In 1974 I was in the early stages of high school. Ted Heath and Harold Wilson were battling it out at the head of the Conservative and Labour parties respectively during the general election of February that year. In school we held our own hustings and staged mock elections. Mainly out of contrariness and rebellion against the established order of things, I stood on behalf of the Liberal Party. I won my school election but Jeremy Thorpe, then leader of the Liberal Party was not so fortunate, taking just 14 seats and finishing a distant third behind the two main parties. What struck me then was the huge unfairness of that outcome. On that day, almost 1 in 5 people voted for the Liberal Party. This should surely, I felt, have resulted in 20% of MP’s being elected; well over 100 seats rather than 14. Since that day I have had a strong interest in the democratic process and electoral reform. Given that background I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet with and interview Esther Roberton, a member of the advisory committee of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).
With constitutional reform at the front of people’s minds in the UK at the moment this seemed like the perfect opportunity to meet with a woman who, between 1994 and 1999 had been involved in the campaign to secure Scotland’s Parliament.
When I arranged to meet with Esther I knew little of her background beyond her involvement with ERS. I was to be amazed by her energy and the breadth and depth of her work in Scotland but we started with her work in helping to establish the Scottish Parliament. Naturally, I was curious to learn how Esther became involved in such a crucial phase for Scotland.
“ I had worked at a strategic level with the Scottish Development Agency, Scottish Council Development & Industry and as Chief Executive of Scottish Community Education. I was active within the campaign for a Scottish parliament and when I saw the opportunity to work with Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) I jumped at the chance. Later invited to participate in the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) by the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland. The remit of the CSG was to develop procedures and standing orders for the Parliament. These included the set of principles which were adopted by the Parliament covering power sharing, accountability, openness, transparency and equal opportunities. I became coordinator of SCC, which played a key role in finalising and launching the Convention Scheme which ultimately provided the substance of the Scotland Act in 1998.”
After the establishment of the Parliament, what then?
“ I had hoped that I might stand for election as an MSP but this didn’t happen. I was still committed to the idea of public service and I accepted the post of Chair at NHS Fife. I stayed there for 4 years from 2000, a troubled time for the organisation. I took over a Board disheartened by removal of the former Chair, with bitter disputes about the location of hospital services in the region and with public confidence and trust at an all-time low. It was a difficult time for everybody and I worked with CEO to rebuild morale. Together we drove an eighteen-month public involvement programme, at that time acknowledged as the most comprehensive ever conducted in NHS Scotland, which enabled the Board to take controversial decisions about the future of Acute Services with support from the majority of Fife communities and to achieve Ministerial approval. I believe that working closely with the community is vital not only to improve public health but to support the wider regeneration of communities and regions.”
Since 2000 Esther has also been Director at Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), Court Member at the University of Dundee and Chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council (SFEFC) but it was here role with the Press Complaints Commission, another challenging position, that interested me in particular. Esther was one of 10 lay members who, along with seven editors, provided independent regulation of the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK. Surely a case of out of the frying pan into the fire?
“ I have a long standing interest in serving the public and what better way than in interaction between people and the press, which plays such a massive role in our society. I have an absolute commitment to freedom of the press and to supporting democracy. It is also important to protect the privacy and freedom of individuals so I was delighted to be involved with the PCC.”
And what next?
Esther is an energetic, committed woman who is clearly not ready to step out of public life. With constitutional reform back on the agenda and further powers being devolved to Scotland, a return to front line politics? While Esther wouldn’t be drawn my guess would be yes.