"Repeat after me, I am a member of the Liberal Party" - Danny Alexander

February 1, 2014 3:48 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Danny Alexander, a man not normally known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, was doing just that when I joined him at the Treasury for our interview. Sporting Union Jack cufflinks, he told me proudly, "We must keep the United Kingdom together." Looking ahead to next September's Independence Referendum, he said, "As one of only two Scots in the Cabinet I play a big role in that. For too long people have associated the Union Jack with one section of politics in this country. It's the flag of the whole country and we need to own it as Liberal Democrats."

Alexander's office in the Treasury is, like him, lofty without being stuffy, with hints of a more genteel time. A portrait of Gladstone hangs alongside Scottish landscapes and his daughters' crayon drawings.

Alexander grew up on Colonsay, a small island in the Inner Hebrides near Islay. With 120 residents and plenty of space to roam, Alexander remembers it fondly. "It's an amazing place. There's a closeness of community which is great. My dad had a wee boat and so we used to go fishing regularly on the sea around Colonsay, and come back with a whole load of mackerel. And then we would take them round to the neighbours because we had too many. We wanted them all to benefit from it." So small was the community that Alexander's mother tells him he could identify every vehicle by its sound alone. His other pastimes included sitting on the rocks, watching the horizon for the twice-weekly ferry that connected Colonsay with the Scottish mainland. Alexander's father was a potter, pier master, coastguard and fireman, and typical of the tight-knit community which was close and self-reliant. "Because there's no one else you can turn to, everyone on the island can look after themselves."


Has life in that little cottage by the harbour without mains electricity made Alexander the politician he is today? There's a long pause while he looks at the horizon again and considers his reply. "I love being outside, I love walking, nature, birdwatching, fishing. So it definitely shapes the kind of person I am. But he cautions, "I'm always slightly leery of politicians who claim that some event when they were three years old shapes their political outlook."

Alexander does recount an episode when he was six months old and his grandfather was found rocking his pram, saying, "Repeat after me, I am a member of the Liberal Party." "So maybe that did have some effect," he smiles.

His grandfather Andrew, 96 and a party member, still comes to conference and sits in the hall for Alexander's speeches. "He thinks I'm improving! It's rather wonderful to have someone with such a long view. He's been a member of the party since the 1950s, so he sees things in real perspective."

Alexander's parents were also interested in politics and he remembers his father being "in a bad mood for days" after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. But Westminster seemed very remote and felt like it didn't affect life on Colonsay: "It was just images on the television screen," he says. His liberalism therefore is rooted more in everyday life: "I think liberalism means many different things, but part of it is a belief in community and a belief in the individual. I mean you want to give everybody the best chance that you can in life. And I feel I had that because of the kind of community I grew up in."

As a teenager Alexander first met his MP, Russell Johnston, at a public meeting in Invergarry village hall. Local residents were opposing Ministry of Defence plans to install a communications aerial in the village.

"The whole population of Glengarry turned out to berate these two hapless MoD officials who Russell had brought before us to explain themselves. Soon afterwards the project was dropped and I remember thinking afterwards: there's an MP making a real difference to a little community." Years later, working as a press officer for the Liberal Democrats, Alexander looked up to the then-Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Jim Wallace, who gave Alexander a view of what Lib Dem MPs could achieve, and inspired him to try to become one himself.

Now, as the country's Treasurer, Alexander is rarely cast as a hero. "I have to say no to people an awful lot." He's pragmatic about it though: "It's just necessary. You might say 'Well wouldn't it be nice if we could have our first experience in government in a long time in more benign economic circumstances? But you've got to deal with the world as it is. Provided you go into it as I do with a very strong recognition that the numbers on the spreadsheet - those numbers represent services that people rely on: jobs, people working in the public sector, this is a bloody serious business. And you're constantly thinking about what are the impacts of it, then I just think it is a job that needs to be done and I'm glad that I'm a Liberal Democrat and not a Conservative!" With another nod to Russell Johnston, Alexander says, "Maybe I'm rather old-fashioned in this respect, but I think if you do the right thing in life, then I hope people eventually recognise that and give you some credit for it." Without going as far as expecting someone to hang his portrait in their office one day, he does admit that a small portrait of himself hangs "in some corner of the Scotland Office" following his seventeen-day tenure as Scottish Secretary.

Dismissing accusations that he is a Tory at heart, Alexander explains his approach to Coalition government, "We have to work together because we agreed to and we have a duty to make as good a job of being in Government as we can. As Mr Gladstone would no doubt have observed, were he here, rather than sitting on the wall, discipline about the public finances is not a Tory virtue, it's a Liberal virtue." Government, he says, is about difficult decisions: "This country's had its fill of governments who pretended there weren't difficult choices that had to be made and part of what we're trying to do is be honest with people and say there's no easy way out of these problems. In the end, if you want sound public finances you don't have the space or the resources or the stability to achieve all of our social goals."

Alexander's proudest achievement in Government is asking the wealthiest to make the biggest contribution - by cutting income tax for 25 million working people, as well as going harder on tax avoidance and tax evasion than any government before. He also looks forward to raising the income tax threshold to the minimum wage. "By the end of this parliament we'll be raising ten billion pounds more from tax dodgers than we were when we started. It's a good Lib Dem achievement!" As we joke that that is a lot of money to find down the back of the sofa, I tell him about my teenage daughter's knack of finding coins on the ground and saving them in a jar she calls her Pavement Premium. I mention finding a pound coin the previous day in Parliament Square. He asks whether I brought it to the Treasury to help him with the deficit, but the pound went in the jar, for the boots that Phoebe is saving towards. "That's brilliant!" he says, and enquires how close she is to her target.

As we end our discussion with photographs, Alexander reflects on the stranger aspects of his job so far: a satirical song about feeding him to the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo; the Ginger Rodent beer brewed in his honour by a brewery in his constituency. "There's even a tailor's shop in Pakistan that had a picture of me above its hoarding. So I'm a fashion icon in Islamabad, which is extraordinary." He finds all these "hilarious" while remaining dedicated to the job in hand.

Just as I am leaving, Alexander, who has two daughters himself, says how much his family keeps him grounded and mindful of the importance of his work. Producing a pound coin from a small pot on his desk, he says, "Here, give this to Phoebe, and tell her you found it in the Treasury."