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Covid challenges open new doors for MSP Stewart

By Alan Beresford

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YOU'RE never too old to learn, as the saying goes, and this has been something of a 2020 motto for Banffshire and Buchan Coast's SNP MSP Stewart Stevenson.

The 74-year-old is set to bring what will be a 20-year association with the Scottish Parliament to a close when he steps down at next year's Scottish Parliament election. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown has ment that his last year in the role has been anything but a gentle cruise to retirement.

One of the biggest changes Covid brought down was an end to the typical politician's life of been whisked here, there and everywhere on constituency or parliamentary business. health regulations meant instead that Mr Stevenson, along with wife Sandra, had to go into shielding at their home near Cornhill for a number of months until the infection rates abated.

He said: "It's fair to say that 2020 is a year we'll never forget.

"The year has been extraordinarily different from anything we could've expected and have experienced before. It meant for myself and so many others being cut off from friends, family and the habits of everyday life.

"This was exceptionally challenging for so many people.

"The human race is a social being and we look to spend a great deal of time with other people.

"It has been a year which has been a curious mixture of huge gaps, of not meeting people and not doing a lot of travelling. On the other hand it has given me time back to do other things – just travelling from my home to Edinburgh took the best part of a day in itself."

During the time he was shielding Mr Stevenson turned his talents to writing a blog – Diary of the Eighth – and what started out as a diversion spanning a range of subjects and reminiscences went on to run to around 150 entries. In doing so he amassed in the order of 180,000 words committed to print which, to put it into context, compares to George Orwell's Animal Farm at 30,000 or so words.

"In the end I found it challenging rather than enjoyable, there was a fair bit of weariness by the time I stopped," he revealed.

Ironically, shielding allowed Mr Stevenson to see much more of the countryside surrounding his rural home than has previously been possible.

He continued: "I took the opportunity to see a good deal further around my home by doing a lot of walking.

"I reckon I've done about 750 miles. That said, I've never been an idle person but I'm substantially fitter than I was.

"I've explored bits of Banffshire I've never seen, it has been very enjoyable and helped keep my brain active."

While pandemics may come and go constituents still have issues which need attending to, with Mr Stevenson experiencing a peak of casework in phase 1 on the coronavirus lockdown and a second, albeit lesser, one in autumn.

"Much of constituency work involves writing letters or making phone calls so that aspect of it wasn't really affected too much by the lockdown, myself and the team could continue to do that from home.

"There was the move to video conferencingas well and paradoxically I actually found that it increased the level of contact I had with constituents to a level greater than in the past 20 years. If you'd told me that six months ago I would've dismissed the idea completely."

Video conferencing has also changed the way the Scottish Parliament operates in order to minimise the numbers present. It has opened new possibilities for the future, including allowing MSPs who have young families to achieve a better balance in their lives while not compromising their contributions to the parliament.

"Video conferencing has transformed the way the parliament can work," Mr Stevenson said.

"I can see colleagues across the parties are happy to have the extra time to share child rearing responsibilities.

"There is a lot of potential, not only to allow MSPs to participate in debates but also in committees where a lot of the parliament's grunt work is done. It does have negatives – votes take longer, for example, and it has to be ensured they are secure – but these are not important problems."

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