Patricia Scotland: “I wanted to do”

The first woman to be elected Commonwealth secretary-general, Dominica-born Patricia Scotland has made history in more ways than one over her stellar career. Joshua Surtees interviews the new Commonwealth head and finds out where her passion for speaking up comes from

  • Photo by Carl Court / Getty Images
  • Baroness Scotland in Dominica in 2015, when the Vielle Case Primary School was renamed in her honour. Photo courtesy Charles Jong

Born in Dominica in 1955, to a Dominican mother and an Antiguan father, Patricia Scotland was the last of her parents’ twelve children to be born in the Caribbean before the family moved to the United Kingdom when she was two.

Her childhood in the England of that era combined the warm, nurturing environment of her family home with the harsh realities of overt racism outside it. At school, she was often overlooked in favour of white children. She once told a Daily Telegraph journalist, “You can either let it crush you, or you can move on.”

Ignoring a careers advisor who told her to get a job in a supermarket, and a lecturer who warned her against studying for a law degree as a black woman, Scotland was admitted to the bar in 1977. Since then, her achievements have surpassed those of perhaps any other Caribbean-born woman in her adopted country. Her list of roles within the British establishment is historic and unprecedented. In 1991, she was the first black British woman to be made a Queen’s Counsel, at the age of thirty-five — the youngest QC since William Pitt, British prime minister in the late eighteenth century. In 1997, she was made a life peer by the Labour Party, and given the title Baroness Scotland of Asthal, after the village in Oxfordshire where she lives. (By coincidence, Asthall lies on the River Windrush, after which the famous Empire Windrush was named; the ship went on to lend its own name to the wave of West Indian migration to the UK in the 1940s and 50s.)

Two years after entering the House of Lords, the now Baroness Scotland became Britain’s first black female government minister. Then in 2007 she was given one of the most significant positions within Britain’s political system: attorney general. She was the first woman to hold the office since it was created seven centuries years ago.

Her most recent role has come with even greater responsibility. In November 2015, at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, Scotland was elected Commonwealth secretary-general — only the sixth person to head the international organisation, and the first woman.

By the convention of rotation through the various Commonwealth regions, a secretary-general from the Caribbean was expected to be chosen, and many in the region hoped Caricom would unite behind a single candidate. Instead, nominated by Dominica, Scotland found herself running against the Antiguan diplomat Ronald Sanders. But after the first round of voting, the Commonwealth Caribbean nations reportedly united behind Scotland, and history was made. Scotland says tackling climate change and the redistribution of wealth to citizens of all backgrounds throughout Britain’s former empire are top of her agenda, as she begins her four-year term of office.

Her demeanour is intelligent and eloquent, kind but authoritative. Her humility is uncommon among people who hold positions of power. Equality and justice are her key motivators, she says, along with her Roman Catholic faith. She avoids the spotlight and rarely gives personal interviews. She still speaks fluent creole and Dominican patois, and has retained strong links to the Caribbean, professionally and in her private life. Married to fellow barrister Richard Mawhinney since 1985, Scotland has two sons. Away from her high-flying career, she loves dance, books, and her family.

You were inaugurated as secretary-general of the Commonwealth on 1 April, 2016. How did you spend your first few weeks in the new post?

“I started with a classic Caribbean inauguration. We had choirs singing and Dominican dancers and steelpan, so we really understood the Caribbean was in the house! Then we had a trade mission with Lesotho on the next day, and on the third day I did a climate change summit. Then we went to Geneva to look at the Small States Office and signed a memorandum of understanding with UNESCO. We went from there to the UN to watch the signing into law of the COP21 agreement on climate change, something which has been so much part of the Caribbean’s desire to get better protection for the islands.

“Then I went to Belize and Guatemala. I came back to do the anti-corruption summit in London. It’s a global issue, but the fifty-three countries in the Commonwealth are affected, because the people stealing our money are linking up together and they are no respecters of our boundaries. So it’s been a real roller-coaster.”

Did that inauguration happen in London or the Caribbean?

“We had both. It happened in London, but I was very graciously invited to attend Caricom’s meeting of governors general and presidents in Antigua. My father is Antiguan and my mother is Dominican — so I am, through my father, Antiguan. So it was very special for me to be in Antigua at the moment when I actually took up office, to be able to speak to people there.”

You were born in Dominica, and moved to Walthamstow in London with your parents at the age of two. You were the tenth of twelve children. Tell me about your earliest memories of growing up in London.

“My family were the first black family to move into Walthamstow. Walthamstow at that stage was in Essex. And it was a time when racism was very much a part of everyday life. As I was growing up in Walthamstow, it was interesting that although we were the only black family, people would identify us as Scotlands [owing to the large size of the newly arrived Scotland family]. And they would say, ‘Oh look, you must be a Scotland,’ because we were the only ones there.

“But things started to change, and people became more worried by even the slight increase [in immigration]. Frankly, all the way through my schooling I was usually the only black girl in my class. The classes beneath me started to have one or two girls — for instance, my sister was four years younger than me, and when she went to school there were a few more black children.

“So going through infants and junior school I was subjected to a lot of racist abuse. In those days, you’d be called ‘jungle bunny,’ and they’d ask you if you lived in a mud hut and wore a grass skirt, and would make monkey noises. It was a very challenging time, but I had the most amazing, loving, bright, funny, strong, resilient family, who really cushioned me through much of that. I’m so grateful to my brothers and sisters and my mother and father, because they were my resilience, my assurance and insurance against all the nastiness. Once you went into our home, that was your sanctuary, and you knew that you weren’t stupid. Because at that stage people were always saying that black people couldn’t achieve anything.

