`He was immune to political criticism'

Neurosurgeon-turned-fearless politician Sam Galbraith dies

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Sam Galbraith, who died on Monday aged 68, was the first education minister - or children and education minister, to give the role its proper title - in the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

He lasted in the job for just over a year; it was probably the most torrid time any education minister has ever endured. Galbraith inherited a toxic portfolio: dreadful teacher industrial relations, convulsions over the Higher Still reforms, an exam body under near-fatal pressure, known only to a select few officials, and corrosive disaffection with the inspectorate. As schools minister, he was also drawn into a deeply divisive controversy over the legislative section 2A, which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in the classroom.

Although his successor, Jack McConnell, was given the political credit for calming the turbulence, Galbraith laid much of the groundwork. In particular, he set up the committee of inquiry into the teachers' dispute under Gavin McCrone, which led to the settlement after he left office. Officials believed that McConnell's lauded rescue of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) would have happened anyway under Galbraith because the exam body was simply "too big to fail".

Galbraith was also instrumental in finding a solution to the section 2A row by setting up a working party that produced sex education guidelines stipulating "the importance of stable family life and relationships".

Yet all this might never have happened. Galbraith, originally a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed just after his election to the Westminster Parliament in 1987 with the same rare genetic lung disease that had killed his sister. After a transplant in 1990, he was given a 50 per cent chance of surviving for five years. He died 24 years later and is believed to be the world's longest-surviving lung transplant recipient.

Friends and colleagues often suggested it was his realisation that he was living on borrowed time that made him impervious to - even contemptuous of - the slings and arrows of political life. The result was that it often seemed he "couldn't care less", which was very far from the case. As his deputy at the time, Peter Peacock, observed: "He was almost totally immune to political criticism and, indeed, he enjoyed it to a large extent."

Ironically - or possibly consequentially - political courage was the hallmark of one of the most physically fragile of ministers. He took the flak over the 2000 exams fiasco, although the SQA was technically the responsibility of Henry McLeish, then lifelong learning minister. And he came to the aid of Wendy Alexander who, as the communities minister, had stirred the section 2A pot. Other colleagues claim Galbraith was helping to protect these ministers from potentially fatal damage to their political futures, which he knew would be denied to him.

After the death of Donald Dewar, Scotland's inaugural first minister, who was succeeded by McLeish, Galbraith was moved to the post of environment minister. A keen mountaineer (he had led an expedition to the Himalayas), skier and runner, this was a much more satisfying role and as fulfilling as his health minister job in the pre-devolutionary Scottish Office from 1997-99. But poor health finally caught up with him and he decided to step down as a minister and MSP in March 2001.

Sam Galbraith, who could be engaging and dismissive in equal measure, had his detractors and his admirers; which politician has not? Neither group, however, is in any doubt that he was a one-off. He was a neurosurgeon who certainly had brain power. Commenting to Galbraith on his "legendary capacity" to absorb information quickly and act on it, Peacock was told: "Well you see, Peter, when you're guddling around in someone's brain, you have to make decisions fast and move on."

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