Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Reclaiming my voice – Alison Payne

Somehow I’ve been working in politics for 20 years. I can’t quite believe so much time has passed, but as my eldest starts his teenage years, I am seeing more of that time reflected back at me. Twenty years in politics – though that is 20 years very much in the background, in amongst the facts and statistics.

For the last 14 years I have worked as the Research Director for Reform Scotland, though I began my career working for the Scottish Conservatives at Holyrood from 2000 (initially as an intern during my last year of university) to 2006.

Those were the early days of devolution and it was a fascinating learning experience. I had friends in different parties and met my late husband, who was a public servant, then too. The debates, and arguments, taught me so much.  I didn’t always agree with the policies pursued by those who I worked for, but those discussions helped me shape my own views. I tried to listen and to learn and was lucky enough to meet people from across the political divide who inspired me.

I don’t hide the fact that I worked for the Scottish Conservatives. It is on my biog on the Reform Scotland website. I also stood as a council candidate for the party twice (in 2003 and 2007). I lost both times. I believe strongly in localism and, regardless of the fact that these council elections were long before the independence referendum, the big issues in those elections were rightly local ones. That was especially the case in 2007, when the issue of a new high school was a fierce local debate. As a former pupil of the local high school I was a strong advocate in favour of a new school being built, a position I shared with candidates in some of the other parties.

Of course, when you are tied to a party you have to advocate publicly for some policies you may not always agree with – the same is true for all politicians.

However, my links to the Conservative Party largely ended in 2007. A huge amount has happened both nationally and personally since then and a quick glance at my Twitter feed will illustrate that my views and those of the Conservative party frequently diverge. Indeed, I think I have since voted SNP, Labour and Lib Dem at different elections.

In the 14 years I’ve worked for Reform Scotland I have researched, written and advocated publicly and personally for a wide range of policies, from a Basic Income to Road Pricing; greater fiscal devolution to banning short prison sentences; graduates contributing to the cost of higher education to improving the business environment.

Our different policy proposals have been both welcomed and criticised by different parties. Reform Scotland is not aligned to any political party, works with them all, and wants to push the public policy debate. Although it has argued for far greater fiscal devolution, it has not taken a stance on the constitution.

Over the years I have regularly spoken on the TV or radio about our work, always billed as Research Director at Reform Scotland. I do so knowing many people will disagree with whatever policy I am discussing, but I want to engage in that debate.

Speaking publicly is something I have always been nervous of – I am very much more a back room person – but debate is important and I have tried to grow and adapt into that side of the role. But now the nerves have turned to dread.

The BBC journalist Sarah Smith recently talked of the abuse she has received as a result of reporting on Scottish politics. It has put the debate about the abuse – suffered disproportionately by women, and targeted at those across the political spectrum – back in the spotlight. Despite, or perhaps because, Scotland has produced a number of inspiring female politicians in recent years, including Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale who have all led their parties, as well as leading political commentators like Smith, there seems to be more trolling and online abuse and it always seems to be more aimed at women than men.

I am no-one. I have held no elected office and it has been 15 years since I last attempted to. And yet, a Twitter account with over 26,000 followers, including many leading politicians, has had a tweet about me as its pinned tweet for nearly two years.

In June 2020 I spoke to the BBC about proposals to return kids to school following the initial lockdown. I had voiced concerns that while some councils were proposing pupils return for half the week, in Edinburgh the proposals were for only one day per week. My main concern was the actions of councils, not Holyrood, and the potential postcode lottery of education provision that was being proposed.  I was speaking on behalf of Reform Scotland, I was billed as such, but the BBC also mentioned I had two school age children, as my family was directly impacted as I live in Edinburgh.

I have no idea why, at that point, the trolls came out. Not one person questioned my central point about the unfairness of some kids potentially getting twice as much in-person schooling as others, but they all questioned my right to ask.

