Interview : Annie Wells, Member of Scottish Parliament
Photo : Annie Wells MSP | Credit : All photos by Thomas Anderson
Annie Wells is a Member of Scottish Parliament and the mental health spokesperson for the Scottish Conservative Party. She also sits on the Equal Opportunities Committee at Scottish Parliament. Before being elected to Parliament in 2016 she worked as a retail manager for Marks & Spencer in Glasgow. Our Founder Thomas Anderson chatted to Annie about getting in to politics, mental health, staff network groups, LGBT+ Pride events…and lots more.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Respectful, confident, bubbly, fun and loyal.
We’re sat in your office at Scottish Parliament today…What were you doing three years ago?
I was a manager at Marks & Spencer in Dumbarton. I never thought in a million years that three years later I’d be sitting here in Scottish Parliament. It’s a big change and very different, but in a way it’s still the same. I still deal with people everyday.
When did you think about becoming a Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP)?
It was during the Scottish Independence referendum and I was out there chapping on doors. I thought if I didn’t want Independence to happen then I had to get out there and be a part of preventing it. I did that and I really enjoyed it. People were listening to me and I was getting good responses on the doors and I kind of thought this was something I could do. With the help of the Glasgow Conservative Association and Ruth Davidson, I dipped my toes in the water and here we are today.
“I was a manager at Marks & Spencer in Dumbarton. I never thought in a million years that three years later I’d be sitting here in Scottish Parliament.”
WHEN YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER AS A MEMBER OF SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT, DID YOU HAVE A SUPPORT NETWORK TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR FEET IN YOUR NEW ROLE?
It was really quite good. On the first day I walked through the doors people knew who I was. Scottish Parliament allocated us all an individual member of Parliament staff to be with us for the next few weeks – or however long we each needed them. This was great.
Walking in to a building like this was really hard but there was support there from Parliament, and from the Scottish Conservative Party as well. We were buddied up within the Conservative MSP team. Myself and Oliver Mundell shared an office for the first wee while and Ruth’s door was always open, as was John Lamont’s when he was here.
Has life in Parliament been as you expected it to be?
I didn’t think the role of an MSP would be as I’ve found it to be. There are two separate roles in the job. On a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I’m here in Parliament in Edinburgh so it’s all very party political with lots of debating in the chamber and other party duties. On Monday, Friday and over the weekend I see myself as an MSP and not a Conservative MSP. On these days I’m in Glasgow and helping the residents of Glasgow, regardless of who they voted for. You’re kind of a bit like a social worker at times and sometimes you’re the fixer person that people come to.
I get to experience so many different things in the role. It’s very varied. I’ve been up to the Royal Marines Condor base and I got to put on the jacket and throw grenades and fire guns, I’ve been up with the Scouts at their Jamboree…I never thought I’d get to do these things.
I think the biggest thing that impacted me straight away was the public and media interest in me, and on social media. This was all a bit scary to start with and I’d wonder how these people knew me. A lot of people would say they recognised my face and because I’d worked for M&S for years and in most of the Glasgow stores, I’d automatically say ‘I used to work in M&S’ but I’d be asked if I was on the television last night, and so I was. That was the hardest thing to get used to.
Do you switch off from work easily?
If you ask anyone, whether it’s the girls that work with me or my family and girlfriend, they’d all say no and that I’m always on the job. I think it’s a job where you’re kind of always working.
It’s quite nice now and again when you go somewhere and don’t have a phone signal. Me and my partner will go out with the dogs and let them run about, then we’ll go for a pub lunch. This is a rarity rather than something I do often. It’s probably something I should do more of.
I still have a 24 year old boy who likes his mummy cooking for him and likes to see her, and borrow money from her. And I’ve got my mum who has been widowed for four years so I’m her support network.
What’s Scottish Parliament like as a place to work?
It’s a really open building and we have lots of nice places where we can go and meet and things like that. There’s a positive workplace culture here. The people who work here, regardless of political party, are friendly and we all have a chat and a blether.
Sometimes it can get a tad personal, especially if you’ve been in the debating chamber and something comes up or someone within the building doesn’t like what you’ve said on social media.
