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“Alister Jack is not someone you can push around,” an MP who knows the Scottish Secretary well observed. “He’s not an appeaser on the Union. He’s very against the devolve and forget approach.”
Jack had just given proof of that by invoking Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to block Nicola Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Bill.
As Henry Hill remarked earlier this week on ConHome, Sturgeon has been thrown on the defensive by the rejection of her measure, and has been forced to give some acutely uncomfortable interviews in which she maintains that although trans women criminals are women, they should be held in men’s prisons.
While Sturgeon struggles, Jack has moved up to sixth in ConHome’s latest Cabinet League Table, with only Ben Wallace, Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly, Johnny Mercer and Penny Mordaunt now ahead of him.
Fame at last for the Scottish Secretary, who at the age of 59 is the third-oldest member of the Cabinet (exceeded only by Lord True, 71, and Mel Stride, 61), and is also, along with Wallace, the Defence Secretary, the longest-serving in his present job: both were appointed on 24th July 2019 by the then new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
Badenoch, in her capacity as Equalities Minister, and her adviser, Nikki da Costa (a former Director of Legislative Affairs for two PMs, Johnson and Theresa May), concluded that Sturgeon’s Bill would subvert the protection in the UK-wide Equalities Act 2010 of women-only spaces.
They lobbied Jack, who agreed with their analysis, but came under immense pressure from nervous Tories in Scotland, nervous officials in Whitehall including Sue Gray, the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, and nervous Conservative Whips at Westminster, not to defy Holyrood.
Jack stuck to his guns. He took the view that this was not a fight he had sought, but one which had been forced on him by Sturgeon’s precipitate action, and that she did not command public support.
The Scottish Secretary helped persuade Rishi Sunak that for the first time ever, Section 35 should be invoked.
It fell to Jack to announce this in the Commons, which he did on 17th January with studious moderation:
“I have not taken this decision lightly. The Government have looked closely at the potential impact of the Bill, and I have considered all relevant policy and operational implications, together with the Minister for Women and Equalities. It is our assessment that the Bill would have a serious adverse impact on, among other things, the operation of the Equality Act 2010.
“Those adverse effects include impacts on the operation of single-sex clubs, associations and schools, and on protections such as equal pay. The Government share the concerns of many members of the public and civic society groups about the potential impact of the Bill on women and girls.”
Coverage of that day in Parliament was dominated by the furious attack by Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab, Brighton Kemptown) on Miriam Cates (Con, Penistone and Stocksbridge), whom he accused of making a “transphobic, dog-whistle speech”, and by the hostile reception given on the Labour benches to their colleague Rosie Duffield (Lab, Canterbury) when she supported the Government.
Jack called on members to “take the heat out of this debate”, repeated that the Government was following “legal advice”, and said in reply to an angry Scottish Nationalist,
“I did not catch everything the hon. Gentleman said—my tinnitus gets the better of me sometimes.”
The Scottish Secretary has never sought, by arresting rhetoric, to draw attention to himself. This seems to be the first profile of him which has appeared south of the border, and even within Scotland no one has accused him of being a publicity seeker.
But as is often the case, he presents in smaller gatherings a different side of himself. A Cabinet minister called him “one of the most jovial and engaging members of the Government”, who “often makes the wittiest interjections in Cabinet discussions”.
Jack has a good relationship with Ian Murray, his Labour opposite number and fellow opponent of the SNP, but is happy to chat to Peter Murrell, Chief Executive Officer of the SNP and husband of Sturgeon, when they meet at some event.
And Jack is “an engaging and entertaining host” at his house on his 1200 acres near Lockerbie, in the Scottish borders, where he farms cattle. During the 2017 general election, when he entered the Commons as MP for Dumfries and Galloway, Kathryn Samson of STV asked him about the Scottish Conservative Leader and her attempt to change the Tories’ image:
“Ruth Davidson’s been trying to rebrand the Conservative Party, trying to get away from the stereotype that it’s all hunting, shooting, fishing toffs. Do you break that mould?”
To which Jack replied:
“No, not remotely. I mean I do enjoy country sports, I make no secret of that, I’m quite clear about that. But I’m local born and bred. I had my first job as a 16-year-old here in this mill. I don’t think class has anything to do with it – I think actions speak louder than words.”
He went on to suggest his success in business showed he would be able to achieve things for his region.
A Scottish colleague observes that Jack is “commercial gentry rather than nobility”, and has been “embraced by the Establishment”, witness his membership of the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland, the Royal Company of Archers.
After the Queen’s death, Jack, along with his fellow Archer Ben Wallace, was among those who kept vigil at her coffin in Westminster Hall.
