A no-nonsense man for the job

13th February 2009 at 00:00
As a self-confessed admirer of The Sopranos and West Wing, Scotland's new Minister for Schools and Skills should have no problem dealing with skulduggery in all its forms

As a former marine who saw war service in the Falklands, Keith Brown can be expected to stand his ground - robustly. These and his presentational gifts no doubt commended themselves to First Minister Alex Salmond when he appointed Brown this week and sacked Maureen Watt, the former minister, who conspicuously lacked those skills.

The MSP for Ochil, who is a 47-year-old married father of three, has only been an MSP since May 2007. But he is widely regarded as the ablest of that intake and soon made his mark as convener of Holyrood's standards committee.

It was in this role that he came to public prominence, as he toured the TV studios defending his committee's decision to suspend Wendy Alexander from Parliament for a day over the campaign donations affair, which led to her resignation as Labour leader. He came across as chirpy, determined and unapologetic - qualities that Salmond would undoubtedly recognise and admire.

Some people were suggesting that Brown's move from the backbenches was a reward from Salmond for his role in "stitching up Wendy". But the more general view is that the First Minister regards him as a talented "safe pair of hands" who deserves promotion and will not be blown about by events as Watt often appeared to be.

It is another useful string to his bow that Brown was a councillor in Clackmannanshire for 11 years before his election to Parliament, and was leader of the council from 1999 to 2003. During that time he spent 15 years working for Stirling Council, where he was active in the local government union Unison.

The new minister will therefore be a forceful defender of the concordat deal between central and local government, which has caused so many political difficulties for his boss Fiona Hyslop.

There was a sign of that at the recent conference on the concordat, when he brushed aside concerns about its impact on education spending. "I am unapologetic about the removal of ring-fenced funding," he declared. "It is long overdue. Local government should be local government."

Whatever Brown's qualities, the opposition shows no signs of being impressed. His appointment was "an admission by the SNP that the handling of the education brief has been a complete disaster", said Labour education spokesperson Rhona Brankin. "Keith Brown can at least use his previous accountancy skills to total up all the cuts in education under the SNP, who are on course to fail on every major manifesto commitment on schools.

"Ultimately, Fiona Hyslop remains at the helm and cannot escape responsibility for the shambles in education."

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