Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has been named The Herald Scottish Politician of the Year for the twin achievements of ushering in a devolved social security system and bringing a renewed sense of focus to the Government’s biggest and most challenging department.
Ms Freeman, who became an MSP only two years ago, was the first person other than a party leader to win the coveted award since 2012, when Nicola Sturgeon was also recognised for her work as health secretary.
Until the Scottish cabinet reshuffle in June, Ms Freeman was minister for social security, helping to bed in a fledgling £300 million benefits agency, successfully navigating what could have become a political minefield.
Since her promotion, the former chairwoman of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital has started getting a grip of health, ending a sense of drift seen under her predecessor.
She has launched an action plan to tackle waiting times, secured a £150 million bail out for indebted NHS boards, and has addressed a series of other challenges head-on.
On receiving her award, Ms Freeman joked she had come a long way from being a “student communist”. She added: “The point of politics, as lots of people have said, is to make a difference.
“You should not do it to be somebody you should do it to do something.” She said her job was to make sure Scotland’s children “have a health service that works for them” and she vowed to deliver it. Ms Freeman beat off competition from her cabinet colleague Michael Russell and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
Mr Russell did, however, win in another category, Donald Dewar Debater of the Year. His consistently tough but eloquent performances on the key political issue of the day were recognised in a category supported by NVT Group.
Mr Russell saw off Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie, who was named runner-up for pushing ministers on mental health treatment and a People’s Vote. The SNP’s John Swinney and Labour’s Jackie Baillie tied in third place.
Public Campaigner of the Year was Gillian Murray, who secured an independent review of mental health services at NHS Tayside’s Carseview Centre. Her uncle, David Ramsay, took his own life just days after being turned away twice from the centre in 2016.
She says she hopes the inquiry will bring real change after a decade of failure at the centre, and other families will not have to endure the “living hell” that hers did. Her father Peter Murray and grandfather David Ramsay accepted the award on her behalf.
The judging panel, chaired by Donald Martin, Editor-In-Chief of The Herald and Herald on Sunday, felt this year’s competition was one of the toughest to assess in some time, with several winners decided on a finely-balanced scoring system. He said: “We were delighted to once again host these special awards and pay tribute to the splendid work being done by our politicians.
“They have a difficult and often thankless task and it is right that their contribution, commitment and dedication to serving the public is given the recognition it deserves. The Herald Scottish Politician of the Year awards was a fantastic opportunity to salute those making an impact in the political world for all the right reasons and we congratulate and thank all our winners and finalists.”
Now in their 20th year, the awards were sponsored by Virgin Trains, NVT Group, ScottishPower, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Openreach. The event was also supported by Scottish Water.
Labour’s Paul Sweeney, the shadow minister for Scotland, was named Best Scot at Westminster just a year after being elected for waging a series of passionate campaigns on behalf of his Glasgow North East constituents, as well as challenging government austerity.
Among the cases he championed were 10-year-old Georgian orphan Giorgi Kakava, who was spared deportation after 80,000 people signed a petition in support of him staying in Glasgow with his grandmother. Mr Sweeney also extracted a commitment from Theresa May that she would reconsider plans to deport two teenage Christian brothers, Somer and Areeb Umeed Bakhsh, to Pakistan despite their family fleeing the country in 2012 after death threats from Islamist extremists.
Mr Sweeney beat the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford and the LibDem deputy leader Jo Swinson in the category backed by Virgin Trains. Shortlisted in last year’s One to Watch category, Kate Forbes was the stand-out choice for the judges this year, after establishing herself as one of the SNP’s brightest talents.
After campaigning against the plastic beach litter despoiling her Skye constituency, and making the first full length speech at Holyrood in Gaelic, the 28-year-old was promoted in June’s reshuffle, becoming minister for public finance and digital economy.
Also nominated in the category, which is sponsored by ScottishPower, were
Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr, and Green education spokesperson Ross Greer. Former SNP minister Bruce Crawford was named Committee MSP of the Year for his work as convener of Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee.
The Community MSP of Year Award was given to Labour’s Anas Sarwar for his work fighting Islamophobia in his native Glasgow and beyond. Within weeks of his defeat in the Scottish Labour leadership contest, he had picked himself up and created the Cross-Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia after violent threats against Scotland’s Muslim community.
The Politics in Business Award supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland was won by the Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser for the second year running for his continued work on business rate reforms, and instinctive pro-business outlook on tax issues.
Another two-time winner was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was named E-politician of the Year for her pitch perfect use of social media to communicate her domestic political message of the day, take a moral stand on international issues, and promote a love of reading.
With Dundee having a moment in the sun thanks to the opening of the V&A and the Tay Cities Deal, the Scottish Local Politician of the Year was the city’s SNP council leader John Alexander. The category was supported by Openreach.