Published: 16/07/2012 16:50 - Updated: 16/07/2012 16:53

Young Eck has a passion for politics

Councillor Alex MacLeod – ‘With the independence referendum coming up I was very keen to stand up and be counted.’
Councillor Alex MacLeod – ‘With the independence referendum coming up I was very keen to stand up and be counted.’

ALEX MacLeod is not your average teenager.

No low-slung jeans or hoodies for him. Most days he wears a tie and shirt, often sports a tweed blazer, counts Scotland’s most powerful politician as his mentor and now enjoys real power himself.

As a Highland councillor he is one of a select band of people who make the decisions which affect all of us, whether it be housing, education or transport, as a member of a huge organisation with a £600 million pot of taxpayers’ cash.

Two months ago, the teenager – who will celebrate his 20th birthday next month – was elected to the local authority in a blaze of publicity as its youngest ever councillor.

Since then the Ross-shire youth, who represents Landward Caithness, has emerged as a key member of the SNP’s group and is rarely far from local authority leader Drew Hendry’s side.

The party had a record number of candidates elected in May, forged a surprise alliance with former foes the Liberal Democrats and Labour and published its programme of aims for the next five years.

The former Tain Royal Academy and Gordonstoun pupil, who worked for First Minister Alex Salmond on leaving school, was heavily involved in devising the programme which he claims is “innovative” because of its emphasis on spending money in areas such as elderly care to prevent bigger costs further down the line.

He says it involved a lot of late nights at the council’s Inverness headquarters, some grey hairs (he badly needs them) and even late-night takeaway pizzas with colleagues as they beavered away to get it finished.

Several Sloppy Giuseppes later and the document, which includes a pledge to build 600 council houses, will come to the fore during uncharted waters as the 2014 independence referendum looms.

The prospect of an independent Scotland was Mr MacLeod’s motivation for getting involved in politics.

“I come from an ordinary Highland family who weren’t particularly political, I would say they were probably more Tory than anything,” he recalls.

“I never really thought of politics, it was more issues like independence as a means to a fairer Scotland. I was interested in independence before I was interested in politics. Growing up in the ’90s it was round about the devolution referendum and after that I was thinking we could manage things so much better if we had control.

“I remember thinking from a very early age passionately about it and I joined the SNP because I believe Scotland is fundamentally better as an independent country and the politics followed on.”

Mother Angelina and younger sister Connie make up his tight-knit family who live near the village of Delny. Sadly he lost his father, who was from the north-east and worked in the oil industry, when he was only nine years old.

His maternal grandmother came from the Isle of Lewis and he feels strongly about his island heritage, having gone through Gaelic medium education in Tain.

He is the SNP’s Gaelic spokesman and is looking forward to speaking the language during the first meeting of the council’s new Gaelic implementation group in September.

Having helped set up the SNP’s first Highland youth wing at 15 years of age, Mr MacLeod left the fee-paying Gordonstoun the following year, although he admits to preferring school life at Tain Academy which he also attended.

A golden opportunity then opened up: young Eck was going to work for Big Eck.

He was invited for a couple of days’ placement with Mr Salmond which he fully expected to consist of tea-making and photocopying. But he obviously impressed because he spent 10 months working for the First Minister in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

His duties included parliamentary and constituency work and handling local and national press, and he describes it as a fantastic experience as he observed how the First Minister worked publicly and behind closed doors.

Despite his national role, Mr Salmond placed a big importance on representing his Aberdeenshire constituency, says Mr MacLeod.

“He would call up at all hours to check on the progress of constituency cases and I really admired his dedication to his political roots,” he says.

“It’s a high-pressure environment but he’s a really fair, decent guy to work for. He’s a very good employer, he really looks after the staff and makes sure they are okay.

“It was my first real job. I learned really valuable lessons on how to get the best out of politics. Watching him get results for his constituents and fighting his cause and corner has taught me that I can do a great deal as a councillor in fighting for my constituents.”

Early on, the rookie discovered that high on Mr Salmond’s agenda was getting the Nigg yard to re-emerge as a major employer in the Highlands.

“Nigg was something that was definitely on the cards when I was there,” recalls Mr MacLeod.

“I wasn’t involved in those dealings but it is something which has been on Alex’s radar for some time. One of the first conversations we had he said, ‘Oh, you’re from Tain, you must have Nigg connections’.

“So he appreciates full well the importance of the facility and he was very enthusiastic in making sure it was up and running again.”

Mr MacLeod says some of his friends have managed to snap up some of the estimated 2000 jobs that could be created over the next few years at the Nigg renewable energy, oil and gas hub and describes it as a massive boost for Ross-shire.

After his spell with Mr Salmond he went on to study law in Edinburgh and also became Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Rob Gibson’s campaign manager. But with the independence vote looming in 2014, the law student decided to return home and begin campaigning for a council seat.

“With the independence referendum coming up I was very keen to stand up and be counted,” he says. “The opportunity arose and I have always had great connections with Caithness – obviously I worked with Rob Gibson and there’s a huge amount I do already in the county.”

There have been whispers the young whippersnapper has put some noses out of joint at Glenurquhart Road amongst staff and colleagues with his full-on approach. Given the huge gap in years between him and other councillors – Inverness Labour stalwart John Ford is more than 60 years older than him, for example – it is hardly surprising people far and away his senior would be put out by a teenager bounding about.

He does not deny there have been tensions – although, like most politicians, he calls these “challenges” – and says his youth can be a plus point.

“I always say to folk, ‘I am not Alex MacLeod the 19-year-old councillor in Caithness – I am Alex MacLeod the councillor in Caithness’.

“Obviously my age is going to present challenges with some people on the council who might not be used to someone in a councillor’s position being so young.

“But I am actually very encouraged by the number of people who have come up to me and said it is refreshing to see someone so young in the council. I am not denying there are going to be challenges but my task is showing people that a 19-year-old, a young person, can do the best they can.”

Once he gets down to council business proper after the summer recess, Mr MacLeod will have left his teenage years behind and is determined any future debate on him will be about his actions.

In his ward, he sees next month’s resurrected area committee as key to allowing local people to influence how issues such as roads investment are decided and says support for the area after the decommissioning of Dounreay is vital.

But, like most Nationalists, the renewables supporter bristles at suggestions the county is reaching a tipping point when it comes to the plethora of wind farms built or in the offing, as claimed by some colleagues and local people.

Mr MacLeod is now studying his law degree from home and looking for a place to live in Caithness after leaving Edinburgh.

He has decidedly more hair, and the politics are different, but there is something of the young councillor that brings to mind the current foreign secretary who famously addressed the Conservative conference including Margaret Thatcher in 1977 at the age of 16.

A Highland William Hague in the making, perhaps?

He glaringly lacks actual life experience outside the political bubble, but then so did Charles Kennedy when he was elected at the age of 23 to become the youngest MP in 1983 and he has not fared badly. Mr MacLeod is intelligent and astute and has undoubted aspirations to progressing to the national political stage.

Could he perhaps slip into the shoes of the veteran Mr Gibson, who is now in his late sixties, in the next parliamentary elections?

A few years raising his profile on the authority and in the far north would surely tick several boxes and mark him out as a frontrunner. Young Eck could then link up with Big Eck once again.

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