Calamity Helen rides into town

28th August 1998 at 01:00
I GENUINELY regretted Brian Wilson's departure. He gave the impression he was willing to listen. Unfortunately his successor as Education Minister arrives with a reputation for confrontation. Helen "Don't mess with me" Liddell has been bundled north to swat the Nationalists. Braveheart Alex Salmond will relish the challenge. I look forward to the further adventures of Natman versus the Liddeller (with a walk-off part for the Joker, Henry McLeish).

Am I the only teacher already fed up seeing Helen Liddell's face? Open any newspaper and the scowl stares at you. Her previous employment at the Daily RecordSunday Mail has paid dividends. In the Sunday Mail of August 2 we saw her three faces: the doughty fighter, the sensitive woman, the mum shopping in the local supermarket.

That she will fight her corner is beyond doubt. The Educational Institute of Scotland will be confronted because unlike her former boss, Robert Maxwell, she will not jump ship when problems come calling. But this political heavyweight has frequently failed to live up to her own hype. On becoming a Lanarkshire MP she and her posse vowed to clean up the town. Today the good citizens of Deadwood still have the same nasty varmints in power and Calamity Helen is speechless on the subject.

Gallant Donald Dewar galloped to defend her honour when the SNP had the cheek to doubt her claims that income tax would rise by 15p in a separate Scotland. "The word 'liar' has no place in Scottish politics," spluttered Dewar, who next day called the SNP "dishonest". No intelligent person in Scotland believed her tattie-bogle tax story and I hope she will be more positive when dealing with education matters.

The supermarket snap was priceless. Helen describes herself as a Lanarkshire housewife and we could see her ordinariness as she pushed her trolley, dressed in an Armani two-piece suit, with jewellery hanging from her neck. Her husband can only be a North Lanarkshire plumber. We are told in reverential tones that she "is a working mother". I'm a working father, so what?

Helen is going to put her foot down regarding pay and conditions, and solve the council employees' pay conundrum which occurs every April. In a boom period public sector pay is held in check to prevent inflation. In times of recession councils can't afford a rise.

Here is a guess at her agenda. Holidays will be cut. This nettle will be grasped when she returns refreshed to Parliament after a summer recess of two months. Hours of work must change. Personally I hope she implements the Westminster model where the day starts at 2.30pm and finishes whenever you decide. She could go further and insist teachers work the same number of days as an MP. Given that the Commons operates only from Monday to Thursday, Scottish teachers can look forward to having Friday off (Lothian staff will negotiate for a half-day Thursday).

Conserved salaries are in her sights. Why, she will argue, should the responsibility element of a promoted teacher be conserved when they are not discharging that responsibility? Helen has unique insight into this problem. Brian Wilson had three areas of responsibility other than education. The Lid has had other responsibilities dumped on to her colleagues but still draws the full ministerial salary of Pounds 77,000.

The profession must be more accountable, we will be told. Appraisal must be introduced to weed out incompetents. But how do I get rid of Gus Macdonald, the industry minister? I can't vote against him, indeed my MP cannot question him. By Christmas he will be a life peer. This accountability lark is complicated.

In the meantime I am trying to get hold of Helen's novel, Elite, which tells the story of an ambitious politician who sleeps her way to the top. There are strange bedfellows in this Government.

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