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Lorna Slater: ‘Engineering is very egalitarian. Politics is much more hierarchical’

The Scottish government’s minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity on how she swapped factories and construction sites for Holyrood
March 3, 2022

Lorna Slater, the Scottish government’s minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity, is perhaps Scotland’s most unlikely politician. Originally from Canada—she still retains her distinct Canadian accent with the occasional Scottish vowel thrown in—she first came to Britain 20 years ago on the promise of a different line of work. “I heard Britain was short of engineers, and I had this shiny new engineering degree,” she tells me. “I thought I’d come over and try my chances. I bought a one-way ticket to Glasgow and the rest is history, really.” Since then she has worked on everything from robotic telescopes to marine renewables. 

Before 2014, Slater was “never really involved in politics.” The outcome of that year’s independence referendum changed things. When the results came back showing a No victory, she “had this terrible feeling that we’d missed an opportunity… to make something better, to be part of building a new nation that had a different vision for itself.”

It’s been politics, more or less, ever since. After standing for the Scottish Greens at local and European level, in 2019 she was elected co-leader of the party alongside Patrick Harvie. Even so, she remained working as an electro-mechanical engineer right up until the end of 2020. At the Holyrood elections the following year, she became an MSP for Lothian; three months after that she became a minister in Nicola Sturgeon’s government under the SNP-Green “Bute House agreement,” which gave the Greens two ministerial positions as part of a loose pact. 

How has she found the change from the “hands-on” world of engineering—she spent most of 2020 “on various construction sites and factories across Europe”—to the cut and thrust of politics? “It’s been a steep learning curve,” she admits. “Engineers tend to just lay everything on the table. They’re very open, very earnest… they just want to get the job done.” She says engineering “is very egalitarian. You call everyone by their first names whether they are the CEO or the person who sweeps the floor.” Politics, on the other hand, is “much more hierarchical.”

Although initially an outsider, Slater has clearly become accustomed to the political scene—when prompted by the Greens’ press officer, she could reel off a carefully prepared list of her party’s achievements with ease. But in the world of British politics, so saturated with public schoolboy rhetoric and finger-pointing, what is perhaps most striking about Slater the politician is how she does not have a bad word to say about anyone. Although she admits the Greens and the SNP “just simply don’t agree” on some things, everyone across the Scottish government, she says, is “genuinely really committed to trying to figure out the best way to do things” on child poverty and net zero. This rule of respect even extends, to some extent, to Boris Johnson, who with a smile Slater says is “more a symptom of a broken system” than a “broken system in himself.”

And it is clearly systems, not people, that Slater blames for much of our political turmoil. “I think the UK is democratically broken with its first-past-the-post system, which leads to one ‘red party’ and one ‘blue party’ screaming across the aisle, never co-operating, never building a consensus, just attacking each other,” she says. “That’s not the kind of politics I want for my country.”

Whether the Scottish Green Party can achieve all its aims—such as establishing a new national park, which would be “a wonderful legacy”—remains to be seen. But meanwhile Slater knows politics isn’t everything. She is “an amateur aerialist, meaning I do aerial silks… it’s a sort of recreational circus,” she says. Acrobatics is “a good way to keep fit as well as a good way to clear your mind because, when you’re hanging upside down by one hand, you’re definitely not worrying about anything else but staying alive.”