The radical years are gone

9th May 1997 at 01:00
So it's over. At last Scotland has the Labour Government for which it voted at the last three elections. Or has it? Our new Prime Minister is a conservative on economic issues, a Liberal Democrat on social issues and a socialist who believes in privatisation. Red roses are out, purple the preferred colour. The campaign was dull; this in itself no small success for Labour which succeeded in keeping the divisive issues - devolution and Europe - offstage.

Some of Labour's promises, beyond slogan and soundbite, stretch credibility and deserve future scrutiny. Can they really deliver both change and continuity? And better public services without higher taxation? "Trust me" was a campaign slogan whose time had clearly come. Interesting times lie ahead.

The Conservatives deserved to lose. The will to win in 1997 was uniquely and clearly absent. The parliamentary party had self-indulgently torn itself apart over a period of years rather than weeks. Sleaze was unnecessary. The so damaging civil war over Europe was unnecessary. Economic and monetary union may never happen, and if it does then that is the time for politicking, personal statement and associated referenda.

Labour, despite policy trimming and tacking, achieved its historic landslide victory on the back of this kamikaze tendency, the time for a change factor and its own single-minded hunger for power. However, the devo-monster, associated referenda questions and a Scottish assembly (parish pump or Scottish Convention varieties) will shortly rumble back into view to consume large quantities of newsprint, plague the new Government, cause dissent in local councils and rejoice the hearts of Alex Salmond's stormtroopers.

Will Labour fight as hard for its devolved assembly as Michael Forsyth did for the union? Will Labour put up its top team for the Edinburgh experience anyway, when sovereignty is to stay with Westminster? As Mr Forsyth said, take away the tax-raising and the assembly has less power than the Scottish Grand Committee.

The contribution to Scottish education of the outgoing Secretary of State deserves reflection. He will surely be seen by historians of 20th century Scotland as a key reforming figure.The changed landscape of Scottish education since 1980 certainly owes much to him, first as education minister, then as Secretary of State. This is the landscape broadly adopted by new Labour in its voracious and unblushing annexation of any and every policy considered to be voter attractive by its campaign managers.

School choice, curricular reform, accountability to parents, equal partnership between home and school, standards, national testing, teacher appraisal: the wholesale adoption of these progressive reforms by the incoming Labour Government is more than just a remarkable tribute to Mr Forsyth's vision, ability and energy.

For the Conservative years were the radical years. The reforms listed here were all bitterly resisted in their time by Scottish Labour and the unions. The irony is that the education policies that defeated the Conservatives were essentially their own, repackaged and represented.

Perhaps Michael Forsyth's special contribution has been his consistent and effective attack on bureaucratic and professional complacency in whatever form, his refusal to collude with the establishment. He and his Conservative predecessors at St Andrew's House hammered home the message that Scottish education can no longer rest on historic laurels in a competitive world.

Michael Forsyth once said that the reform of which he was most proud was the (still unfinished) 5-14 development programme. His legacy to Scottish education also includes the Inspectorate's Quality Audit Unit, a powerful and effective vehicle for addressing patchy performance in Scottish schools, and for extending good practice to every corner of the land.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today