After Heriot’s Blog

Next on the blog we have Ben Macpherson

Please get in touch if you wish to share your story ‘after Heriot’s’.

Ben Macpherson, Class of 2002

Photo of former pupil ben pcphersonWhat is your current role?

MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith; Minister for Social Security and Local Government (my fourth portfolio in in the Scottish Government).

Previously, in 2018-2020 I was Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, with a focus on European engagement on devolved matters, migration issues affecting devolved policy areas and the Scottish Government’s international development initiatives in Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Pakistan.

In February 2020 I became Minister for Public Finance and Migration, including helping with getting support to people and businesses during the pandemic.

In December 2020 I became Minister for the Natural Environment and Rural Affairs for six months, helping to take the Climate Change Update Plan through parliament and dealing with agricultural issues arising from Brexit.

Now I feel very honoured to have the responsibility of the Social Security portfolio, especially at this challenging time. Since the Scotland Act 2016 and Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 passed, around 15% of the social security spend has been devolved, including disability benefits. The Scottish Government currently delivers 12 benefits, including 7 new benefits it has introduced (as well as 5 replacements for UK benefits that were devolved). This includes the recently extended Scottish Child Payment. This has been described by anti-poverty campaigners as a “game changing” benefit for families on low incomes, and from this winter households with eligible children under 16 will receive £25 per week per child. Important extra support. I also enjoy working with local government on shared policies and priorities.

What was your journey to get there?

At school I was passionate about building a fairer society and the importance of politics in that. And so, I joined the Labour Party and was grateful that my S6 work experience was in the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency, with the Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm – my predecessor. It was an interesting time, with the recent opening of the Scottish Parliament. I then went to work for Standard Life after school to earn money to visit China, and on my return, I went to the University of York to read Politics and Philosophy. During that time after school, I began to re-evaluate my beliefs because of the war in Iraq, more exposure to other points of view at university, and an inner determination to be openminded. I left the Labour Party and took some time out of party politics.

During the summer between my first and second years at university I organised and undertook a walk from Edinburgh to London to experience more of the UK in an unusual way, and to raise awareness for a charity that promotes ceasefire and non-violence. I funded doing this project using a gift that I had been left to me by a family friend in his will, and that person had been a Japanese POW. I felt putting this money towards something which promoted peace was a good and apt thing to do.

I worked in London the next summer then moved back to Edinburgh after I graduated. I wanted to act on the determination I’ve had since I was at school to make Scotland a fairer place. Scotland can and should be a fairer place. However, I wasn’t quite clear about what was the right path to walk, to best affect the social change I wanted to see and be part of.

Keen to try different experiences and learn from others, I worked briefly for a Public Affairs agency, then in a big bank’s corporate social responsibility department, then in a combination of a number of schools and hospitality roles. I also nearly became a teacher (and haven’t ruled this out indefinitely), worked for a renewable energy company and travelled a bit more.

And during all this time (since 2006) I was doing a lot of voluntary political work. I had joined the SNP in 2005 when I was still in York, and as soon as I moved back to Edinburgh I got involved in campaigning, organising and attending conferences and other events. But I had to earn a living too and didn’t want to work in politics behind the scenes. If I was ever going to stand for election, I wanted to have worked outside of politics first.

In 2010 I applied to the University of Edinburgh’s Law School and undertook a two year Accelerated LLB course. I then went on to complete the Diploma in Legal Practice and qualified as a Solicitor with one of Scotland’s most prominent commercial law firms. There I learnt more about Scotland’s economy, and helpful skills that I use now representing constituents.

In 2015 Malcolm Chisholm announced his intention to retire at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. Many people contacted me to encourage me to stand for election, including (importantly to me) several outside of party-political circles. Living in the area and with a similarly constructive approach to Malcolm, I decided it was time to step up and try to serve. Ten candidates were standing for internal selection to be the SNP candidate. After several weeks of intense internal campaigning, I was selected as the SNP candidate. The election campaign then began, and I was extremely honoured and proud to be elected to represent the place I call home, in the Scottish Parliament.

What are your favourite memories of Heriot’s?

Mr McCabe’s classes. I learnt a tremendous amount from Mr McCabe. The key things I gained from his classes were a focus on writing clearly, a mantra to always try to ‘think for yourself’, and an appreciation that History is about ‘folk just like us’. A very inspiring teacher!

I also had a brilliant English Teacher called Sam Mort, who pushed and encouraged me. She is now Chief of Communication, Advocacy and Civic Engagement for UNICEF Afghanistan, based in Kabul. Another very inspiring person!

In the first full year that Heriot’s (eventually) had a football team, in 2002 we won the Inaugural Scottish Independent Schools’ Cup, beating Stewart’s Melville 3-2 in the final at Tynecastle Park. It was a superb team achievement and a day that I’ll never forget. Playing football outwith school was a very important part of my childhood and enabled me to meet a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. But I was also glad to get the chance to play for my school in S6, after many years of Herioters wrongly being denied the opportunity to do this. I’m glad that football at Heriot’s (for both boys and girls) has gone from strength to strength since I left.

Any top tips for current pupils when planning their future?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself after school. It can take time to find – or indeed plough – your own path. Work hard and embrace opportunities – you will learn something from every job you do and person you work with. Also, trust your instincts, take some risks when you feel it’s right and, importantly, make sure to enjoy your twenties! It is unlikely that you’ll find your perfect path straight away after school, college or university – so don’t be too hard on yourself. It takes you some time to find your way in the world, even if others around you seem like they’ve got it all worked out. I wish I’d known that earlier and stressed out a bit less in my twenties about getting things all sorted.

Lastly, try to understand the world from different perspectives – so much of human behaviour is to do with perception and mindset. Travel and bartending taught me this more than anything else I’ve done. This awareness and emotional intelligence really help me to serve my constituents better now as an MSP, and to make better policy as a government minister.

My journey in my twenties was varied, which helped me to self-critically develop my beliefs while picking up a range of useful skills and knowledge along the way. For example, in my current roles the interpersonal and organisational skills I learned working in hospitality have been as useful as the drafting and presentational skills I learned as a lawyer; some of the knowledge I have retained from insightful conversations with people from all over the world has been as invaluable as some of the important theories I learned from university lectures on law, politics, economics and philosophy. It is so important to try to see and sense the world from the perspectives and perceptions of others.