Curiouser and curiouser: the Education Minister, school closures and political interference

The story threatening to engulf Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education is fast becoming akin to a tale that Lewis Carroll might have penned. 

Mike Russell is under pressure because of his engagement with councillors and parents over potential school closures in a constituency in which he lives but currently has no democratic mandate.  There are slightly more twists and turns to it than that, but it’s when you scrape the surface of the tale that it gets curiouser and curiouser.

However, let’s be clear (and Ideas of Civilisation explores this more fully) – Mr Russell is only behaving as any politician worth his or her salt would do: potentially huge local issue, prospective parliamentary candidate must be seen to be in about it. 

The po-faced reaction of the Scottish Labour candidate for Argyll and Bute amounted to a worthy audition for the role of Rev I M Jolly.  Yes, Mr Russell is an MSP elsewhere in the country and technically has no direct democratic mandate and therefore has breached parliamentary rules.  But I’m pretty sure the current MSP, Jim Mather, will vouch that he gave permission so no story, no scandal.

Incidentally, how is the investigation going into the breach – possibly inadvertent but a serious breach all the same – of data protection rules regarding the handing over of school children’s contact details by a Labour controlled council to a Labour MSP?

There are now suggestions that Mr Russell might have breached the Ministerial Code by engaging with local school parent councils.  Can we just rewind a little?  What he was engaging with people on – including his own councillors – was consultation to develop a process by which Argyll and Bute council might consider closing some schools.   His engagement with local councillors in his own party was entirely appropriate, warning them of the risks inherent for them and him of their involvement in a school closure programme.  The timeline is important:  he was communicating with them at the start of the process to draw up a plan.  As for his meeting with worried school parent councils, again entirely legitimate:  Argyll and Bute Council’s website states that the 2010 review was to “consider proposals to consult on the amalgamation of schools”.   Which means no definite proposals which may or may not wend their way to the Scottish Government, therefore no breach of the Ministerial code.  In any event, he has already passed ministerial responsibility, given his local interest, for this issue to one of his deputies.   Again no story, no scandal.

But this is where it gets curiouser.

Where is the local MSP in all this?  Jim Mather has an absolutely legitimate role to be involved.  The charges of interference against Mr Russell would have been avoided if he had simply accompanied the current serving MSP to meetings with parent councils and for him to have been introduced as the prospective candidate and erstwhile successor.  Mr Mather could have, should have been in a position to impart the kind of helpful information that Mr Russell did.  Mr Mather leading with Mr Russell following would certainly have taken the sting out of it all. 

Why is the Chief Executive firing off indignant epistles to the Scottish Government?  He is an official of the council who is charged with implementing the political decisions made by elected members, which in this case, have yet to be made.  For him to stick his oar into the process at this stage is simply inappropriate.  It would be an entirely different matter if the letter had come from the leader of the council but the fact it came from the Chief Executive provides evidence, if more was needed, of the blurring of distinction between political and operational roles at a local level. 

Who leaked the original email from Mike Russell to his SNP council colleagues?  One presumes it had a short circulation list so the list of leak candidates is few.  And if the source of the leak was from within the SNP group, why and what purpose did he or she think that might serve?  I do hope they are enjoying reading Scotland on Sunday’s coverage of the matter today and pondering the full, possibly inevitable consequences of their actions. 

For losing this seat might well be the difference between the SNP forming the next government or not.  This local hot potato tells us something about the state of the SNP in such a pivotal constituency;  one hopes it has nothing to say about the state of party relationships between national and local elected representatives more generally.  But the party apparatus might want to take a closer look at what is going on in Argyll and Bute, for it cannot afford to throw away seats the SNP can reasonably be expected to hold simply because there are malcontents operating their own narrow agendas. 

Why did Scotland on Sunday decide to give this issue acres of coverage but only manage to cover half the story?  The former point might be simply down to a slow news week but the paper does seem to scent a political scalp, as well as a story that has further to run.  Shame then that they chose to bury the significant detail that makes it all a bit of a non story.  This week, the council itself decided to halt its proposed review in light of its budget allocation from the Scottish Government and also because the new education convenor now wants to review the whole school estate, not just target particular schools.  So the process is back to the drawing board.  Any involvement that Mike Russell may or may not have had to date is now a non issue, though he might be advised to proceed with more caution next time round.

The surface story of potential political and Ministerial interference is nonsuch;  it’s when you look through the glass that the more curious details emerge. 

Off with his head?  The burd doesn’t think so.

4 thoughts on “Curiouser and curiouser: the Education Minister, school closures and political interference

  1. Mike was there as a PPC. All credible candidates stick their nose in whenever they feel it is useful and their agent should smooth out any turf issues. Indeed, once you are on a candidates list you get all sorts of mail from all sorts of people inviting you to sign pledges (which you ignore) and visit all sorts of places. (I was personally invited to a wind farm, a power station, and a micro-brewery – all of which I had to refuse.) The only problem is if he used Parly time/expenses/credibility to make the contacts, which I’m sure he didn’t…

  2. I don’t think so either, but I do think MR slightly overstepped the line as PPC, especially holding the position he does at present.

    You’ve covered all the points well but there is one I thought of recently. Nobody mentions the lack of influence councillors have these days. Once upon a time council officials carried out the orders of councillors. That no longer happens. Council officials are no longer in fear of the consequences of refusing to listen to elected representatives. Look around, it’s happening everywhere.

    • You are probably right re overstepping the mark – and leaving himself wide open in the process – but much worse goes on elsewhere.

      And spot on re lack of influence of councillors. The reasons why are an entirely separate blogpost. The bit I didn’t blog on in this post is the assertion in SoS piece that MR should have sought “permission” from council officials to go and meet parent councils. Absolute arrant nonsense. Yes it would have been polite to let them know but he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to go anywhere and talk to anyone as a ppc. Likewise MSPs and councillors – and I do know of officials getting antsy of councillors going off and engaging with their constituents without their say so or involvement. The politicisation of public sector officials – at local and national govt level – is a disgrace frankly.

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