“But I don’t always like talking about those days, because it all makes it sound so dreadful. But of course I had wonderful friends and fantastic people who were warm and kind and nice — it’s just we were living in a time before the Brixton Riots, where it was OK to abuse people. I think it’s very sad that we talk about those changes now as though it was political correctness [that affected change], when in fact all that happened was that people who didn’t have rights and were unprotected got a bit more protection. A rebalancing of fairness.”

In your childhood, did your family travel back to Dominica and Antigua for holidays?

“Not until I was a teenager. My parents were, I think, incredibly clever — they didn’t want any of us to go home until we had finished our education, because what they feared was that if we went home we’d never come back!

“My father was the most fantastic feminist you ever met in your life, and I didn’t realise he was unusual. He was born in 1912, and he believed that a woman could do anything a man could do. He had five daughters and seven sons, and when he was teasing my mother, he would say, ‘You keep your sons, give me my girls, and my girls can do anything your boys can do, only better.’

“So he encouraged us, and my mother encouraged us, to see ourselves as people as opposed to boys or girls or men or women, and told us that as people we could achieve anything if we worked hard and identified our talents. They used to say every one of us is given a talent by God: our job is to go out and find that talent, hone it, and use it for the benefit of other people.

“And that’s what I grew up with, a very strong Christian family. My father was a Methodist, and my mother was a devout Catholic. And what they did between them was demonstrate to us that you should concentrate on what joins you, not what separates you. Just because you have a different face or different colour, it doesn’t mean you cannot live together in harmony. So I grew up looking for what joins me to others.”

After school you did a law degree and graduated in 1976. You were then called to the bar in 1977. What drew you to the law?

“I always wanted to make a difference, and looking at what I was good at — I liked communication, I liked people, I liked articulating on behalf of others — law seemed to give me all those combinations. I was one of those ‘why-why’ birds who were always saying ‘why does this happen?’ and ‘this is not fair.’ So justice was hugely important to me. I didn’t think it was fair that some people, just because they were brighter or richer, got a better say. I always wanted to speak up for those who didn’t have a voice for themselves.”

You were the first black woman to be appointed Queen’s Counsel in Britain. What does that actually mean, for people who wouldn’t know?

“It’s a bit like [the equivalent of] being a GP or being a consultant — there’s the junior bar dealing with work that is of medium to high quality, and then you have the leaders of the bar who are considered to be the crème de la crème, the top two per cent or something. You are appointed by the queen, and only if you are identified as one of the best of the whole profession.”

And in 1997 you were given a life peerage when the Labour party came into power. How did you feel when you heard the news that you were to become a baroness?

“Actually, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one! I shouldn’t really say that, but the thing is this: I am someone who likes to do things. I don’t necessarily like the notoriety that comes with it. So I’ve never wanted to be — I wanted to do. And in doing things I’ve ended up being someone. The notoriety of being in the public eye is not something I would necessarily have courted.”

You became Britain’s attorney general in 2007. Obviously that’s a towering position within the British political establishment.

“Being attorney general is one of the most awesome responsibilities to be given. You become the guardian of the public interest and the rule of law. You’re the first law officer in the land, to the queen, the Parliament, the government, and you have to act independently while being in government. You have to speak truth to power. You are constantly in a position where you may any day tell people things they don’t want to hear. I am humbled that I was the first woman since 1315 into whose hands that awesome responsibility was placed.”

You’re now secretary-general of the Commonwealth. LGBT rights is something you’ve been quoted in the media as wanting to promote. What else?

“Of course LGBT rights are important, but the main focus of my work is that I want to put the ‘wealth’ back into the Commonwealth, and the ‘common’ back into wealth.

“I’m talking to colleagues across the fifty-three countries, and having enough money to feed people and to address the sustainable development goals to meet COP21 is so important, because climate change poses an existential threat to the Caribbean.

“So climate change is at the top of my agenda, and so is good governance — making sure our countries are in a position to deliver good governance — and part of that is making sure the social capital of our countries is exploited properly. The charter makes clear that every citizen in the Commonwealth, irrespective of their race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or region, should be treated with absolute parity.”

You live with your husband and two sons in London. What are your ties with the Caribbean now?

“My parents moved back to Dominica after we had all finished our education, and when they had retired — where they lived until they died. My parents died in 2007 and 2008, respectively. After I qualified, I used to go back to Antigua and Dominica most years when my parents were well, and when they became less well I went home three or four times a year. People used to say my mother or father would cough and I’d be on a plane. And maybe they were right, but I adored my parents.

“I had the great privilege when I became a foreign office minister in 1999 to be the minister responsible for the Caribbean and overseas territories. Before that, I’d been the government chair of the advisory group on the Caribbean since 1997. I created the UK-Caribbean Forum, which is the process through which the UK and Caribbean meet to discuss important points of interest every two years. And throughout my ministerial career, from 1997 to 2010, I always made sure I followed the Caribbean with great interest and made sure that Caribbean voice was heard. I’ve been very much a Dominican Brit.

“So my contact with the Caribbean was very intense. I speak creole fluently, and at home my parents spoke Dominican patois as well. So we had a very Caribbean home life and I felt very Dominican — albeit I was being brought up, as my father would say, ‘transported like a bag o’ rice’ to England.”

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