Conviction politician with a steely determination

27th July 2007 at 01:00
In the second of our series, Ewan Aitken, former education spokesperson for the local authorities, finds out what makes the new education leader in the Borders tick

the scottish Borders Council's new executive member for education and lifelong learning, Catriona Bhatia, is no stranger to politics, having grown up in a family steeped in it. But her own election was probably in spite of her roots rather than because of them.

After her return to the Borders in 2000, following a career in hotel and catering in London and Edinburgh, she found herself campaigning against a proposal to create a recycling centre almost literally in her backyard in Esheils near Peebles, where she lives with her husband and four children.

"I tried to get in touch with the councillor, who didn't respond," she says, "and the attitude of the official I spoke to was difficult. I didn't like his comment that 'it's our land and we can do what we like'."

So in 2003, Bhatia stood for election to the council and has tried to apply that deep sense of the need for politics to be a participatory experience as best she can.

This has not been without its challenges like the proposal to put the Roman Catholic and non-denominational primary schools in her ward on the same site. Opposition was huge, from all sides, yet she knew something had to be done. A compromise was found, but she describes the many public meetings as being "very hairy, with more issues than there were real issues".

The experience was not enough to dampen her view that "if you go round talking to people, there is eventually a sensible majority out there who realise that difficult decisions have to be taken". But she does get frustrated and bemoans the fact that "things take forever". It is particularly difficult in the Borders, where local identities and a myriad of distinct communities make strategic planning a very difficult job.

Bhatia admits that strategic decsions like school closures are very much on the Borders agenda, although she intends to look first at catchment area changes. She wants to see the planning process made more sophisticated to promote house building in places where population decline threatens local schools.

Like many opposition politicians, she opposed the closure of small rural schools before her Liberal Democrats formed the administration (with the Conservatives and Independents). But she feels there is potential for mergers in places like Galashiels where "all five primaries have buildings that are not fit for purpose".

Bhatia sees a fine balance between being a leader and being a representative. For her, "conviction politics has lost its way" and so the political trend is to do what is popular "but politicians can't always be populist". She subscribes to Edmund Burke's view that "I owe you my judgment, but not my obedience".

She cites the SNP's class size pledge to limit P1-3 classes to 18 as one of those "populist" causes "good for a headline but more complex to deliver".

Although Bhatia is equally dismissive of the two new Scottish Borders party councillors who are promoting a "choice" agenda including school vouchers ("all it would do in a rural area is to increase traffic"), she is not averse to reaching out across the political divides. Her party's agreement with the Tories to form the council administration in the Borders is based on "the people not the party: at least we know we can work with them".

I ask her what her biggest priority for Borders schools is . Her reply suprises, but delights, me. Her big hope is, as is mine, personal learning planning, because of its potential both to empower pupils and to involve parents.

For Bhatia, the state has taken control, partly by accident. But, with free nursery care, after-school clubs and much more, she believes there is a mixed message that "we want you to be good parents, so we will do it for you".

Throughout the interview, we have been entertained by her son Raol, 2. "I try to work mornings and evenings, so I have time with the kids, but it's not easy."

I sympathise. It's always the family that pays when one of the household is a politician.

As I leave, I see a photo of her father, Lord Steel of Aikwood, former Liberal Democrat leader and first presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament. What does he think of what she is doing?

"We don't really talk about politics," she replies surprisingly, with a laugh. Maybe that is the wisest way for a family so steeped in Scottish Borders politics.

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