The Saint‘s News editor Tom Williams sat down with Stephen Gethins, the SNP candidate for North East Fife in the 2017 General Election, to discuss why St Andrews students should vote for him:
Tom Williams: What in your background, obviously you were the incumbent candidate, what furthermore makes you qualified to be reelected to North East Fife?
Stephen Gethins: It doesn’t seem like any time at all since I was here before but it’s been an extraordinarily busy two years. We’ve helped thousands of people with cases ranging from benefits but also the University, people with immigration issues, but a big issue, the big issue for the University, a big issue for St Andrews and elsewhere in North East Fife has been Europe. And I’m the Europe spokesperson, as part of that strong group of SNP MPs providing effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster and I’m someone that used to work in the European Union.
Now, in the next parliament big decisions are going to have to be made about our future relationship with Europe, as well as big decisions on tax, on pensions, on jobs and the economy. All these areas where Westminster has responsibility so given my background working in Europe, the work that I have done for the past two years and the needs of areas that rely on their relationship with Europe like North East Fife and St Andrews, to have that strong voice of Westminster, I think that makes me best placed to be the strongest candidate for this area.
TW: Okay, now obviously you mentioned that you’ve worked with the University, now why should students specifically vote SNP?
SG: You’re right, I worked with the University and I hosted the Principal and student representatives came down to Westminster because I was keen to get the University in there. One reason I wanted to work with the University was that there’s a policy vacuum just now. You know, post Brexit there’s a big policy vacuum and I want big employers and areas where students go to university to have had the ability to have their voice heard at the highest levels and that’s something I’ve been working very closely with the University. I was glad that they came down to Westminster so that we could collectively do a bit of lobbying on behalf of the University.
But I’ll be asking further on my track record. On the help I’ve given to the constituency, on the help I’ve given to the University. I want to continue to provide, but also for the fact that you don’t want St Andrews and elsewhere being overlooked. Now, we’ve been a little bit awkward, asking the difficult questions in Westminster and that’s a good thing and my question would be, do you want somebody down there asking the difficult questions or do you want another Tory who’s just going to add to these amazing majority when the Labour and the Lib Dems get cut by the Tories. Down south you want a strong voice and that’s what the SNP are providing but I think in particular that’s what I have provided, especially along the Europe issue.
TW: Okay, obviously as the incumbent candidate I get to ask you about your track record. What’s your proudest achievement to date both nationally and locally?
SG: Proudest achievement to date.. there’s been quite a lot. We’ve helped 5,000 people in two years and I think some of the stuff that we’ve been able to do ranging from getting successful immigration cases, you know and other successful cases. We had a girl who was a Chernobyl orphan she wanted to come over and stay with a family here which she had been doing every Christmas but she was refused and so we fought her corner and we got her visa. Similarly, putting forward a very positive pro-European case on a national level is something that we’ve been proud of and I’m truly pleased when two thirds of people in Scotland voted to remain part of the European Union. That was a campaign that I was a deputy director of as well. So there have been a whole range of issues from a local level to a national level that I’ve been working on, contributing on, working with local businesses, working with local families here, I’ve also been working with the University more broadly as well.
Down south you want a strong voice and that’s what the SNP are providing but I think in particular that’s what I have provided, especially along the Europe issue
TW: Now, obviously Brexit has been a big bit of your campaign, should students at all be concerned about the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence the same way that they were concerned about Brexit?
SG: Well, one thing that the SNP wants to do is to give people the choice, at the end of the Brexit process. The Lib Dems want to have a referendum as well but they haven’t really told us what the referendum’s about. We’re telling people what the referendum’s about so we’re giving people a choice. And I think if anything it helps to strengthen the relationship that the University and the student body has which is a good thing. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has already said we’ll see a strong, special relationship with Ireland, and I think that Scotland can have special status as well, we can maintain the common travel area, we can maintain the single market, and that’s good. And actually I think that can be good for the whole UK.
TW: Now, obviously there would be some rUK registered to vote here in East Fife. Do you think they would be voting actively against their interests if they vote for the SNP?