Led by the Twitter user I mentioned, a constant barrage of tweets and social media interactions came my way. I am well aware that it was a microcosm of what too many people receive, but for me it was all-encompassing. It didn’t stay on Twitter either. Although my Facebook is private, people were finding the odd post I had made public and taking the opportunity to have a go at me. I was receiving messages from friends who were linked to political groups on Facebook to let me know that more and more posts about me were popping up (and I am hugely grateful to those individuals who challenged what was being said).  Politicians, including MSPs and councillors who had never met me, retweeted conspiracy nonsense about my links to the Conservative Party. Again not a single one of these individuals appeared to disagree with my central point and defended the idea that it was ok that some kids would get half as much in-person schooling as others.  But they all thought they had the right to shut down my right to an opinion due to what I may have done 13 years previously. It was as if everything I had done in the intervening years counted for nothing. 

I was not, as was suggested by the trolls, speaking as simply a “worried parent”. I was not billed as a random person off the street, rather I was clearly labelled as being from Reform Scotland. People took issue that my previous links to the Conservative Party were not mentioned. But it was not relevant because I was speaking on behalf of Reform Scotland. The photo on the pinned tweet even has “Reform Scotland” under my name. 

Most people of course don’t actually look at what is written or said, they just re-tweet and join the pile on. I was subsequently accused of arguing that all pupils should return no matter what – when I said nothing of the sort. I was accused of saying a whole range of things, despite the easy proof that this was untrue. I tried to engage with those who shared the lies and occasionally someone would apologise and delete. But for the most part they did not. They just didn’t seem to care.  I wasn’t a person, rather another bandwagon they could jump on.

As it happens, another media outlet had also asked to interview me about the issue. I turned them down as they were wanting to speak to me as a parent, not as someone representing Reform Scotland. I said that I thought that would be difficult given my role and what we had been saying as an organisation.

I have only once spoken out on a policy matter from a purely personal standpoint. It was in 2016/17 when I was involved in a campaign against changes being made to what was then Widowed Parents’ Allowance. I was part of a group of widowed parents, who would not be affected by the changes, campaigning against the UK Government’s proposals to dramatically cut support to new claimants.  I spoke out against the changes in the press and media. At no point did anyone question my right to do so.

I most recently went on the radio to promote Reform Scotland’s work a few days after Christmas. We had published a report calling for a 1p increase in income tax in Scotland to help pay for social care and enable the implementation of the Feeley Review. It so happened that the report criticised UK Conservative Party policies. On Radio Scotland, I advocated a tax rise and explained the work Reform Scotland had published. The trolls came for me again. I had quoted Douglas Ross at one point, not favourably, but to make the point that there was pressure to spend the Health and Social Care Levy on the NHS, and that if it is spent on that it can’t then be also spent on social care. Regardless of the fact that I was talking about a report that was critical of the UK Government and advocating for an income tax rise in Scotland, a policy that the Scottish Conservatives certainly don’t support, I was dismissed as a Tory. Little engagement on the policy once again, just an attempt to shut down my ability to talk at all.

In 14 years at Reform Scotland I have written and publicly spoken in favour of many controversial policies. My comments in June 2020 were not controversial – it was a fair question. Indeed the policy was changed in the end. But those pinned tweets and the conspiracy nonsense remain.

This is not about SNP/Independence bashing.  Although the trolls perceived me as being “anti-SNP”, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the abuse happens on all sides.   

The problem of how we treat those who disagree with us on social media is a matter for everyone – left/right; unionist/nationalist; leave/remain. As the First Minister said last week, the issue shouldn’t be used to bash the other side. Rather, all politicians should be collectively doing what they can to stamp it out. It shouldn’t be something that we just have to put up with.

This makes me so very angry. I am opinionated. I am not always right. I like to debate, to discuss, to learn. Circumstances change, policies develop. We all need to listen to each other more. Unfortunately, social media seems to be making listening and informed discussion much, much harder. All sides are sticking to their echo chambers. All sides engage in pile-ons and re-tweet things they shouldn’t.  All sides need to do better.

Alison Payne is the Research Director at Reform Scotland