Why the minister is singing the best tunes

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Jack McConnell has come a long way since he took the Executive's education brief and the similarities with Michael Forsyth are striking, says Brian Monteith

AS yet another educational initiative makes the headlines and reverberates through the staffrooms and union corridors - this time the revolutionary thought that teachers may be trusted to deviate from the curriculum - how relieved Jack McConnell must be that he was appointed Education Minister last year by Henry McLeish.

It must seem like an age since Mr McConnell was Finance Minister, and a not particularly popular one at that. He survived the Beattie Media inquisition but wisely kept a lower profile than one might have expected for such a good communicator. Clearly not worried about making enemies, he went on to claw back a large chunk of Health Service underspending to redistribute on other less popular causes.

Jack McConnell's abilities as an operator have rarely been in doubt but it was a surprise just how close he ran Henry McLeish in the Labour leadership race. Now, only some 10 months on, Mr McConnell is clearly a politician enjoying his job and being talked about as one of those rare things - a successful Education Minister. Not since Michael Forsyth has a politician attracted such grudging admiration for his willingness to think the unthinkable and challenge the education establishment.

Having presided over the salvation of this year's exams system, one might expect Mr McConnell to be the most popular guy in town but the talk on the Mound is that his Cabinet colleagues are wary of elevating his reputation above that of Mr McLeish, while establishment bosses are already aware that this smart politician's understanding of his brief puts them on the back foot.

Other Labour ministers could do well to learn from Mr McConnell. Opponents to deal with? Then bind them into the process, appoint them to various committees that will ameliorate the differences and tie them into the decision that he ultimately wants. Committees on changes to Higher Still, sex education materials and the like deflect any direct assault on the minister and allow him the room and the time to choose the best outcome for him, the Executive and, oh yes, our education system.

A pronounced difference with colleagues, and one that will matter if and when he again stands for First Minister, is how he speaks the language of everyday folk. His most likely opponent is generally considered to be Wendy Alexander (although I would keep an eye on Angus MacKay) and the comparison could not be more stark. Wendy spouts consultant's jargon in motormouth fashion. Jack engages with people and let's them get a word in.

He also displays a sound judgment for what issues are important to people. He is, to that extent, a populist. He quickly showed his willingness to roll his sleeves up and help the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Jack McConnell's approach is, of course, not without wider political calculation. He has not moved to liberalise Scottish education simply because he believes it is good for its own sake. It presents problems for the other parties too. It leaves his Liberal Democrat partners with little that is different in the areas they claim as their own. Employ more teachers? He's doing that. Spend more money? He's doing that. Politically they have no distinctive voice.

For the SNP the problems are more acute. First it is no longer faced with the curmudgeonly approach of Sam Galbraith who, while I always found him a warm and congenial friend outside the debating chamber, had developed a political persona akin to Mr Burns of The Simpsons. Now that Mike Russell, the SNP's education spokesperson, faces a far more charming and beguiling opponent, the SNP really has to offer some alternative. Here the party fails miserably for it has allowed itself to become painted as the dinosaur of Scottish education, not just defending the vested interests of the unions and the local authorities but seeking to strengthen them.

For the Tory Party, the problems are of a different nature for Jack is so adept at adopting our policies or moving towards them. Removing grant aid for special schools? Mr McConnell has delayed that for another year. Targets to reduce expulsions in schools? They no longer matter. Devolve power away from local authorities? Mr McConnell's task force will report this autumn and it will eat further into our political territory.

The only blot on his copybook is to seal the fate of St Mary's, the opted-out primary in Dunblane, by enforcing legislation passed by Mr Galbraith. I am not so sure he would have started the process if he had been minister at the outset.

Brian Monteith is the Tory Party's Scottish education spokesman.

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