Doing a Donald?

27th October 2000 at 01:00
HENRY McLEISH has got off to a difficult start. The controversy about back-bench access to policy advice and civil servants shows that he will have a more difficult reign as First Minister than his predecessor. Donald Dewar was criticised much more than came out in the tributes to him, but he had the status to brush off most of the media attacks. Mr McLeish showed over the student fees row and the exams debacle that he is skilled at preventing mud sticking to his reputation: he is going to need all such skill and a measure of luck, too.

The real test will come not from back-bench sniping, still less from opposition parties whose own command of the Parliament will take further honing. It will arise in the first clash between Holyrood and Westminster. That could happen at any time. Before devolution, most commentators would have prdicted it within the 15 months the Scottish Parliament has so far lasted.

MSPs outwith the Executive feel frustrated. They are busy, as is shown by the pace of the two committees looking into the exam problems. But they feel underinformed, and that applies most keenly to back-bench members of the coalition whose scope for taking up issues is limited through loyalty to the coalition programme.

Instead of asking for crumbs from the civil servants' table, they should be encouraging and using the research institutes now in business, such as the Scottish Forum for Modern Government - whose director writes on the opposite page - and the Institute of Contemporary Scotland that was launched this week. The Scottish Council for Research in Education, which is being cast adrift by the Executive, could do with a leg-up, too.

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