Senior government minister, Michael Russell, currently Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, has told us that he has decided not to offer himself for selection in Dumfries again but to accept nomination to contest the SNP’s selection process; with the ambition of retaining Jim Mather’s seat in the Scottish Elections 2011 and of representing Argyll and Bute at Holyrood.
There are two sides to this decision – leaving Dumfries and championing Argyll.
Mr Russell speaks warmly of his experience as MSP for the South of Scotland and of what that energetic region has achieved during his tenure. He says: ‘I have enjoyed both stints as a member for the South of Scotland and have had lots of very valuable and welcome support. But this is a new and exciting challenge and I am looking forward to it’.
The Minister’s relationship with and commitment to Argyll is not new.
- He lives in the constituency, has done so for almost 20 years – and is an active participant in community development in his area.
- He is aware that the contest in May 2011 will be hard fought and hopes that his candidacy would help bis party’s cause here, capitalising on Jim Mather’s many achievements in what he would make a positive, forward looking campaign.
- Given his wide experience at ministerial level in this government – he has successively held the porfolios for Environment, Culture and now Education – there are a lot of contributions he says he would like to make here, relating to: ‘… education, environment, crofting and farming, culture, language, rurality and a host of other areas in which I have been lucky enough to work in recent years and which still interest me very greatly’.
So what’s the process?
The final decision is for the SNP’s constituency members’ to make. Nominations close on 8th July. There will then be a postal ballot, the result of which will be declared in early August.
Those nominated will present themselves at a variety of hustings , the first of which will be at the SNP’s Argyll and Bute Constituency Association meeting next Sunday – 4th July 2010.
Russell says that he is taking nothing for granted and at the moment is concerned to make sure that members hear the arguments and can make their decision with the fullest possible evidence.
What’s the picture?
Our own analysis suggests that the fight for Argyll and Bute in the 2011 election to the Scottish Parliament will be a tough one for the SNP.
Jim Mather’s success in 2007 was outstanding, converting the Liberal Democrat sitting tenant, George Lyon’s majority of 4,126 to an SNP majority of 815. This was achieved in a climate which was much more favourable to the SNP than is the case today. In these different times, a majority of 815 is a nervous one.
The current Scottish Government has taught Scotland what government means. It has not meant taking orders from somewhere else in the primary interests of another place. It has meant putting Scotland first. Nationalist and non-nationalist alike has responded to that.
The other side of the coin, though, has been the cost of increasing exhaustion, as a small core of highly capable ministers in a shallow talent pool, manage the burden of recession within limited authority and carry some colleagues whose abilities are more erratic and, on occasion, damagingly so.
The government has patently been tired, unable to refresh its vision, considerably less nimble than before and increasingly accident prone.
- There have been errors of judgment – like persisting with the independence referendum regardless of national nervousness after the collapse of the banks. This was never the time to ask Scotland to take a punt on anything.
- There have been errors of commission – like funding the demonstrably incompetent Lord Sempill willy-nilly to ‘run’ The Gathering.
- There have been weaknesses in internal discipline – like, now, Housing Minster Alex Neil selling his taxpayer-funded second home before the coming rule change – so that he can pocket the £100,000 profit we’ve made him).
Largely strong in government as it has been, these things have done the SNP harm – and waiting in the wings is the electoral pyromania that is the Gourock-Dunoon ferry provision.
The party itself will struggle to retain its current standing at the next election, It cannot afford to play anything other than the strongest card it has in seats newly taken in 2007, as was Argyll.
What shape is Argyll in?
Argyll has got used to a political life operating at a very much higher level of commitment, activity, challenge, achievement, ambition, accessibility and participation than it had known.
This has given the area a new sense of itself and of what is possible; a growing self confidence; and an encouragingly marked willingness in many communities to act on the perception that no one will manage their road to sustainability as well as they will themselves.
The progression of serious, innovative and complex initiatives to use ‘community right to buy’ legislation to bring major local assets into community ownership in Argyll is clear evidence for this. Here is a development that will reward nurturing.
It is important to recognise that the introduction of this measure into the Land Reform Act (Scotland) of 2003 – and the act itself – has been the most radical and game-changing political action since devolution and is very much to the credit of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition under which it was enacted.
Argyll is simultaneously a rich and wonderful place and a fragile one. It has astonishingly rich natural resources to support an almost limitless spectrum of relevant lifestyle choices and of activity and wildlife tourism. It has a topography which makes the economies of centralisation impossible – although this creates stronger communities and more diverse and pronounced microcultures.
Nothing in Argyll is cheap or easy or stereotypical but everything in Argyll is distinctive.
In those tensions lie the challenges and the opportunities.
So is Michael Russell the right candidate for the SNP?
In the SNP selection contest?
Following Jim Mather, who has made his mark in and for Argyll in significant measure and who is held in widespread respect and affection, is likely to swamp any candidate with less political experience and with lesser skills in bringing together in common purpose those with conflicting and often mutually hostile perspectives.
The bar is a high one. Argyll has been taught to raise its expectations. It would be a retrograde step to retreat from having strenuous expectations.
The territory has been undermined by the current standing of the SNP government, as outlined above.
In the SNP’s interests, any capable analysis indicates that unless it can mount the most energetic possible campaign behind the most obviously able and proven candidate, it will not retain Jim Mather’s seat.
In different times, there would be a strong case for the seat becoming a political nursery for capable emerging players – who exist in Argyll at the moment. The SNP, like all of Scotland’s party groups, needs a much deeper and more extensive talent base.
But these are not those times. This will be a fight for survival and in such circumstances every party needs to send out its doughtiest, established champion.
Russell is a warrior. The description above fits him very comfortably.
And, later, in the contest for the seat?
The big question is how likely Argyll is to vote for, or settle for, less than it has at the moment?
Since 2007 Argyll has become accustomed to the unfamiliar position of being noticed, of being represented by a Government Minister whose brief and whose capabilities carried Argyll itself on his back into national and international consciousness. Argyll has warmed to and grown into being of some account, of potentially being a player.
Would it accept a retreat from this at a time when Scotland, like the rest of the UK, must pay hard for the social and financial dereliction inherited from the former Labour government – and must steer a precarious course through the economic shoals?
All the political parties who will contest Argyll will need to take this factor into account in their selection of candidates. Whichever party wins Argyll and Bute will need to give us a potential Minister. Argyll is on the move and nothing else will do. That’s the reality of the ambition we’ve been exhorted to develop.
This description, too, fits Michael Russell.
The photographs accompanying this article show:
- top, Michael Russell in Canada, addressing a key business audience during Homecoming Scotland 2009
- Cathleen and Michael Russell canvassing in the 2010 General Election campaign.