A few weeks ago I put something on social media. I can’t remember what it was about but it was quite insignificant – I thought so anyway. The Head of Communications for the SNP responded to my post and called me a waste of space, as a person, and from a waste of space party. Not great. So as you do on social media, I tweeted back to the First Minister to ask her whether she thought the message I received was acceptable and that people working in her office had liked their post. I never got anything back but I actually met the chap in the Parliament bar that night. I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder and he said ‘I am so sorry. It was never meant to be personal’. I quickly put it behind me and we took a selfie and I put it all to bed.
Sometimes it can be quite hard to do that though. By all means, people can go after me because of my politics but it is hard when it gets personal. The personal comments I receive on social media can be quite hard to deal with. I think people sometimes forget politicians have feelings too, and our families have feelings and can be affected by the comments as well.
“That’s how I got to where I am today, by thinking I may be slightly different to everyone else within my head, but that’s not a barrier to me being the best person that I can be.”
You’ve received abuse on social media too
Yeah! It does get really personal. I suppose at the start it was very personal attacks against me that I’d receive and I’d get really upset. I’d think why people would think that of me when they don’t know me. They’d only be seeing the persona of me that would stand up in the chamber.
I’d turn the notifications on social media off because it got so horrendous. But now I’ve probably got a thicker skin. I still don’t like it when people have a go at me personally, and I don’t retaliate and respond to the comments. I don’t see the point.
There’s been a few not so nice videos about me that’s been posted on Twitter and I’ve reported these to the Twitter team. I’ve never even received an acknowledgment from Twitter in response to any report I’ve submitted so they may talk the fluffy words and say they don’t believe in bullying and hate crimes but my experience is quite different. But it’s not just me, the abuse received by politicians from all parties is awful.
I’ve actually tasked one of my interns to look at online hate crimes and cyber-bullying as this is an area I think needs attention. Hopefully we’ll see this improve.
Did you have any role models growing up?
This is a tough one because I came out as gay when I was thirteen years old so there weren’t really any visible lesbian role models. At this time in my life I was trying to work out who I was as I knew I was a bit different to everyone else.
Growing up I think some of your teachers become your role models, and for me my mum and granny were influential role models. The only role model I had that identified as LGBT was Martina Navratilova. I admired her determination and strength and seeing her take people on with no fear and nothing really mattered. It was about her as a person and I think that’s how people have to think. That’s how I got to where I am today, by thinking I may be slightly different to everyone else within my head, but that’s not a barrier to me being the best person that I can be.
Photo : Inclusive Networks Founder Thomas Anderson and Annie Wells MSP
We met Annie during Mental Health Awareness Week and she was wearing her green mental health badge. We wanted to know more
I’m the mental health spokesperson for the Scottish Conservative Party and Equalities and Public Health. For me I’m looking at how we make sure mental health is treated the same way as any other physical health ailments people may have. I want to ensure teacher training is rolled out across Scotland and that counsellors are available to every secondary school pupil in Scotland. That’s our first ask of the Scottish Parliament.
I think it’s so important that we talk about mental health. As politicians we don’t really talk about soap operas, but I think the way the suicide of Aidan in Coronation Street was handled was done very well and it touched, and reached, a lot of people. Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit taking his own life recently really hit home too. In politics, we’ve recently seen the First Minister write about how she copes with stress and this visibility is important. We all need to speak up.
As you can see by the notes on the board in my office, I’m looking at a suicide strategy. The Samaritans in Scotland and other similar organisations don’t think the support available now has gone far enough. We need to make sure people out there have the support they need to manage their own mental health and there is wider support available too.
In the Scottish Conservative Party we have two mental health champions. We all know that if we want or need to speak to someone that we can go and speak to them in confidence. My door is always open to any member of my team who wants to speak. I think we all need to remember that we all have mental health issues. Not one of us is without them and they can manifest themselves at any point in time.
I want to go further and ask why we just put the focus on mental health for one week, during Mental Health Awareness Week. I’ve got a drawer full of pins and badges for various days, but I want to see a national ribbon that identifies someone who has been trained in mental health. So whether that’s in the workplace or in school or university, there would be a visible symbol that you’re not alone and there is someone to speak to.
How important do you think awareness raising initiatives like International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia and Black History Month are?
I think it’s great in general that we have days, weeks or months in place to promote the issues faced by many people. It’s always good when we come together as a Parliament to promote the initiatives, as opposed to as individual political groups.
