It happened at school. That moment when you start to awaken to what you may want to do when you grow up. But pupils like me, at a school like mine, didn’t normally aspire to university.
I didn’t come from the right background. Growing upon the Wester Hailes housing estate in Edinburgh in a family that worked as coopers and slaughtermen, I have memories of my uncle arriving home from work with the pungent smell of neat whisky emanating from his overalls. It’s little wonder I can’t touch the stuff now.
But I always remember the moment. Walking along the window-lined corridor at school, smelling the chlorine from the community swimming pool below, I bumped into the Assistant Head. I always liked him. A really kind and welcoming character who seemed to hold the respect of all the students in the school.
“How do you fancy the university summer school? Could get you a place that’ll open up university for you”. I said “Yes” before he finished his sentence. But there was one big snag.
“Can you sing?” asked Mrs Alison, my music teacher.
I asked her why. “Because you are not passing your exams playing the drums”. That was it. The stark reality that the grades I needed for university depended on a pass at Higher Music that I was nowhere near.
Imagine the scene. Mrs Alison perched on the piano stool. Me, quivering, holding a piece of paper with words on it… Thankfully I got a C and made the grades.
The songs I sang will remain my secret forever.
I had my first job at the age of 12. I have never been a morning person so how I ever thought a morning newspaper run would be a good idea is anyone’s guess. But I wanted my own money so it was a no-brainer. I did like it though when I actually got out the door. I loved my bike, so cycling around my local street delivering was fun.
I also worked in a fish and chip shop. My sole job was to peel the potatoes for the busy weekend. It was good to earn my own money. When I turned 15 I started to work behind the counter in the shop and became the pizza chef. I even set up their home delivery business.
My first venture into entrepreneurialism was at the ‘Codfather Fish and Chip Shop’ near my home.
Going to university at 16 never really fazed me. I knew I had gone as far as I could at school. Maths and Physics at Edinburgh Uni. Brilliant. I loved the shiny labs and the infinite possibilities of science, but I remember late in the summer school staring at a blackboard with such an array of numbers on it and thinking that I probably didn’t want to do this for the next four years – even although I was called “42” at school for my equation solving skills!
So by the time the term started I was doing Social Policy and Law instead. A lucky break to move across to a subject I really enjoyed. The social policy aspects in particular have come in very useful in my future career. It’s truly all about fairness and that is what social policies should be used to nurture.
Then things changed. I don’t know when it happened, but I just got more politically aware. And, as I got more and more interested, the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place. I had always been subconsciously very political.
I was a Thatcher baby growing up in Wester Hailes in a family that had some strict conditions – you would be a patriotic Scot, a passionate Hearts fan and a defender of all things Labour.
This combination has provided unbridled joy and uncontrollable tears in equal measure over the years – my inner voice has wailed “why me” on many occasions. It all started to make perfect sense. My values had been shaped before I even knew what values were.
It’s life experiences that shape your values – sometimes experiences are thrust upon you. I never really knew my dad. I was only 9 when he passed away suddenly. He was younger when he died than I am today. My mum was left with us two boys to look after. I’ve never really appreciated what it must have been like for her back then. Two boys, 9 and 13 years old, trying to make sense of it all as she just got on with it.
I’ve very much followed that determination and what my mum had to do – working all hours, patching things together, finding a way through, grabbing opportunities when she could, making her own luck and having the attitude that no-one could tell me I couldn’t achieve something.
One childhood memory has had a profound effect on the way I have always approached life.
A large see-through pink plastic bag, sitting in the corner of the living room with a pair of large black thick-rimmed glasses sitting on top – Dad’s clothes and personal belongings from the hospital. Mum coped with that earth-shattering sideways blow and I was going to live up to that exemplar by using it as inspiration in the choices I would make through life.
That short moment in time cemented my values of fairness, equality, kindness and hard work. That’s how life should be. Certainly Mum worked hard – Woolworths as a cleaner; The Busy Bee Bar as a cook; Ladbrokes as a cashier. She knew that hard work was the only way to survive. There was no real government support for her.
It was during those Thatcher years of there being ‘no such thing as society’. Mum was written off through no fault of her own. It was only through her hard work that I was able to go to university. It would have been an easy option to leave school and earn money, but study was made possible by Mum’s multiple jobs and me working from the age of 12.
University was great. “The best days of your life”, people always say. Politics, football and socialising (a polite term for too much time in the pub) and, of course, a degree. But what to do next?
People always tell me that they want MPs to have had previous experience before entering Parliament.
I’ve always strived to do things that I enjoy and, when young people ask me for advice on careers, jobs and their future, I always say, “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Grab every opportunity with both hands”.