SG: Well of course you should. Look, I’ve met so many students from across the UK who are voting for me as well, which is fantastic and the reason for that is that is that we are the progressive party, who are the only ones who can stop the Tories, who can fight the Tories on issues that are of common concern. On benefits cuts, on the Bedroom tax, on austerity and damage to the public services, on Europe as well. So these are areas where we have commonality, and I think that it doesn’t really matter where people come from, we all live here together and I’m really pleased with the amount of support that I’m getting from people across the UK.
TW: Obviously the First Minister visited about a week ago to talk to students about trying to maintaining of Erasmus. What, as well as Erasmus would you be fighting for in the next parliamemt?
SG: So this is something that’s important to me on a personal basis as I was an Erasmus student, it’s incredible for the student experience but over and above that for the research industry. The University of St Andrews is a fantastic area for some of the research it does in collaboration with European universities. A lot of money comes in to North East Fife, it’s good for the economy. Now what happens to projects like Horizon 2020 after 2020? The University still doesn’t know – we’re not getting any answers out of the government. We’re going to be asking tough questions on issues like research, on issues like freedom of movement. Remember this, you’ve got research, you’ve got freedom of movement – St Andrews is a richer, more diverse place because it is such an international community and I want to do all that I can to help the University to thrive.
TW: Now, the Lib Dems, as we’ve mentioned before are promising a second referendum on Brexit, are you at all worried about losing student votes for people who don’t necessarily want Scottish independence, who want to remain part of the EU as the Lib Dems have promised?
SG: Well look, the SNP is the only party that has explicitly said we want membership of the European Union. You know, Tim Farron is selling himself as I’m a bit of a Euro-sceptic. I’m not sure that I entirely trust him but the First Minister and I have said that we want to see Scotland as a member state of the European Union. Tim Farron says he wants to maybe be taken out, he keeps talking about the direction of travel – so if you’re in favour of Europe I think that the only party that you can really trust is the SNP. The party that has been leading the charge on this has been the SNP, and I’ve been leading this as SNP spokesperson on Europe. So if you want a strong voice in terms of Europe then just look at my track record, have a look at the work that I’ve been doing in parliament. Secondly on the question you raised, if you’re a Lib Dem voter here do not be in any way, shape or form complacent about the Tories. Electoral calculus who got a lot more seats right than the pollsters did think this is a race between the SNP and the Conservatives. So if you want to vote for a pro-Europe party and you want to keep out the Tories then vote SNP.
St Andrews is a richer, more diverse place because it is such an international community and I want to do all that I can to help the University to thrive
TW: Now, the Conservatives, as well as you, have adopted a campaign rhetoric of vote for the Conservatives as a vote against the SNP and likewise the SNP has adopted a campaign rhetoric of vote for the SNP as a vote against the Tories or Westminster, do you believe this is a fair campaign strategy?
SG: I think that people need to be aware of the dangers. We talk about these strategies, but here I think that one thing that has been shown in Westminster for the past two years is that there is a clear blue water in terms of our position on Europe and our position on social issues, our position on the economy, and that of the Tories. And that’s why we’ve been described by political commentators as the effective opposition. You know, at a time where the Lib Dems are pretty irrelevant, they’re not making much progress, a time when Labour are at civil war, the SNP’s providing effective, united opposition, and that’s something that I think is good for the whole of the United Kingdom. But regardless of which party is in government, be it the SNP in the Scottish Parliament or the Conservatives down in Westminster, having strong effective opposition who asks difficult questions is the reason why we have a parliamentary democracy. So I would suggest that if you don’t want another Tory spokesperson, even if you don’t believe in independence this is about Westminster and having an effective voice in Westminster and that is why I would encourage anyone in St Andrews to vote SNP.
TW: Now obviously an issue that is incredibly relevant to students is the HMO ban, which in turn has been blamed for driving up house prices and preventing students from moving into town. That is up for review this summer, now what do you think of the HMO ban and will you perhaps lobby for its appeal?