We can’t let the one day or week slip by and we need do everything we can to keep the focus on the topics and issues raised. It’s brilliant we support these initiatives but let’s keep the conversations and actions going beyond these.
“We can’t let the one day or week slip by and we need do everything we can to keep the focus on the topics and issues raised. It’s brilliant we support these initiatives but let’s keep the conversations and actions going beyond these.”
RECENT STONEWALL SCOTLAND RESEARCH REPORTED THAT 36% OF LGBT PEOPLE HIDE THEIR IDENTITY IN THE WORKPLACE AND 39% OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE HAVE EXPERIENCED NEGATIVE COMMENTS OR CONDUCT IN THE WORKPLACE
I think we can see these figures change for the better. I know Stonewall Scotland do a lot in Scotland with corporate bodies but we need to talk more in everyday life about the prejudice faced by minority groups and we need to have visible role models in all areas of our lives.
I know when I first started my working life that I didn’t come out as gay straight away. We have come a very long way since I started my career and journey. I think we need to make sure that wherever people work that there is a safe space for them, that it is inclusive of everyone and any stigmas around being LGBT+ are removed.
We need to focus on inclusive education in our schools and when people leave education and enter the workplace that there isn’t a feeling of embarrassment and there’s a culture without stigma. At the end of the day, everyone is just a person and it shouldn’t matter what label is on someone. We shouldn’t have labels. We are all the same inside.
If you think that at one time three of the five leaders in Scottish Parliament identified as being LGBT, we’ve come a long way.
I went back in the closet when I was thirteen years old, got married and had a boy. There was no support when I was thirteen, nowhere near what there is now. There’s been occasions when I was growing up and I was in venues and a guy would ask me to dance and I’d say no and then I’d be faced with the questions, ‘Why not? Are you this, that….’ It would cause a negative atmosphere. For me I’m just Annie. Just being me.
“There are so many different strands to inclusiveness and diversity and we should avoid putting these in to pockets. We all identify as lots of things.”
HOW IMPORTANT ARE STAFF NETWORK GROUPS TO SUPPORTING MORE INCLUSIVE WORKPLACES?
There is absolutely a role for staff network groups in the workplace. In Parliament we have lots of network groups, including the SPout LGBT+ network group who are doing great work and I’ve contributed to their recent research project in Parliament.
I think we need to look at diversity as a whole and coming from Glasgow, I probably come from one of the most diverse places in Scotland. There are so many different strands to inclusiveness and diversity and we should avoid putting these in to pockets. We all identify as lots of things. I’m a single, working-class Glaswegian who happens to be gay, but there are so many other things that I identify as and fit in to.
There are eleven LGBT+ Pride events taking place in Scotland in 2018. How fantastic is that?
This is amazing. It’s phenomenal. I’ve been out as gay for many year but I haven’t been to many Pride events. When you turn up to the events on the day and see the work that has gone in to making them happen, it’s amazing to see. It’s always a fantastic day, no matter where you are.
We need to shout out about the fact that there are eleven Pride events taking place in Scotland this year. We need to make sure we thank the people who arrange the events, often over and above their day jobs.
This year I’ll be attending Glasgow Pride, hopefully Edinburgh Pride, and I’ll be going down to speak at Newcastle Pride too.
Do you have a stand out Pride memory?
About three years ago I attended Glasgow Pride for the first time and I walked in the march. There was a very small group of us representing the LGBT Tories, about half a dozen of us, and I was with my girlfriend. We were positioned near the back of the march but by the time it ended we ended up in front of the LGBT Labour entry. We had a bit of a laugh saying we ended up in front of them again. It was all good fun.
Texas and Heather Peace were playing at Glasgow Green that year and me and my girlfriend managed to get to the front row and it was amazing. The event itself was great, but walking in the march for the first time and not feeling embarrassed to be walking as an out conservative and making a bold statement that the Scottish Conservative Party is a diverse party is something I’m proud of.
Last year there was around thirty of us in the march – it’s great seeing our presence increase over the years. I hope we’ll have even more people join us this year.
Favourite flavour of crisps :
Roast chicken (in a sandwich)
Favourite tipple :
Guilty pleasure song :
Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz
Favourite movie :
Elf. I’ll watch it from October onwards to get myself in the Christmas spirit