Post university was tough, as I just couldn’t work out what I wanted to do. I did temporary jobs for a while in the old Ministry of Agriculture. plotting EU subsidy maps and the WM Finance Company.
But in the summer of 1998 I spent my entire annual leave helping out at a new venture at the Edinburgh Festival – a live television broadcast from a Glastonbury stage, screened under the majestic Edinburgh Castle. Thirty days of sheer enjoyment, and when the head programmer suddenly quit, I was left in charge of the entire schedule. It was an incredibly sad day when we packed up from the site and went back to our normal lives. This is what I wanted to do.
Well, maybe it was but I ended up in finance at Scottish Equitable. I’m sure I only got the job because my soon-to-be boss interviewed me the morning after a very heavy defeat for our beloved Hearts in a League Cup Semi-Final. We spent the interview over-analysing the disappointment. He offered me the job. We have been friends since.
I did the Festival again in the summer of 1999 and it was a huge success. I was in charge of programming and infrastructure operations. All my annual leave used up to be either knee-deep in water or constantly searching for gaffer tape.
But that was the pivotal moment when life definitely changed. A phone call came in late 1999 offering me a permanent job as the Operations Director of a new arts-based internet TV station that had grown out of the Festival.
Would I be interested? The pay would be dreadful, the prospects even worse, but what an opportunity. I left Aegon early in 2000 and that was that. Headlong into the unknown. We did build the TV station and start broadcasting, but it was a constant battle for funding. When the dot-com bubble burst we burst with it, but I was determined not to let all that hard work and all those dreams die.
I set up my own business, and got to work ensuring our festival stage continued – and then wondered who would pay me every month.
Ah, the ideal opportunity. The business centre where the station was based (and where I had the tiniest of offices) was hiring a receptionist. Perfect, if I could do that, earn a bit of cash and run the business at the same time, I could really do this. So, in between patching calls through, writing dictated letters and making sure the toilets were clean, I organised the Festival for August.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds raised in sponsorship, 29 days of live television programming and upwards of 50 staff, all from the reception desk. I must’ve been the worst receptionist in history but my typing skills were ok. It was very much like what Mum had to do. Working all sorts of jobs to get by, but the overall goal was worth achieving. The £200 per week I earned from staffing the reception and providing secretarial support to the building’s businesses allowed me to achieve my goal of getting one of the largest events at the Edinburgh Festival up and running.
Do you ever catch yourself randomly whistling a tune but you are not sure what it is?
It often happens to me but it invariably turns out to be ‘Reason to Believe’ by Tim Harden – the memory of that stunning sunny Friday August Festival evening in Princes Street Gardens. Emmy-Lou Harris, Joan Baez, Chrissy Hinds, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg playing that song at the Landmine Free World fundraising concert. It was the proudest moment of my business. Giants of music, strumming their instruments, singing in harmony from my stage in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Memories don’t get much better than that, with the bonus of over £100,000 raised for the charity.
You often hear the phrase “Do you remember where you were when JKF was shot?” (obviously if you are old enough). A far happier ‘Do you remember’ is the moment when Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years and is walking, hand in hand, with Winnie towards freedom. His grey suit sparkling in the South African sunshine as he waves with a gentle respect to the watching millions. Ten years later I ran a whole weekend dedicated to the anniversary of the fall of apartheid.
I remember standing stunned, just at the side of the stage, when Commissioner Mabuzah, during her speech, placed her hand across her chest and burst into the South African national anthem unprompted and definitely unscripted. Everyone joined in. Mrs Alison would have been proud of my singing! There was not a dry eye in the house. What a moment. What a way to draw my 7 years of the Edinburgh Festival to a conclusion. I would do it all again tomorrow. I miss it. I loved it. I still have all my old festival T-Shirts which makes the memories all the more special.
Did I mention the festival was where I got involved in business?
An almost derelict hotel refurbished and re-opened in West Linton, a bar in Newington and a city centre food and sports bistro – these were all added to my CV before I became an MP.
It’s amazing what you learn in a tough industry like hospitality. Being a small business would see us pulling pints, cleaning toilets, becoming chefs and doing all the accounts. The biggest challenge was taking on distressed premises and turning them around. We didn’t have any money so became really good at tiling, plumbing, joinery, electrics and decorating. We did everything we could ourselves – that is where the life lesson of my Mum’s hard work came in handy.
But the success of the places we had was to do with the team. We had great staff, we became and are still good friends. It made things so much easier. The big downside though is when you have no money left in the business to pay the staff wages and you have to put them on a personal credit card. The responsibility to ensure they could pay their rent and bills is a much bigger life lesson than any other. Being an employer has been a huge advantage in my role as a constituency MP.