He was born in Dumfries in 1963, and educated at Dalbeattie Primary School, Crawfordton House prep school and Trinity College, Glenalmond, the latter an independent school attended by many distinguished Scots, including Lord Falconer, a future Labour Lord Chancellor, Noel Skelton, the Unionist (i.e. Conservative) MP for Perth who in the 1920s conceived the idea of a property-owning democracy, and Lord Geidt, who was the Queen’s Private Secretary and last June resigned from the post of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to Boris Johnson.
On the lighter side of life, Glenalmond can boast the cartoonists H.M.Bateman and Graham Laidler, known as “Pont”, and the comic writer Miles Kington.
Jack’s father, a farmer, died at the age of only 46 in 1982, and his mother in due course remarried, and served for ten years as Lord Lieutenant of Dumfries.
Alister Jack is a former Deputy Lieutenant for Dumfries and former Chairman of the River Annan and District Salmon Fishery Board, The River Annan Trust, Fisheries Management Scotland and Wildlife Estates Scotland.
He is married with two grown-up daughters, and a son who is serving in the Scots Guards.
As a young man, Alister attended many 21st birthday parties, heard his hosts complain that “the tent cost a fortune”, reflected that within a few years the same people would be getting married and would once more need a tent, and along with a business partner, Cameron Stewart, in 1987 set up a tent-hire company called Field & Lawn.
According to The Scotsman, this business
doubled its turnover every year for a decade, expanding from an industrial estate in Broxburn to cover the entire UK. The hard grind of managing a large national labour force, not to mention the wear-and-tear of hysterical brides’ mothers and malicious British weather, was the toughest of training schools but it provided the platform for the self-storage business, which he [Jack] started in 1997 after stepping back from Field & Lawn.
Jack and another partner built up two self-storage businesses, in Britain and in France, which in 2007 they sold for £56 million, whereupon he took a fortnight’s holiday to go fishing for sea trout in Argentina, “very exciting, the biggest in the world”.
Not that he intended to neglect his business career, for as he told The Scotsman, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” At this high point in his fortunes, he had for a moment or two abandoned the understatement which comes naturally to him in his public statements.
In 1997, he stood as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, David Steel’s old seat, coming third behind the Liberal Democrats and Labour. For the next four years, he served as Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Tories.
The willingness to back his own judgment, and take unfashionable positions, which he showed as a businessman, is seen also in his life in politics.
Jack is a convinced Brexiteer, which is not the majority view in Scotland, entered the Commons in 2017, served a brief apprenticeship in the Whips’ Office, and having entered the Cabinet in the summer of 2019 as Scottish Secretary, remained loyal to the end to Johnson as Prime Minister.
In Out of the Blue, their account of Liz Truss’s premiership, Harry Cole and James Heale relate that in early January 2022,
“Chief Whip Mark Spencer was hosting Scottish Secretary Alister Jack on a day’s shooting in an estate in Devon. Between drives the tweed-clad pair were in a Land Rover with others, when Jack’s phone rang.
“As he was behind the wheel, Jack answered on the built-in handsfree. On the other end was the inescapable boom of Kwasi Kwarteng, voicing fears the PM was on his knees: ‘If it all goes wrong, what happens? Are you a Liz guy?’ Kwarteng asked Jack, with the eavesdropping Chief Whip flitting between silent laughter and seething incredulity.
“‘No, no, no I am not,’ replied Jack.
“‘Oh,’ said a disheartened Kwarteng, ‘so you are a Rishi guy?’
“‘No, let’s be clear Kwasi, I am a Boris guy,’ hit back Jack. ‘And furthermore I have the Chief Whip in the car with me.'”
“Alister is the only Scot I know who liked Boris,” someone who has known the Scottish Tories inside out for generations told ConHome.
This observer, who is no great admirer of Jack and reckons Johnson’s leadership was a disaster for the Tories in Scotland, nevertheless thought distributing money direct from the Treasury to local authorities in Scotland “is a good move, and some of the credit belongs to Alister”, and admitted Jack had been “masterly” during the recent parliamentary debate on Section 35, by repeating over and over again in a calm tone the word “legal”.
In his manner, Jack recalls earlier Scots Tories such as George Younger and Ian Lang, but in substance, he is a steelier figure, more reminiscent of Michael Forsyth.
Sunak has baffled the SNP by telling them over and over again that Westminster and Holyrood must “work together for the people of Scotland”.
Here is an impeccably moderate, consensual position with which most Scots agree, which Sunak and Jack are good at articulating, and with which the SNP has not yet worked out how to disagree.
On the trans issue, Sunak and Jack have likewise confounded the Nats by adopting a stance which to most Scots seems prudent and reputable.
Jack is shrewd enough to make a success of things by being dull and unfashionable: he showed that when he went into the self-storage business, and has just shown it again by standing up to Sturgeon’s Gender Reform Bill. He is expected to stand down at the next election and go to the House of Lords.