Not taking the Michael

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Could we be witnessing the unthinkable: the political rehabilitation of Michael Forsyth? The former Tory Scottish Secretary, for long derided as father of the Skye toll bridge, now emerges as the father of the University of the Highlands and Islands - well, one of many fathers, but a crucial one.

And, according to a new book on the UHI by two other fathers - Sir Graham Hills and Robin Lingard - it was none other than Jim Wallace, a mere backbencher back in 1996, who was the witting conduit for Forsyth's announcement of a spectacular U-turn on the Government's previous hostility to the idea. In a pleasing twist of history, Wallace is now the very man in charge of making sure UHI happens, as Lifelong Learning Minister. "Jim, ask me a question about UHI," the book tells us that Forsyth remarked to Wallace as they filed into a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee of Westminster MPs on February 5, 1996, held, unusually - but appropriately as it turned out - in Inverness.

Wallace dutifully said later in the course of the debate: "I also hope that the Secretary of State will show more enthusiasm than we have seen so far for the concept of a Highlands and Islands University."

Forsyth then dropped his bombshell and left his officials with a red face in the process: "The Honourable member for Orkney and Shetland asked me specifically about the idea of a university for the Highlands and Islands," he said, feigning surprise.

"My briefing tells me it would be too difficult. Having recently visited the Gaelic college in Skye, I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity to use the new technology to create a new style of university... I am happy to pursue these ideas, as the Hon Gentleman suggests."

As Messrs Hills and Lingard observe, "the surprise shown by MPs at this response was far less interesting than the visible consternation of the Scottish Office officials who had come up to Inverness to 'mind' the Secretary of State".

Clearly, these politicians should never be let out on their own.

UHI : The Making of a University, by Graham Hills and Robin Lingard, is published by Dunedin Academic Press.

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