At 16 I was very socially awkward and gauche. Ours wasn’t a happy home – there was a lot of tension between my parents. My mother had a very bad breakdown when I was 11 and she’d only partially recovered. I just switched off when I heard things happening around me that I didn’t like. I retreated into a little ball in my room.
Something happened at 16 which changed my life; I was chosen out of the blue to play Macbeth in the school play. I was baffled – I think the teacher realised there was potential I wasn’t aware of. He was right – I really was able to communicate to an audience. That transformed my way of looking at the world and myself, it gave me great confidence.
Deep down I felt the absence of warmth or affection from my own parents
I would advise myself not to think too much like an actor when I began engaging in political debate. Acting had helped me overcome this massive psychological hurdle of speaking in public but for a long time I approached every political discussion with the idea that I had to have my argument pre-scripted in my head.
I was determined to have an emotionally warm relationship with my wife and children. I was compensating – deep down I felt the absence of warmth or affection from my own parents, though they were very supportive. I’ve had two very happy marriages with two lovely women.
I’d reassure my young self that early success isn’t always for the best. l was always in the wrong place at the wrong time but taking the long way round meant I had a very fulfilling life before I got into parliament. Norman Lamont was in the year head of me at Cambridge – he was a star, president of the union, and very quickly became a Tory minister. His career peaked in his 50s then he had a disaster with Black Monday and disappeared into obscurity. I’m still going strong.
I was too emotionally overwhelmed by what I now see were quite petty, local and temporary problems when I was a councillor in Glasgow. I got caught up in internal wrangling with local party activists and I didn’t handle it very well. In the end, I walked away at the age of 30 and it took many years before I was back in a useful role.
This interview was originally published in The Big Issue in July 2009. Read more Letter To My Younger Self.