So the wheels started to turn. I was doing my own events, branching out into webcasting (I did Scotland’s first ever live webcast with the Proclaimers) and keeping my interest in politics by running the membership for my local Labour branch.
Traditions have had a huge influence on my life and none more so than the annual tradition of heading to the pub after the AGM of the local Labour Party. One time, though, that tradition resulted in me agreeing to stand for the Council. I didn’t buy a drink all night!
I unexpectedly won the Council seat.
I remember asking my friend and close colleague Frank Russell (who persuaded me to stand), why they asked me given I knew nothing about the Council.
“Do you think we would have asked you if we thought you would win?”
I did win and I gave it my all. Elected office was a real privilege. I followed one simple principle – that the people I represent come first and foremost every time. It’s a philosophy I’ve carried throughout my public service.
“I declare Ian Murray elected to serve as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South”.
The returning officer confirmed something that I never thought would happen to me. Ordinary people like me didn’t become Members of Parliament, but I’ve since learnt that it is actually ordinary people who become MPs. It was the first time in my life that I only had one job and I threw everything into it. I was determined to ensure I would be the most accessible, responsive, effective and local MP in the country. I would fight for fairness and against inequality every day. Did I want to change the world? Damn right I did.
I go to work every day not quite knowing what the day will bring. Much of my job as an MP is very unglamorous and difficult. My undoubted favourite part is being able to help people. Since being elected, I have helped over 20,000 constituents directly, spoken to over 32,500 people in conversations on their doorsteps with the CLP team, and held over 1,200 open advice sessions.
The depth of despair that people suffer is often heart-breaking and their MP is their last hope. I remember being up all night trying to help a desperate daughter get back to Edinburgh to spend the last few hours with her dying father. She had a Brazilian passport and was living in Spain. We managed to wake the Ambassador’s office in Spain and they were able to liaise with their Brazilian and UK counterparts while I kept pleading with them to help this frantic woman. At around 7am I got word through that the Home Office would allow her into the country and she could board a flight from Spain at 9am. She made it to Edinburgh later that day. Her father sadly passed away that evening, but she did spend his last hours by his bedside.
I know the public have a low opinion of politicians but that one story is just a tiny example of the work we do. I did feel jet-lagged the following day but it was all worth it.
I was delighted to be made a Shadow Minister by Ed Miliband. There’s a very funny story of what happened that evening, but that’s for another day. This ordinary guy from Wester Hailes had made it to speaking from the dispatch box in the House of Commons. I remember my first speech. My heart was pounding, my mouth was drying up, my hands were shaking, I wasn’t even sure I could walk the step and a half to the dispatch box. I delivered my speech and sat down again. Over in a flash but I loved it. Speaking from the dispatch box became a real habit and I called it home for a long time, later becoming Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.
Parliament is a powerful arena but we must make it more relevant to people’s lives and really reconnect with the electorate.
You always want to influence legislation and the future. I’m very proud of the Decarbonisation Bill that I presented to the House of Commons. It became Labour Party policy and will be a step change in tackling climate change, securing energy in the future and giving certainty to the industry. I used the term “climate emergency” in my speech. That was in 2013! I’m also very proud to have been made an honorary member of the local Rotary of Braids for the work I did in changing the rules so that Gift Aid is received on can-shaking donations.
As the General Election approached in 2015 I had high hopes that we may be in with a chance of returning a Labour Government after one term. I was pleased with our manifesto, indeed I had helped to write some of the policies that fell in my Trade and Investment portfolio. When all was done and dusted it was a bad night for Labour and the country. Scottish Labour was almost wiped out by the SNP tsunami. The nationalists took all but three of the 56 seats in Scotland.
Given I had the smallest majority in Scotland (316) and one of the smallest across the UK, it would always have been difficult for me to have been re-elected. But I was the only Scottish Labour MP returned to parliament with a vastly increased majority of 2,637. As the only Scottish MP I was thrust on to the national stage. I relished the opportunity but two things happened that evening. Firstly, the survivor’s guilt I experienced. Many, many great friends and brilliant MPs lost their seats and I didn’t think they deserved that. Secondly, I was determined, despite the national picture, to still put Edinburgh South first. The voters who elected me are my boss and my primary job is always to ensure they are served.
I have repeated a lot since that we must learn the lessons of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum as a party, but I think we have always ducked it. On the major constitutional issues of our time – Scottish independence and Brexit – we must be clear with people where we stand. We should always be a pro-EU and pro-UK party because it is not just in the national interest, but part of our values.
A funny thing happened the Sunday after the 2015 election.
