Its nine months of office to date seem to have brought the new coalition administration at Argyll and Bute Council less to the birth of a confident team than to the kind of upheaval where they would be advised to take serious time to consider who they are, what they’re doing and where they’re going.
Argyll needed a change at the council, with the former administration presiding over what had become a diseased corporate culture that needed to be swept away.
The new lot are just that – new, in any real way, to the job they have to do and, as a coalition, completely new as a team.
There are always going to be some mistakes in the first phase of such a situation and those mistakes have come.
The major initial failure was in not immediately stamping their authority on council officers, with the CEO and the Executive Director of Community Services having, through spectacular incompetence and complacency, exposed the council to serious financial and reputational loss.
This was most marked in the entirely avoidable and fearfully damaging fight-to-the-finish with the electorate that these officers provoked in their gross proposals to close no fewer than 26 primary schools in the area in a single tabula rasa.
For the most senior professionals in the council to fail twice to present legally competent school closure proposal parers and twice to be forced to withdraw them – at a total cost that has never been adequately tabulated but which was topped up with a series of substantial fees to consultants – was clearly a necessary sacking matter.
It didn’t happen and that failure to address one of the most serious failures in council history for some time made the new administration look weak and in thrall to the officers in what remains an officer-led administration.
Then – very quickly – came the Martha Payne child-school-meal-blog affair, with the same Executive Director of Community Services issuing a press release off his own bat, which replicated the stalinism of the stance of the former administration and badly tarred the new one.
Nothing was done about that either. He remains in post.
The failure to act in these matters was undoubtedly damaging.
Another long running issue from the outset is that the new administration are being regularly coached by the local SNP MSP, Michael Russell.
This is happening despite the fact that the administration is a coalition of 21 councillors of which 13 are members of the SNP; and that the Argyll and Bute MSP does not, in any case, represent all of the area.
The most populous of the four areas in Argyll and Bute – Helensburg and Lomond, is represented by Labour’s Jackie Baillie, MSP for Dumbarton, falling within her constituency boundary.
The fact that Mr Russell has more or less taken ownership of the administration is a continuing source of internal discomfort, not to say alienation, across the administration, including within his ‘home’ team.
The paternalistic interventionism is reductive of responsible and elected adult councillors. In the context of a coalition administration and the shared political responsibility at the Scottish parliament for the local authority area, it is of questionable propriety.
It also means that this coalition team – which must learn to act as a team if it is to be successful for Argyll – has not been given the room to grow itself as a coherent unit.
Set against these issues are the strengths of real efforts to create a different working culture in the chamber.
Argyll First established a very effective campaign to have the unreliability of the landslide prone A83 addressed. All councillors signed up to that – a welcome collaboration in a common cause.
A current and major example of the move to create a new political culture is the provision, for the first time, of the full detailed budget proposal papers to all councillors and three weeks in advance of the meeting where the decisions on this will be taken.
This is an admirable attempt to bring the council to serious professional working practices in a gesture of respect.
An unexpected but worrying canary
We have largely left the new administration alone since they took office, to give them time to find their feet. We would have done the same for any new administration. Anything else is pulling the wings off butterflies.
From the start, we characterised the Argyl First group, members of the administration, as the canaries in the mine; with any evidence of political discomfort amongst them being evidence of political ill health in the coalition.
But over the last few days there have been rumours, confirmed today, of discomfort in a centrally significant canary – the Leader of the Council, the SNP’s and Oban’s Councillor Roddy McCuish.
Councillor McCuish has made it known that he has not yet come to a decision but that his position, however it resolves itself, will be clarified at the council’s budget meeting this day week, Thursday 14th February.
Following the stepping down of the former SNP group leader, Bute’s Councillor Robert McIntyre, Roddy McCuish was made the SNP group’s Leader-elect in the run up to the May 2012 local authority elections.
In these elections. the SNP group won some additional seats, but not as many as they had hoped and needed if they were to be a majority administration.
Roddy McCuish, re-elected as a councillor, then, as leader of the largest group in the resulting coalition, became Leader of the Council.
Not only was this a new administration with many untried members, it had a leader who was himself new to both roles – as leader of his political group and as leader of a council.
Roddy McCuish has an incomparable asset for a politician – he is an honest and straightforward man.
He may well feel insecure in his lack of experience – but every leader begins as an inexperienced leader. It takes time.
We said, at the time of his appointment, that he was – and is – the ideal person to play a very specific leader’s role – as the leader of a team, which is, above all things, what this coalition must become.
That means fostering internal trust, working collaboratively, not molecularly and working together, on their own, to create an agreed identity for their joint administration. We don’t yet know who they are as a unified team, what they’re for and what they’re against.
Councillor McCuish is the ideal person, left alone to do it as he himself sees fit in his own judgment, to bring this disparate group together as a genuine and cohesive team. He is not troubled by ego or by ambition. He was made leader because people liked and trusted him and found his honesty refreshing.
None of that has changed – but he has not been given the chance to find his own way and he may well be under pressure from ambitious colleagues who fancy themselves in his role.
If this is the case, such colleagues may usefully reflect on the ‘cover’ that Councillor McCuish, as leader, provides for them. None of them, as front man, could command the popular trust and affection that Roddy McCuish attracts.
He needs never to lose sight of that, never to allow his integrity – or the integrity of his administration – to be compromised and to assert the authority his own unfettered judgment will direct.
They need to realise that, were they to be leader, their lesser popularity and the lesser trust they enjoy would bring a far higher level of scrutiny of the work of a fledgling administration than is currently the case.
If, next Thursday, Council Leader McCuish stands down, it will show that the administration has been unable to coalesce, unable to put the interests of Argyll first in working together energetically as a creative and engaged team.
They need to play to their real strengths – which exist – and to be supportive of each other.
If they cannot do this, it will be time to be sent home when the opportunity comes.