The ins and outs of politics

20th April 2007 at 01:00
The council elections are a chance for new faces to shine, while older ones bow out and reflect. Elizabeth Buie meets youth (left) while Neil Munro profiles experience (right)

Charlie Gray must be fed up being described as a "veteran" by now. The 78-year-old chair of education in North Lanarkshire Council for the past 12 years has decided it is time to bow out of local politics after 49 years as a councillor - which must be close to a record.

Mr Gray, who provided the political muscle that allowed Michael O'Neill and the North Lanarkshire education directorate to bring in some ground-breaking reforms, seemed to have bucked the trend and taken on more public roles as he grew older. Potential schizophrenia could have been a danger as he became the voice of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities for the elderly as well as for education and young people. He had to take care to remember which audiences he was addressing, as he liked to say.

Charles Ireland Gray will be most closely associated with Strathclyde Region, and he is certainly one who deeply regrets its demise. He worked closely with two of Scotland's most respected regional councillors, Geoff Shaw and Dick Stewart, and eventually succeeded Mr Stewart as leader of the council in Strathclyde in 1986.

Frank Pignatelli, who was Strathclyde's director of education for part of that time, has no doubt about his contribution. "The dramatic and far-reaching reforms of Strathclyde's education service in the late 1980s and early 1990s would never have been possible but for the personal, unqualified and enthusiastic support of Charlie Gray: "His vision, courage and unflagging support, often in the face of the most brutal and uncompromising opposition, ensured that the radical root-and-branch review of the service was a significant success."

Some of these reforms were hugely controversial at the time - the reorganisation of the education directorate and introduction of quality assurance checks on schools, the first authority to move to delegated management for headteachers, the setting up of a parents' consultative group on the curriculum, reforms in special needs and the shake-up in the pre-five sector.

Virtually all of these required considerable political arm-twisting and there are some who have lived to tell the tale, both in the Labour Party and the Educational Institute of Scotland, where there was vehement opposition. "A brutal and bullying style" was one description of the Gray approach; "direct and honest" were the kindlier epithets.

It seemed inevitable that, following the break-up of the regions in 1995, Mr Gray should return to his base in North Lanarkshire and take political charge of education. Despite his regret at the axing of Strathclyde, he adapted to the new council structure very well, according to Michael O'Neill.

Indeed, Mr Gray seems to have adapted on more than one front. His reputation as "the hard man of Strathclyde" gradually gave way to a more diplomatic style, Mr O'Neill noted. He says this was reflected in one of the best relations any authority had with the unions, which was confirmed later when he was made a fellow of the EIS - unthinkable 20 years ago.

Mr O'Neill said one of Mr Gray's qualities was the trust he placed in officers with whom he worked. He was willing to take advice and to defend policies, privately and publicly. Examples were North Lanark-shire's early decisions to break away from national guidelines on the curriculum and to cut into 5-14 environmental studies to provide more time for literacy and numeracy.

Charlie Gray retires with a vast repertoire of knowledge and acumen, acquired in public life both at home and in Europe. Although he is happy to set off into the sunset, he has some foreboding about the future of local government as inexperienced councillors succeed his generation at the very time when the change to a PR voting system will usher in coalition politics. His concern is that a power vacuum could develop, which national politicians would be only too happy to exploit. If that transpires, the last may not have been heard from Charlie Gray.

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