold concerns concerns for the future.
“I have great belief in our universities and our students, but there would be a worry that some English universities would open up a funding gap. “Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament, has taken their decision but the consequence is that you’ll either have less investment at universities or you have many more foreign students paying higher fees, plus private sector investment.”
In an attempt to reduce the nation’s deficit, Murphy admits that there will be cuts in higher education spending, but he also believes that universities could be doing more to trim their own budgets.
“The decisions as to where cuts will be hasn’t been made, but our view is that universities can find more efficiencies. We don’t want to jeopardise the quality of universities, but like everywhere else, they’ll need to find efficiencies, as the public expect them to. It would be a luddite’s approach to the recession by making big cuts at universities, as universities are a core part of our recovery and a central part to our entire economic strategy.”
Where to make the cuts may not be a problem for the current Labour administration though, with many polls pointing to defeat, or at the very least a hung parliament, at the next general election.
Murphy concedes that although governing becomes more difficult each year, Labour are still a party with solutions to current issues. “It’s hard thirteen years into power — it’s naturally harder. Every year in government, politics become tougher. We haven’t run out of ideas. We’ve got a fresh set of ideas for a fresh set of challenges. But any party which gives the impression that it’s out of ideas, out of energy, out of the will to govern, should move over and let someone else do it.”
During the latest challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership at the start of January, Murphy was named in the media as one of six potential Cabinet rebels. He dismisses the situation, believing that Gordon Brown has been strengthened as a result.
“I hope [Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt] were better minsters than they were plotters. Well, you couldn’t really do any worse — they made Guy Fawkes look organised.
“I think last week has strengthened Gordon Brown. This plotting only helps the Tories, so we shouldn’t be fighting each other.”
Murphy also voices his frustrations at those in his party who appear to be willing to settle for a period in opposition. “It drives me mad. People have got to get their chin off their chest and believe in themselves, believe in the Labour Party and believe in what we stand for. If you don’t believe in it, go and do something else.”
But if Murphy was to experience a period in opposition in the near future, it may afford him more time to watch Celtic play. When asked how he thinks his team will do this season, the usually calm and collected Scottish Secretary is slightly unnerved. “Oh no,” he said. “As Secretary of State, I’m supposed to be neutral.”
After much discussion about the future of Scottish football, he returns to the question with a typically diplomatic answer. “How will Celtic do? I think they’ll finish in the top two,” he says, before adding, “but I hope they’ll finish top.”
It’s safe to assume the same could also be said of Murphy’s hopes for Labour after the next general election — top two, but hopefully top.