I had been swamped by media enquiries and all I really wanted to do was to sleep for a few hours. I got quite ratty with a BBC journalist called Harriet. I told her I couldn’t do a broadcast but she kept phoning. After an hour or so sleep I was disturbed by my phone ringing again. I answered it to the opening line, “Hi Ian, it’s Harriet and wondered if you would join the Shadow Cabinet?”
“Oh, for goodness sake”, I barked back. “How many times do I have to tell you that I have had no call from anyone and will not speculate on Shadow Cabinet? It is not in my gift and I must ask you to stop calling me.” A silence descended on the line. A very sheepish female voice then said, “Ian, it’s Harriet Harman here and I want you to join the Shadow Cabinet”. I apologised, accepted, and headed to London.
This was a huge responsibility to take on the role of Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and I did it with great enthusiasm. It was a critical time as the Scotland Bill was to go through the House of Commons as the first Bill of the new 2015 Parliament. A Tory majority and 56 SNP MPs was an atmosphere that I relished. The Bill was taken through the House and I got some good victories – the devolution of transport regulation on pavement parking (I don’t know why that wasn’t devolved before) and additional provision on social security that essentially allows for the Scottish Parliament to design a unique Scottish social security system – although the SNP keeps delaying this. The Bill became an Act and was a better piece of law when it left Parliament than when it started. I was proud to take that through as a culmination of the “Vow” from the independence referendum and the cross-party Smith Commission.
I do feel the Scotland Act 2016 that we all helped to shape has not been utilised at all. The social security provisions have been largely delayed and the new powers are not being used to help with issues such as the WASPI women and the cruel two-child benefit limit.
Fast forward a few months and we were thrust into both a Scottish Parliament election and an EU referendum in 2016. What a few months that was. I was delighted when Daniel Johnson MSP was elected to Edinburgh Southern (a similar seat to Edinburgh South). He is the first Labour MSP to defeat a sitting SNP MSP. What a result. Unfortunately, the joy didn’t last as we lost the EU referendum.
I fought very hard indeed to persuade constituents to vote remain and we did manage a 78% Remain vote in Edinburgh South – one of the highest in the country.
The result of the referendum has swamped political debate in parliament and in the country right up to today. It cost two PMs their jobs to be replaced by the current PM. It probably serves Cameron right as he gambled the country to fix his own party divisions and lost. A complete dereliction of duty to do what is right for the country before party.
I resigned from the Shadow Cabinet a few days after the EU Referendum.
I could no longer abide by the rules of the shadow cabinet of everyone havng to agree, so it was right for me to go. I went back to the backbenches and loved every minute of getting stuck in to a whole host of issues (in the Shadow Cabinet you are very restricted in what you can do in parliament, so getting involved in lots of issues is difficult). I then joined the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and loved that too. I have always been interested in international issues. Given the seriousness of the EU issue, I was also asked to become a UK MP delegate to the Council of Europe. That’s the body of 47 countries which protects and enhances human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.
In the snap General Election in 2017 I won with the largest majority in Scotland and largest in the post-war history of Edinburgh Westminster elections. I even had 6 new colleagues, who I greatly enjoyed working with. However, the 2019 snap election was déjà vu as I was returned as the only Scottish Labour MP for a second time.
I am proud to have been re-elected in 2019 with a majority of 11,095 but devastated to be the only Scottish Labour MP again, and heartbroken at the UK wide result. We must all reflect on what the public have told us. They are never wrong. And if we respond in the way the Labour movement has always responded to the challenges of the public then we may just be able to persuade them to trust us again. We must listen and be honest. That is a considerable task but I will be up to the challenge and not let them down.
To win again, the Labour Party must change. Looking to the past will only prolong our years in the wilderness and put our country at risk. We must become a credible alternative government of the future, not a protest movement of the past. That’s how we lift millions of children, families, and pensioners out of poverty again.
What do I do in my spare time? What’s that?!
For a few years, almost all of my limited spare time was taken up with helping to save Heart of Midlothian Football Club as Chair of the supporters’ coop, Foundation of Hearts. I always knew this was going to be a tough task but I’ve been a fan since I was lifted over the turnstiles in the 1980s. Seeing tens of thousands of people watching every week and the club now being on the road to safety makes it all worthwhile. The overriding conclusion seems to be that supporters feel they have their club back again. It’s important for the city, for local communities and for everyone who likes sport to maintain our historic institutions. I’m delighted other footballing institutions are now looking at this as a model for the future I’m sure every supporter, regardless of what team they support, will know how important that team is to them and the wider community. I wrote about it in my first book, ‘This is Our Story: How the fans kept their Hearts beating’ – www.thisisourstory.club.