The low road

Pete Wishart on Runrig, Brexit and IndyRef2

“Y ou'll take the high road and I'll take the low / And I'll be in Scotland afore you / Where me and my true love will never meet again / On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” If you were in Balloch, Loch Lomond on June 22, 1991, you would’ve heard 50,000 Scots roaring those lyrics along with Runrig’s lead singer Donnie Munro.

The band were at their apex. It’s the sort of gig that is still discussed with reverence in niche forums whose formatting, like their music taste, hasn’t changed since the 90s.

Oasis and REM went on to play lochside concerts – Runrig did it first. The Celtic rock band supported U2, The Rolling Stones and Genesis and Pete Wishart, now the SNP MP for Perth, was playing the keyboard.

Wishart is the SNP’s longest serving Westminster MP and the first representative in the Commons to have appeared on Top of the Pops. “In the House of Commons it’s like a performance anyway, you’re on live TV all the time,” he tells me.

We are sat by the stage of The Green Room, a pub in Perth with a music venue upstairs. Dogs curl up next to their owners while a wood fire burns and adds a light theatrical smog to the atmosphere.

“It’s an unforgiving place, the House, and if you fail to make an impression you’re going to be consumed. They’ve lost the House, as we say. They’re droning on endlessly, everyone’s chatting amongst themselves and wishing they’d sit down so we can get on with the rest of our lives.”

That rubric of entertainment is evident in ‘The speech they tried to shout down,’ (Wishart’s description). In the address he makes an impassioned case for Scottish independence. He gestures and enunciates and leans around and out into the space.

The chamber isn’t busy but the SNP, then a slither of six MPs, were heckled and derided throughout. Nationalism was, and still is, a joke to many there. Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, is visible behind Wishart frowning and head-shaking – his best obstinate unionist.

While Dodds spent his youth studying law at Cambridge before heading for politics, Wishart was up to his neck in Scotland’s punk scene. He was supporting The Skids from the age of 15 and struck up a good friendship with Stuart Adamson. By 18 he was playing in Big Country with him.

“All the record companies were coming up to see us,” Wishart says. His eyes freeze out like a toddler’s parent reminiscing about their former social life as he talks about the Kinema Ballroom, a venerated music venue in Dunfermline. “We had an amazing music scene around about the punk years. I’m a son of punk. It was such a great period.”

Alas, all songs come to an end. During a tour with Alice Cooper, “It all went wrong. It all went down really, really badly and ended in acrimony. I thought it was all over.”

Whatever damage that did, if any, to Wishart's relationship with Adamson, it didn't stop him from delivering a eulogy at his funeral.

How many times does an aspiring musician get to make a go of it in the big time? Usually none. Pete Wishart got two.

Runrig were “fascinated” by Big Country’s sound and headhunted Wishart to be their keyboard player.

His time with the band spanned 15 years. He describes that night in Balloch as their most “iconic” gig, “It was a sea of faces – and they were all there for us.”

A crucial distinction, seeing as Wishart has played to 120,000 people while supporting Genesis in Hockenheim, “they were about the biggest band in the world [at that time].

“Audiences that size you can’t even start to get any perspective, it’s little pinheads all the way through.” He particularly remembers the outdoor shows, “they’ve all got their own atmosphere.”

Pete Wishart with other members of Westminster band MP4.

Pete Wishart with other members of Westminster band MP4.

Pete Wishart was born in Dunfermline. As a child he cut the family home organ in half, painted it white and ran it through a phaser. He “did the lessons” that come with living in a musical home. His brother Alan played bass and featured in the same Big Country line up.

The brands of his childhood were Roland, Yamaha and Atari.

“It was a great time. Every year there’d be a new innovation in music.” He went to Queen Anne high school before uni at Moray House College, Edinburgh. Now it is the quieter but equally beautiful Perth Wishart calls home.

He enjoys the second slimmest majority of any MP – 21 votes. After several recounts, late into the night it was confirmed, Wishart had fought off Conservative Ian Duncan.

Not since Margaret Thatcher have the Tories had a noticeable presence in Scotland but they are now resurgent. “It’s no surprise the places where we do best, Glasgow and west central Scotland, areas where Labour were strongest, these are areas that voted Yes in the independence referendum.

“Scottish politics is defined by the constitutional question, your attitude to independence.

“The Conservatives picked up support because they are on the right side that fits their profile and support.

“Labour are nowhere. They are on the wrong side of their own constituents and the constitutional question.

“Until they start to fix out that they‘re going remain in the Doldrums.”

So, when, then, will we see IndyRef2? The question dogging the SNP ever since 2014. When Nicola Sturgeon announced, in the wake of the EU referendum, the Scottish government was left with no choice but to again pursue a vote independence, as a result of intransigence in Westminster, it backfired.

The SNP was punished in the 2017 snap election, thinning comfortable majorities down to 21. Ever since, the first minister and others have walked a high wire between exuberant supporters of independence and a population fed up with incessant public votes.

“It’ll happen when a majority of people want it to happen. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.” Nice and obscure.

“Brexit is a huge disruptor. Not just the politics of the UK but the politics of the constitution and independence. What we’ve seen already is that if there’s a no deal or hard deal Brexit there will be a majority for independence.

“The Scottish will quickly have to decide if they want to be a part of a Brexit UK, isolated, alone, the economic hits that will come. Or, do they want to determine their own relationship with Europe as an independent nation?

“That choice is going to have to be made. There’s no escaping it.”

Wishart still plays. He’s in a band with Westminster colleagues called MP4. They have played in Westminster Hall, the hundreds of years old oaken entrance to the UK’s seat of power.

For a period of time, Wishart thought music was a past life. Now he accepts it as an untouchable part of his person.

“Sometimes it’s really nice to just hammer out some chords. It does let you forget about all the other things you do, it also reminds me that I’m more than just a politician.

“This is the thing that defined me as a person. My music was the most important thing. Nothing will ever equal that.”

Wishart has sold over a million records, most in roaring love of Scotland. ‘Loch Lomond’ seems to be the compulsory soundtrack to a wedding’s conclusion north of the border, as well as Balloch’s first concert. Wishart says, “I’ll never forget walking on stage that day.”