First year at Holyrood brings welcome new challenges for Tess
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AFTER building a successful career in the oil and gas industry last May saw Tess White swap boardroom for debating chamber when she was returned as an MSP for the North East region.
It was just her second tilt at gaining election – she stood for the Tories in the UK general election in 2019 – and the last year has been something of a whirlwind, starting with a campaign hemmed in by Covid restrictions through a busy legislative period for Holyrood.
The prospect of a fresh challenge and the experience of campaigning during the 2014 independence referendum were the sparks which spurred her to cast her hat into the political ring.
She said: "I became involved in politics as an activist a few years ago and just got the bug.
"This was around the time the Scottish independence referendum was in full swing and I couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up the UK, so that pushed me over the line.
"I’ve reached my 50s, and I achieved everything I wanted to professionally a few years ago. It felt like the right time to stand so that I could pursue the issues that are meaningful to me – women’s safety and wellbeing, creating a level playing field for women in the workplace, regenerating the north-east after the downturn, and protecting the Union.
"After working in industry for more than 30 years, political campaigning really put me through my paces! I’m certainly not a career politician, but I enjoyed the challenge of doing something so far removed from my working life."
The traditional image of candidates on the stump and knocking on doors went out the window during the campaign leading up to last May's Holyrood poll, with Covid regulations prohibiting many of the tried and tested methods used for reaching out to voters face-to-face. While it lent something of a strange air to the election, it was a fact of life candidates had to work their way around, with Ms White being no exception.
She recalled: "I want people to know their voices are being heard by political candidates, and that was difficult when you couldn’t chap on their door.
"But you just have to adapt to the situation – you can’t wring your hands about it. That meant giving people a call to ask them about their priorities instead of going door-to-door. I think people appreciated the opportunity to talk to a candidate after such a difficult and uncertain period during the pandemic."
Entering Holyrood for the first time usually makes it mark on new MSPs and it was the contrast between her former and future careers which first struck her. Politics, she said, is "what you make it".
"When you work in the corporate world, you’re given a job description, a line manager, and performance reviews. You have a good idea of what’s expected of you and you have past experience in similar roles to see you through.
"Your career in politics is what you make it. You really are starting from scratch, and there isn’t necessarily a blueprint to follow because every politician is so different. It’s a learning curve – there’s no denying that."
In what has been a busy year, one of the most rewarding moments for Ms White has been sharing a family tragedy in the hope of raising awareness of a condition affecting women.
She explained: "I recently gave an interview about my sister’s suicide five years ago while she was experiencing the menopause.
"It was very difficult to talk about – I still feel a huge amount of pain when I do. But I want to use my platform to help and advocate for others, and I know that far too many women out there are grappling with the major physical and emotional changes of the menopause. It’s a life stage that’s often little understood and not widely discussed, but with huge implications.
"So many people told me how the article had resonated with them. I sincerely hope that telling Jane’s story has brought greater awareness to the issue and has helped other women."
Regional MSPs in practice face different challenges than their constituency counterparts, not least in terms of the area they have to cover. Each of the seven electoral regions in Scotland typically covers 10 constituencies, meaning list MSPs often have a wider focus to the role.
However, this has proved a positive part of the challenge for Ms White.
"Representing the north-east, where I’ve lived and worked for many years, is a tremendous privilege," she continued.
"It’s my job to keep my ear to the ground and to do as much good as I can. It’s a big region to cover, but there’s no shortage of people to speak to – from residents and local businesses to frontline services, community councils, charities, and other organisations.
"I try to gather as much information as I can to make me as effective as possible for the people I represent."
With just over a year under her belt at the Scottish Parliament, Ms White has been left with a wide range of impressions, both positive and negative. The need for real scrutiny of the government was one of the top of her list, as was the need to have moments when political differences can be set aside.
"As a new MSP with a fresh pair of eyes, there’s much that Holyrood does well, and a lot that it could do better.
"So much activity in the chamber is scripted rather than spontaneous, and I think the Scottish Parliament is the poorer for it. We’ve seen the First Minister read out the wrong response to a staged question more than once, which raises questions about scrutiny. It can’t simply be a talking-shop, especially with the SNP-Green coalition in power.
"While Holyrood is a young parliament, it does a lot of good. I led a debate earlier in the year to mark International Women’s Day, an event which transcends the usual political point-scoring. I used my speech to tell the stories of the bravery and resilience of the women of Ukraine, who have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the war.
"So often politics is divisive but, on this occasion, we were united in solidarity. It was sobering."
As the current term of the Scottish Parliament enters its second year, Ms White has a new shadow portfolio to sink her teeth into while continuing to highlight issues affecting the north-east, including ensuring the region gets its fair share of funding.
She said: "I’ve just taken on a new portfolio as Shadow Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport, which I’m delighted about, and I’m excited to get cracking with it.
"Too often the north-east suffers at the expense of the Central Belt when it comes to healthcare, and this is something I want to challenge during the coming year.
"The frustration is that while I want to focus on areas like the delivery of NHS services in the north-east and the safety of the A90, which has been such a massive issue for residents for far too long, the SNP keep returning to independence. They’ve already earmarked £20 million for another referendum, and that pulls time and resources away from the issues that people in the north-east keep raising with me."
While a new career unfolds before her, the North East MSP has been able to bring plenty experience to bear from her former job.
She added: "I think you bring so much of your life experience to your role as an MSP, and that includes your previous career.
"I know first-hand how important it is to have a fair and managed transition to renewables for the energy sector in the north-east, and I’ve done a lot of work on this over the past year.
"But I was also a senior HR professional in industry and that’s meant I’ve been able to look at issues like skills planning with an experienced eye. It was also useful when I sat on the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee, which deals with complaints about MSPs and parliamentary procedure."