A hideous painting of what looks like two warriors hangs in Sandy Howat’s office in the City Chambers, like the kind of thing you might see in the sword-and-sorcery gaming shop across the High Street.
Maybe it’s an apt decoration, given his surprise defeat of Gavin Barrie after veteran councillor and SNP group leader Steve Cardownie stepped down back in March, and the former financial adviser can certainly cut quite a combative figure in the debating chamber.
In debate his views are direct, usually delivered at a speed which would outpace a skilled Hansard stenographer, but today he is keen to take time to emphasise how much he rejects the tribalism which can mark the worst of party politics and the more, shall we say, enthusiastic activists.
“I am a rabid Nationalist but I like to think I’m not tribal,” he says, and given the variety of his background that’s understandable.
The 45-year-old son of a Liverpudlian mum and Borderer dad, he was born in Dorset but the family moved about England, with regular holidays with grandparents in Hawick the constant thread. So with a vaguely Scouse accent, he considers himself a Borderer. He went straight into the RAF after school and left a year later to study politics at university, first at Aberdeen and then Glasgow University, and after spells as a holiday rep in Spain and a drugs rep on Merseyside he moved to Scotland in 1996.
“When I came back to Scotland it was because I wanted to get involved in the devolution movement and so I joined Scotland Forward where I got to know [Green councillor] Gavin Corbett and [City Labour leader] Andrew Burns and although we obviously have differences we also have a long friendship.”
His commitment to the independence cause is beyond question, having been an SNP member since he was 16 and experienced a drubbing as the Edinburgh South candidate at the 2010 general election. Fortunes could not be more different now and the chances are the man who was only elected as a councillor for the Morningside/Meadows ward in 2012 could easily be council leader with a dominant group behind him after the next local poll in 20 months’ time.
As part of a coalition administration where issues regularly cut across party lines, Howat understands the need to reach an understanding with political opponents and insists that whatever happens in 2017 the ruling group can’t ignore the defeated parties.
“There should be a coming together of all 63 councillors after the next election to work for the good of the city because a sizeable number of people will have voted for a party not in power and they need to know they have not been disenfranchised,” he says.
And so as well as the high-profile Green councillor Corbett and Labour chief Burns, he singles out Tory leader Cameron Rose to praise his lack of triumphalism at the referendum count. Commending Conservatives is unlikely to win him many friends amongst the rank and file of the new SNP membership, or the “Spring Violets” as some long-standing Nationalists have called them.
Although he describes himself as a social democrat on the soft left of the political spectrum, much of his language would not be strange coming from a Conservative. Indeed he reveals his grandmother was a life-long card-carrying Tory, but is quick to add she also believed in independence.
He talks of choice, of personal responsibility, of the benefits of markets, of questioning the size of the council, of delivering efficiencies and of challenging vested interests.
This is all good stuff as far as I’m concerned, and maybe it’s for my benefit, but it’s not the language of the Spring Violets. It is, however, important to convince enough erstwhile centre-ground No voters to vote Yes, as Howat believes they will, and not just SNP. Maybe this is no surprise from someone who has worked for most of Edinburgh’s big financial companies, most recently at HSBC, but Red Tory, Blue Labour, or social democrat Nat, it’s a political position which could create suspicion rather than broad appeal. Indeed some SNP insiders accuse him of just talking the talk even though six months is hardly enough time to prove himself.
Most in the centre ground of politics accept that wealth creation is essential if inequalities are to be tackled; differences tend to be about where the priorities lie and so he’s quick to establish that poverty is top of his list.
“Our priority is to look after the vulnerable. They need to trust that the city will look after them,” he said. But then coming over all New Labour, he adds: “But we need to set targets so we know if they are being met and know why if we don’t hit them.
“Edinburgh is a beautiful, cultured and wealthy city but there is a paucity of opportunity in some parts. Access to jobs is vital, so we must work with the universities and the private sector.”
Again there is a sting in the tail in which he warns against personal complacency: “The economy is changing and people need to understand that a job is not the end but the beginning.”
As far as delivering jobs and growth is concerned, Howat has a strong ally in economic development convener Frank Ross and both were in tandem in voting through both controversial elements of the new St James plans, the limestone facades and the Walnut Whip hotel. Ross only had to sit back while his new boss made a vigorous economic case for approval.
On his desk sits a bust of Lenin, and although he doesn’t quite explain whether he admires the founder of the Soviet Union, or whether it’s an ironic warning about the consequences of aggressively inhumane utopianism, Citizen Howat clearly he isn’t.
Brushing Lenin’s brow is a little Saltire, which does turn out to be ironic when we get onto the subject of independence. “It’s not them and us, it’s not about chasing that bloody flag,” he says with conviction. “It’s about choice and empowerment and about delivering something which will be better. But independence doesn’t just mean for the country but for the individual as well. I don’t care if it’s right or left, it’s whether it’s the right thing to do.”
“The United Kingdom is 300 years old and 250 years out of date. We need a new settlement for Britain which recognises the aspirations of its different people and is better able to tackle inequality, uneven distribution of wealth, and simple fairness.”
Like so many fine words, it’s hard to disagree with much of what he says and although he knows we’re not going to see eye-to-eye on full independence, he’s been welcoming and open. And for a local politician, that’s as it should be.