Living on the edge - but of a demise or a resurrection?

14th December 2012 at 00:00
The education secretary may be sailing close to the wind, but he has been in choppy waters before

Charles de Gaulle once said, "Cemeteries are full of indispensable men". I'm sure he wasn't thinking of Michael Russell at the time, but as 2012 ends the education secretary must realise he is teetering on the edge of a fall into his political grave.

Mr Russell, though, is a trooper. He usually has good balance and quick feet. He has fallen before, when he lost his place at Holyrood in 2003 and conjured up a political resurrection in 2007. So he should never be written off, not least by Alex Salmond, who will be mindful that he probably knows where the bodies of the First Minister's political opponents lie buried. And Mr Russell can write and talk; he can speak from beyond the grave.

His return was founded on a well- argued book, Grasping the Thistle, which showed the SNP had a thinker who could, like former English education secretary Keith Joseph, critically reassess what he had done, repudiate past actions and offer a more open and liberal approach.

Joseph, a brilliant mind but full of guilt about his role as the housing minister who caused high-rise flats to become a Sixties signature and as health minister introduced a new tier of red tape to the NHS, became a far more cautious secretary who, although advocating the theory of education vouchers, could not introduce them for fear they would be a mistake.

What would mark Mr Russell's return was a side issue often discussed in bars around Holyrood in 2007. Many would say he would prove too clever, a synthesis between two sayings - "if he were chocolate he'd eat himself" and "he's so sharp he'd cut himself" - but who needs a chocolate razor?

Few could have expected that Mr Russell would have gained a reputation for bungling figures so much that he would need to apologise to Parliament or for bullying Scottish colleges into submission - and worse, embarrassing the First Minister.

In the case of forcing Stow's chairman to resign, the taping of a private meeting with a dozen present would be discourteous to a minister, but with over 80 attending it is hardly private and using the tape for verbatim notes is not unusual.

In 2013, the college issue will not go away. Last week a parliamentary committee was told that Mr Russell's estimates to deliver college regionalisation have been revised up to #163;54 million. Expect this story to run. And there is still the curriculum and university funding.

Few politicians are indispensable and it will only take a nudge from the First Minister for Mr Russell to fall into the pit. One resurrection is miraculous, but two?

Brian Monteith, Political commentator and a former Conservative MSP.

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