SG: Well look it’s something that from day one, before I was elected that I think that for a combination it is something that everybody has got their concerns about here and actually I know that for instance a lot of students commute in and out, some are happy to live in Dundee, Dunfermline, Cupar, which is great, some would like to live here but are unable to and don’t feel like they get the full student experience, it’s something I get regularly at surgeries, so I think that looking at any way to make St Andrews more affordable is something that we need to look at seriously and something which I’ve already lobbied to the Scottish government about, given the areas that are devolved to Holyrood but something that I look forward to continuing to do. It’s a great place to be at University. It’s a great place to live, work, study and we want to continue to make it good for folk that live here and an attractive place for people to want to come to as well.
TW: so I think I did ask you briefly what student issues you’d be fighting for in terms of Brexit. Could you clarify what kind of general issues you and the SNP will be fighting for come 2017?
SG: Well look, let’s not forget that in general the SNP was the party that put free education on our manifesto and delivered on that, unlike, say the Lib Dems or the other parties. We think that your place at university should be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay. That’s something that we think is important. It’s also an investment, we should try to get that wider pool of people coming to university, being able to do the courses that they want to do and then they will subsequently go and make contributions to the economy. I also think that immigration is important. The reason I say that is that if people come here to university they may get skills and want to live here, why shouldn’t we try and keep their skills here. If people are happy living here, that’s important. Similarly, if people want to go off as I did with freedom of movement, I lived and worked elsewhere in the European Union, when I worked in the EU but also when I worked elsewhere – I want people to have the same opportunities. I would like to think that I benefited from freedom of movement – and I brought the skills and experience back to Scotland and to my local area. When I’ve come back home so that’s important. But I think that there are broader issues, I think poverty, and affordability, make the university somewhere that is successful for all is really important but is sat at the heart of SNP policies
TW: Going back to tuition fees, you’ve said that it should be affordable for everyone. Now, Scottish students receive it for free, RUK students do not. Do you believe that’s fair?
SG: Well RUK students don’t receive it for free because the government that represents them doesn’t then provide the right for free education. Now we have consistently voted for free education at Westminster, we wish that the UK government would deliver free education. I know it must be frustrating for people but in Scotland people get the government that they voted for, Scotland is one that delivers free education, I wish that the government south of the border would follow the lead of Holyrood.
TW: So briefly can you just tell me about your experience as the Euro spokesman for the SNP and more about your track record in parliament?
SG: Well, my experience as a Euro Spokesman, when I went to Parliament I was the given the Euro spokesperson role and it’s been something of a roller coaster. I was taking a bill through parliament about 3 weeks after getting elected, the EU referendum bill. It was the first bill to go through. I was lucky to get help from colleagues to help to take it through but it was a baptism with fire, it was good to be thrown in at the deep end and have that experience.
So I’ve been doing a lot of work but one thing that it’s allowed me to do is that, the European question covers so many areas and there’s the rights and the responsibilities, it covers the environment, climate change, the economy, jobs, almost every aspect for a life role would be covered in some way by taking yourself out of the European Union, so as a spokesperson I’ve been able to put the issues that are important to North East Fife, to St Andrews: education, food and drink industry, tourism, front and centre of that debate and that’s something that I’m able to do for the four of those in the press and in the other platforms that are available to me and I think that’s a great asset to be able to do that.
In terms of other work, obviously one of the things that I’d do when I was first elected was that I established the old party group of golf. I’m not a great player, and I wasn’t for playing, but that was particularly relevant to St Andrews and North East and Fife, it looked at the health benefits, the economic benefits, the benefits to small business it’s getting the most from it, making sure there are opportunities for young people and again in this area it worked very well to work with representatives of other political parties as well. And then our casework, I don’t care how people voted, what their background is, I’m here to represent everybody, and we’d be able to help 5,000 people who have an awful lot of life cases, a wide range of different issues, and I want to continue that work.
TW: So why should St Andrews students vote in this election?
SG: This is going to be one of the most important elections people have ever voted in, it’s going to impact on every day of our life. Young people often don’t vote so for anybody who’s listening to this, go out and vote. I hope that you vote SNP but more than anything else go out vote and make your voice heard, that’s how you’ll make a difference. It’s crucially important.