Bernard Ponsonby is telling me about John Cornfield, a former miner from Blantyre and the man who taught him most about politics. He provides some vivid, remembered snapshots of his old political mentor. It’s clear in the telling that a man such as this would never have been permitted to breach Holyrood’s platinum-lounge of managerial obsessives.

“John believed in things,” says Mr Ponsonby. “He had no formal education and was the only person from our scheme in Cambuslang who took The Observer. At 16, after I’d joined the Labour Party, he told me to read columnists like Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard.

“He was the election agent of Gilbert McAllister, the Labour MP for Rutherglen between 1945 and 1951 and he was dismissive of people who got their Socialism from books and detested the Militant Tendency.

“At meetings he would say: ‘The comrades took us to Nicaragua last month and we heard about the Sandinistas the month before. One of these days, they’ll move motions about youth unemployment in Cambuslang’. He had a Mick McGahey voice which came from the bowels of the earth.”

The Herald: Donald Dewar was the father of devolutionDonald Dewar was the father of devolution (Image: free)

McGahey’s name evokes another echo and with it a hint perhaps of where Mr Ponsonby’s true political heart rests. “During the first miners’ strike in 1972, Mick McGahey said: ‘There’s no greater law in my opinion than loyalty to your class’. There’s more than a germ of truth in that.”

Last week, Bernard Ponsonby retired after a 34-year career at STV in which he would become Scotland’s outstanding political broadcaster. When I’d told one senior SNP politician that he had agreed to an interview, she had smiled. “Bernard does his homework and you know that you need to be at the top of your game when he’s sitting across from you. It’s like being on a rollercoaster: scary but thrilling too.”

The prospect of a successful media career is a remote one when you’ve emerged from a working-class neighbourhood in 1960s and 1970s in west central Scotland and attended a state comprehensive. He entered this gilded fortress following his efforts to win the storied 1988 Govan by-election for the Liberal Democrats. “I got my career on the back of a lost deposit,” he says.

His jaggy eloquence (his voww-ellss a-rress-onate) and a formidable grasp of policy detail led to offers from STV and BBC Scotland who wanted him to pitch for a vacant slot on their News and Current Affairs desk.

The act of stepping away from a career in which you’re not permitted to cast judgment on the excursions and alarums of our national conversations must feel like a liberation and Mr Ponsonby has been doing some flexes and stretches. At an event the other week to mark 25 years of the Scottish Parliament he lamented the dearth of thinking. Care to elaborate on this, I ask him.

He’s observed Mrs Thatcher’s class war against the miners; the birth of devolution and the Scottish parliament; the rise of Tony Blair; the independence referendum; the demise of Scottish Labour and the ascendancy of the SNP. He’s witnessed the convulsions wrought by Brexit. All the big heavyweight political title fights have unfolded under his gaze.

And yet, I suggest, the politicians we’ve elected in Scotland have seemed wretchedly inadequate in rising to them all. Is this fair? “I was on the executive of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly,” he says. “Never once in the strategic journey towards devolution did anyone answer a simple question: what’s it for and what do we did with it when we get it?


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“In the 25 years of Holyrood it’s been governed by Social Democrats of one ilk or another. Every policy is road-tested against its ability to deliver net zero and that’s fair enough.

“But if you’re a Social Democrat you should be road-testing absolutely every single policy against its ability to make poor people less poor and to give working-class people more opportunity. It shouldn’t matter what your constitutional preferences might be. Aneurin Bevan once said: ‘The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism’.

“We seem to have been good at almost sleepwalking into certain policies: free personal care, for example. Free personal and nursing care was already given to poor people. Sir Stuart Sutherland’s initial report had the price tag at £140m a year. It’s much, much more than that now. Yet, there has been no serious debate about the outcomes of doing certain things from which lots of middle class people actually benefit. It means you can’t spend it in other areas.

“Twenty five years ago, especially in Glasgow, there was deeply embedded, intergenerational poverty. Schools weren’t delivering for certain children and this was rooted in chaotic family circumstances. People were unable to realise their potential. There were high rates of alcohol and drug addiction. Yet 25 years in nothing has changed in these places. The people who live in them have no real connection with the institution that governs them.”

I persist. Does this indicate a failure, then of devolution,” I ask. “Not of devolution,” he insists. “Instead, I think there’s been a gross failure of politicians to have any serious debate about how you solve the problems.”

He cites the names of two people who he believes do more for the quality of public discourse in Scotland than any opposition politicians at Holyrood. Yet, more than 95% of Scottish voters will never have heard of them. Step into the light, Stephen Boyle and David Phillips. Mr Boyle is Scotland’s auditor-general and Mr Phillips is associate-director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

“Boyle’s reports don’t always get the traction they should,” says Mr Ponsonby, “like the ferry fiasco in which he doesn’t miss and hit the wall. David Phillips, meanwhile, is a permanent pain in the arse of the Scottish Government because he debunks the spin on how much has been spent in different areas.”

Ironically, in the devolved era, we now live in a time when the Tories have led the opposition from an almost left-wing perspective. Normally, you would expert Tories to obsess about the creep of the state and whether or not you’re getting value for it. Yet they’ve offered very little in these areas. Mr Ponsonby agrees. “If you’re a left-of-centre Social Democrat, the role of the state is to intervene when the market won’t because there’s no profit. If housing targets can’t be met by the private sector it’s the role of the state to intervene in the public interest. Both Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson believed this. That’s why they built so many council houses. There are nearly 200,000 people on waiting lists for social housing. Let’s be clear about this: most will never get a house on current targets.

The Herald: Bernard Ponsonby is leaving STVBernard Ponsonby is leaving STV (Image: free)

“Nick Bowles, a former Tory Housing Minister offered something that went to the heart of it when he said that the biggest issue of social justice in Britain today was the inability of people to get housing. Years ago, both one-nation Tories and Social Democratic Labour politicians felt it was the role of the state to do this. Yet housing has never been even a top-three issue for the Scottish Parliament. That tells me a lot.”

We discuss the shape of the devolved state and how little it’s changed in 25 years of devolution and how civic Scotland is little more than one sprawling quangocracy that travels on subterranean rivers of quiet patronage. “There are almost 200 quangos in Scotland,” says Mr Ponsonby, “and our 32 local authorities waste massive amounts of money in a self-serving, eternal churn of highly-paid directors of finance at the top of a swollen council executive suite. Yet no one wants to reform this.”

He leaves me with some Donald Dewar anecdotes because, well … everyone loves a good Donald Dewar tale. “I admired him enormously, though we didn’t get on. When he was on form he was hysterically funny.” He uses a glorious euphemism to describe Scotland’s most eminent former First Minister. Mr Dewar was “a man of uneven temperament”.

He recalls the late Kenneth Munro, a university contemporary of Mr Dewar turning up in Glasgow one day and saying: “How’s your mother, Donald?”

“Dead! Quite dead.”

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry.”

“Why? She wasn’t your mother.”

“He would have hated the fuss of his own funeral. He once told me: ‘Don’t you find funerals an exercise in over-emoting. And expensive. We should just extend the remit of the cleansing department of the council so that they can come and take the body and dispose of it’. I’m not entirely sure he was joking either.”

I’m not entirely sure that Donald Dewar would have approved of what his beloved Holyrood has become.