A man in a hurry

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Scotland's new Minister for Education works as fast as he thinks, so brace yourselves for action, writes Seonag MacKinnon

Billy Whizz is the character in the Beano who zooms around in a cloud of dust, hurtling round the world before breakfast, and always managing to be in bed before the main switch makes the room go dark. Not unlike Brian Wilson, the new Minister for Education and Industry at the Scottish Office. Civil servants in St Andrew's House hoping for a quiet life are likely to be disappointed.

His close friend and now boss, Donald Dewar, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, jokes about Wilson's "quadrilateral existence'' over the last few years: one minute in Westminster, the next in his Cunninghame North (North Ayrshire) constituency, then at a public meeting in any part of the British Isles, then, with luck, at his Lewis family home for weekends. His monthly flight pattern brings to mind the criss-crossing nails-and-thread pictures popular in theSeventies.

Friends, colleagues and acquaintances all remark on the 48-year-old's energy and capacity for work. In the lead-up to the General Election when, because of his skills as a communicator, he headed the Labour Party's rebuttal unit, he could be seen on GMTV at 6.30am or Newsnight at 11pm. Overnight he might well have penned his column for The Herald and studied briefing papers. So as a minister he is likely to do much of his own research and to canvass widely for ideas, rather than rely on briefings from the Sir Humphreys and Bernards.

But the new minister, who seems to despise the far left of his own party (as self-indulgent and impractical) almost as much as the landed Scottish aristocracy, is expected to do more than research and ruminate. Western Isles MP Calum MacDonald predicts that the Highlands and Islands "will see a radical energy released, the like of which has not been seen for 100 years". An integrated passenger authority, a strengthening of the powers of local communities over natural resources such as sea and land, and enthusiasm for the Highlands and Islands university, are some of the likely developments in this part of the country.

As the parent of an eight-year-old child Mairi, who is being educated bilingually in Uig, Lewis, and a six-year-old son Eoin, who has Down's syndrome, Wilson is already familiar with many aspects of special needs and Gaelic medium education (GME). Light is shed on his attitude to special needs children by an attack he penned two years ago on the decline in the birth rate of Down's syndrome children - from just over 500 a year to 311 in 11 years. He respected the right of parents to choose, but accused the medical establishment of encouraging termination. He claimed they were motivated partly by the cost to the welfare state of caring for one Down's child, estimated by the British Medical Journal at Pounds 120,000.

"Professionals will whisper helpfully in your ear that the birth of a Down's child is a 'life sentence' which sensibly, pragmatically one should obviously seek to avoid," he wrote. "I can only testify that our own experience with Eoin, now aged four, represents an absolute denial of that bleak counselling. "

As regards Gaelic medium education, Wilson's support for the language of his Islay-born mother Marian, a nurse, and Lewis wife Joni Buchanan, a writer, is well documented. He believes that he, like many of the post-war generations, were deprived of their inheritance when Gaelic was discouraged and parents felt they were doing their best for their children by speaking only English to them.

Earlier this year he spoke enthusiastically about Gaelic medium education, which he believes stands between Gaelic and extinction. He is likely now to fulfil his wish for this education service to be shepherded away from the battleground of local authority funding into a new Scottish Office budget set up to protect the language.

Language teaching generally is likely to come into the sun under his regime although - perhaps because - he is not a linguist himself. He sees the total-immersion approach of GME units as a successful model for teaching other languages. As bilingual people find it relatively easy to pick up further languages, he sees in this strategy hope of an end to Scotland as an overwhelmingly monoglot nation.

Apart from these two specialisms, he is not known to have particularly strong views on education. He was, however, like many Labour MPs, privately incensed by the decision of the Blairs not to send their eldest son to a local comprehensive.

Wilson himself is the product of a comprehensive, Dunoon Grammar, which seems to have a production line in eminent politicians. Former Labour leader John Smith, the Secretary of State for Defence George Robertson, and the Scottish Conservative Education Minister of the Eighties, John now Lord MacKay of Ardbrechnish, are fellow luminaries. The arrival of the US nuclear submarines at Dunoon in 1961 is believed to have been a major factor in sparking radicalism in the young Robertson and Wilson.

On leaving school, Wilson studied history at Dundee and then journalism at University College, Cardiff. Bobby Campbell, an associate editor at the Scotsman, met the young student when he chose to do his six-week work attachment at Campbell's then workplace, the Communist Party's Morning Star in London. Asked to describe Wilson's journalistic style, Campbell says it was "very much of the Rottweiler tendency. Many a blue-blooded Scot got his ankles bitten."

Wilson created his own opportunity to get his teeth into Scottish landowners by setting up the radical newspaper the West Highland Free Press immediately after leaving college in 1972. Sideline earnings as agent to the Corries helped keep the paper afloat. In the inkwell there seemed to be as much acid as ink when he homed in on landowners whom he accused of using their land as a playground for hunting, shooting and fishing, and of hampering moves to create a thriving economy for ordinary Highlanders.

It is a theme he returns to again and again. In June 1989, two years after his election to Parliament at the fourth try, he complained: "It is disgusting that people can still be bought and sold as chattels or removed from their homes as part of a land purchase."

The Countess of Sutherland, whose ancestral name is strongly associated with the Clearances, is one who came under fire when she became honorary president of the 1977 National Mod, the annual festival of Gaelic culture. After much harrying from Wilson about the appropriateness of her background for such a position, she resigned.

In 1991 Wilson was incensed when another peer, Baroness Trumpington, was put in charge of Scotland's fishing industry. "Yet another stooge hired from an agency apparently run by Debrett's,'' he railed.

If the name Wilson causes teacups to rattle in drawing rooms around Scotland, it also causes a stir in the homes of SNP supporters. Although he was a member of the party between the ages of 13 and 16, just after the submarines berthed in the Holy Loch, he subsequently conceived a deep loathing for nationalism, which he derides as akin to fascism. In 1979, five years after he joined Labour, he took his own party to court to stop party political broadcasts in favour of devolution. SNP leader Alex Salmond describes him as "the abominable no-man'' and maintains that he is privately still vehemently against devolution. Blair has given responsibility for implementation of a referendum and possibly devolution itself to Wilson's rival second-in-command at the Scottish Office, Henry McLeish.

It seems to have been Wilson's own wish that post-election he should serve in St Andrew's House rather than Whitehall. Blair asked him what job he would like, and Wilson asked that whatever it was should be in Scotland, so he could be nearer the young family of which has seen so little over the last few years.

If the family moves to Skye or Glasgow, either of which is a possibility, Wilson should see more of Mairi, Eoin and second son Ronan, born just 12 months ago. Joni too should see more of "this wee fat guy in specs who pursued (her( across the islands" - her description of their courtship while he was on Lewis investigating a story. They married in 1981.

There should be time too to see more of close friends such as Don MacIntyre, political commentator of the Independent, and Lawrence Donegan, former pop star now Guardian writer. Other associates include actor Bill Paterson, footballers John Colquhoun, Rob Dawson and John Philliban, comedian Billy Connolly, who spoke at a general election hustings, and Donnie Munro of Runrig, a band which the West Highland Free Press helped launch. Like his boss Donald Dewar, Wilson is very sociable and allegedly knows "everyone in Scotland''.

In his free time, apart from socialising, Wilson may fit in golf and trips to see Celtic. He wrote the official history of the club in 1988.

He will by all accounts be quietly thrilled to spend more time in the home country. Don MacIntyre comments: "He may be anti-nationalist, but he is passionate about Scotland and the Scots.''

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