Interview: Ian Duncan, Government minister and St Andrews alumnus

The Saint speaks to St Andrews alumnus and government minister in the Scotland office - Ian Duncan.

Photo: Harry Gunning

Ian Duncan (or, to give him his full title; The Right Honourable, The Lord Duncan of Springbank, in the County of Perth, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland) credits his time as an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews as being key to the path he has since taken. Before entering his current post, he held senior positions – working on policy development – with the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation and the Scottish Refugee Council, before becoming head of the EU Office for the Scottish Parliament, and then a clerk for the Parliament’s European committee – stepping down in 2013 to enter politics, being elected as a Conservative MEP for Scotland.

In an interview with The Saint during a visit to St Andrews (in which he spoke in defence of the House of Lords at a Union Debating Society debate), Lord Duncan describes his time at St Andrews as “instrumental” to his entering politics and eventually, government.

“It gave me exposure to all different sorts of people, it probably inspired me, I took on lots of debating [Lord Duncan is a former present of the Union Debating Society] and public speaking became a big thing, and public communication,” he says.

Going on, he adds, “That would have been the heart of my beginning to do policy, as my life’s been in policy and policy development. So I think St Andrews started that, and I can remember actually telling myself that I would go to the debating society and take part in it if I could, and I took part in the first main speakers’ competition and got to the final.”

“We didn’t win,” he notes.

“Every step along the way was important but the first one I made in St Andrews was probably the one that got me where I am today,” he says.

Where he is today is a matter of some controversy. After failing to gain the seat of Perth and North Perthshire for the Scottish Conservatives in the general election earlier this year by just 21 votes, he was appointed to the House of Lords in order to enter government.

Defending the move, Lord Duncan says, “I think, I didn’t get the appointment because I didn’t win Perth and North Perthshire, I actually got it because of 15 years working in European affairs at a time when Brexit is the most important defining moment in our nation’s recent history.”

Every step along the way was important but the first one I made in St Andrews was probably the one that got me where I am today

Lord Duncan also argues he can make more of a difference as a lord and government minister.

“I knew that in the two years remaining to me, British MEPs would decline in their relevance, and I knew that the opportunity to be part of the play in terms of Brexit representing Scotland as best I could, would be probably the most important contribution I would make in public life,” he states.

Indeed, Lord Duncan also notes that he believed that the importance of his position, and of the House of Lords in general, could be soon proved as the government begins to steer the legislation around Brexit through parliament.

“I think we’ll see in the next year, as the Brexit legislation evolves, there will be far more amendments in the Lords, where there is no in built majority for the government, the government cannot push things through, as a majority government can in another legislature, it has to accommodate, broadly, a much wider balancing of direction,” he says.

On his specific responsibilities as a government minister in the Scotland office, Lord Duncan cites the process of leaving the European Union as by far the overriding concern of his work.

Going on to explain, he says, “The issue we’re facing right now is, how do we make sure that the Scottish exceptions are understood and recognised as the UK determines its positions, both during the Brexit negotiations and during the post-Brexit future, so it is to make sure in the sectors I represent, so I cover fishing, farming, agriculture, higher education, financial services and these sort of things, how is Scotland different?”

He continues, “And how then can we ensure that that difference is recognised, respected and is part of the play as we negotiate and emerge through the other side.”

Since the vote to leave the EU in 2016, the Scottish Government has argued that many of the powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to Westminster should be further devolved to Holyrood and the other devolved legislatures. Lord Duncan argues that while further devolution is, he believes, inevitable, it should happen after a “common framework” has been established for these powers across the UK.

“There will be a swathe of powers that will go,” he says, adding, “in some cases it will be 100 per cent, in others it depends on what the stakeholders want, it might need a different balance, but it should be determined by what the stakeholders think is right, rather than claiming to power play between the Holyrood parliament and the Westminster parliament.

“What do stakeholders need, that’s the question that must drive what we do next, what do stakeholders need inside the UK to make the UK single market work and the wider rules work. And the one thing you can’t do, on day one, is spend months, or longer, trying to work out what rules should be a common rule and what rules should not be a common rule.”

Lord Duncan also argues that many of the proposals floated by the Scottish government, such as Scotland remaining within the European Single Market while the rest of the UK leaves, as unrealistic.

He goes on to add that on many of the wider questions around Brexit, such as whether or not to leave the single market, there had been a clear answer from the electorate.

I think Britain will remain an attractive place to do business and an attractive place to study

“I was a Remainer, I was an MEP, I campaigned for reform over a long period – the referendum result was close, there’s no point denying it,” he says, continuing, “ but the general election result wasn’t, the two main parties advocated a very clear position on Brexit, add them together and that is broadly speaking 80 per cent of the country – so the notion of their being a closeness now, in terms of what we’re going to do next, and the parties that either advocated a second referendum, like the Liberal Democrats, or a very different settlement like the SNP, neither of those parties made any progress.”

On the question of immigration, Lord Duncan also defends the government from criticism that it is not doing enough to support movement of students and staff for higher education institutions like St Andrews, especially in light of the government’s wish to end freedom of movement within the EU. Saying that the government is looking at how to protect membership of institutions like the Erasmus and Marie Curie programme, Lord Duncan argues that we should also be looking outside of Europe, at how to encourage students and staff from place such as America, India or Australia to come to the UK.

“There’s no suggestion right now, I would argue, that we’re closing shop, shutting down, or any of those things, it’s a question of what we need to design to get it right.

“I think Britain will remain an attractive place to do business and an attractive place to study, the reason Americans come here, is not because we have an open door policy to bring them in. They come here because St Andrews is the best university to come to, and they come, in their numbers.”

Lord Duncan also defended the attitude of the government towards international students in general, which many, including University Principal Professor Sally Mapstone, have criticised as being too harsh and restrictive.

“We need to get it right, and at the moment, St Andrews [and other UK universities] is a remarkably attractive place to study,” he says.

Going on, he adds, “We need to make sure we do nothing to diminish that attractiveness, and we need to find the right settlement post-Brexit to ensure that freedom of movement is replaced by something that is actually a sensible movement that encourages the brightest and the best to come and stay.

“I think students will still continue to come to St Andrews both from the EU and from further afield – it’s part of the reason why St Andrews is the best university in Scotland.”


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