At 16 I was Jack the Lad. I’m not sure of the details of the statute of limitations, so I probably shouldn’t go further than that. It was the summer of 1970, and the ’60s had just arrived in Dundee. I was a mod, with the whole look, listening to Motown and Stax. I was pretty hip. I was playing football three times a weekend. I was going dancing every Saturday night. I was 16 going on 21. I don’t look fondly on it, I did a few things I’m ashamed of. Not illegal things but things you wouldn’t want your mother reading about in The Big Issue. Involving the opposite sex? No comment.
If I met the teenage me now he might seem a bit uppity. A bit like the lads who come from the Oxford Union and address the Chancellor of the Exchequer like he’s their mate. Maybe I was the working-class version. I joined Labour at 14, and by 18 I was the youngest ever to be elected to the Scottish executive arm of the Labour Party Young Socialists, and the youngest ever constituency secretary. The Daily Record would have described me as a whizz kid. If I met that boy now, I think I’d spot real potential in him; leadership quality, fidelity to the cause. I’ve had a political life of 40 years. I like to talent spot, and sometimes I see real promise in a young person and I say to them – it’s my wee joke – you’re the most impressive 17-year-old I’ve met since I met myself.
I’d tell my younger self to think more before he speaks. I’d tell him not to unnecessarily upset people, though sometimes you need to upset people. The apple cart. But I don’t have any regrets about my political life. One of the most controversial things I did was to twin Dundee with Nablus, the Palestinian town in the West Bank, in 1980. Unbelievably controversial, and I did it without preparing people properly for the storm. I sometimes act too instinctively. But I don’t regret shaking things up with my stance regarding the Middle East and the Iraq war. I’ve been proven to be so right about the cataclysmic results of the war. I think that will be remembered.
I don’t regret shaking things up with my stance regarding the Middle East and the Iraq war
I knew at 17 politics was going to be my life. I was so pious then, I would never have called it a career. It was a revolutionary time. The Vietnam war. Overthrowing fascism in Portugal, Spain and Greece. Britain was in a state of industrial and political ferment. There was talk of a military coup. It really felt like a revolutionary moment. That’s why I found it so odd that at that very moment Alex Salmond decided to join the SNP. It was such a worldwide moment in history, the triumph of universalist ideas seemed possible. It seems an odd time to say nah, I’m going to work for a wee cause.
It was heartbreaking for me when I fell out with Labour. You’d think by 2004, with Blair as the leader and all the bitterness about the Iraq war, it would have been a relief. People told me I should have left before I was expelled. But you have to think how long I’d been in it – 36 years. And I really loved it. Its rituals, its structures, its vocabulary, its iconography. I knew I was going to be expelled because Blair had decreed it. But I still spent thousands of pounds trying to stop it. And the moment the blow from the kangaroo was delivered, it felt like a stab in the heart. I was very sad about it. I’m still very sad about it, talking to you about it now.
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I’ve never felt nervous standing up to speak. I can speak to the US senate in front of TV cameras, or a hostile crowd at the Oxford Union, and I’m always confident I know what I want to say and how to say it. As I said to ex-senator Coleman on that day in Washington, in 2005, when he was trying to bully me on procedural points – he thought he could come in like a prince and order me about: “Senator, don’t make the mistake of thinking I am afraid of you; I’m afraid only of God.” He was completely taken aback by this fearless working-class Catholic from Dundee who turned up at the US Senate and said, you’re getting it here. As George Bush might have put it, it was clear they had misunderestimated me.
I wouldn’t do Big Brother again but I don’t regret it. It raised a huge amount of money for the kids in Gaza. And it means that a layer of young people know who I am. But it was terrible, I hated it. It was a kind of madness. Bertrand Russell or Albert Einstein would have gone mad in there. I’ve never ever watched it, and I never will. I went in there intending to get through the time by writing a novel. But you end up becoming obsessed with… where did he get those fags? He didn’t have them yesterday.
I’m also a million miles ahead of anyone else in politics when it comes to social media
I’m not sure how I could prepare the young me for the media. Enoch Powell said a politician complaining about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea. I know 80 per cent of the time the purpose of the journalist is to rubbish and harm me. But you have to go through that, not just for the 20 per cent but for your supporters. I do most media, not all – I don’t talk to The Sun – with an aim to get my two or three points across. And if I do, that’s a victory for me. Sky News almost never has me on because I’ve given so many of them a doing, I don’t think they fancy it any more.
In terms of my personal life, I have lots and lots of regrets. People say, ‘Je ne regrette rien’ but only a few really mean it. I won’t go into details. Being a dad, though, is fantastic. I have a 20-month-old son who sleeps with us every night. He’s in my eyes right now as I drive, I can’t wait to see him. I have four children. It makes a fantastic difference to your life. I know Despicable Me 2 by heart. But I’m also a million miles ahead of anyone else in politics when it comes to social media. I have a million followers. Nobody else in politics has anything remotely like that. I knew about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram long before most people in politics.
Nobody likes the idea that they’re coming towards the end. As I look back now, as you’re asking me to, to that teenage boy with a very long road ahead of him… yeah, I have some regret. But that drives you on as well. As I said to someone this week, I don’t have many lunchtimes left. I don’t have any time to waste.