No longer in government following today’s reshuffle by new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, Michael Russell, Argyll & Bute’s MSP, sends this message of his commitment to the constituency.
He says: ‘It has been an enormous privilege to serve as a Scottish Government Minister in three different portfolios – Environment, Culture, External Affairs & the Constitution , and Education & Lifelong Learning – for the past seven and a half years.
‘My five years as Education Secretary was a learning experience in every way but I recently decided that whilst I fully intend to stand again for Argyll & Bute at the Scottish Parliament elections in eighteen months time, I would not wish to go into Government for a third term given the demands of serving such a huge and varied constituency as well as travelling the length and breadth of Scotland [and sometimes overseas] as a Minister.
‘Nicola’s election as Scotland’s First Female First Minister was bound to produce an early reshuffle so I took this ideal opportunity to step down at a time when a new Education Secretary could have the chance to establish herself in the run up to 2016 as well as bring a fresh approach and fresh ideas to what is one of the most wide ranging and demanding of roles. Angela Constance will be great at the job and of course worked within the portfolio for several years. So it is time for the torch to pass to her.
‘When I first became a Minister I was a regional member for the South of Scotland though I have lived in Argyll for over 20 years. I was very fortunate to be chosen to succeed Jim Mather in 2010 and move seats but that move brought many new responsibilities not least the imperative to hold surgeries, visit constituents and attend events in every part of the county. That presents particular challenges given that Argyll & Bute has a coastline longer than France, over 20 inhabited islands and on the mainland includes Kintyre, Oban & Lorne, Cowal and Mid Argyll – each of them bigger than many whole constituencies in other parts of the country.
‘My greatest honour is to have been chosen to speak up for the people of Argyll and Bute in the National Parliament of Scotland. Serving them – all of them – was and is my first priority. It is what I have been doing and will go on doing. Indeed I am now going to work even harder for everyone here in order to live up to the extraordinary trust this area has placed in me and for which I am always grateful.’
The lack of any tribute from Ms Sturgeon to the departing Education Secretary – who has said that both Mr Russell and Mr MacAskill had ‘offered to stand down’ would suggest that Mr Russell chose the face saver of jumping before he was pushed.
That apart, the reality is that a sadness in the MSP’s ministerial career is that he was moved prematurely from the job he absolutely fitted, would have loved , in a sector badly in need of the reshaping he was more than capable of delivering – Culture Secretary.
COSLA had made a mess of the then incumbent Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop who, as a First Ministerial favourite, was never going to be sidelined but, holed below the champagne line, badly needed to be rescued. Mr Salmond’s solution was to move each to the other’s post.
This pragmatic move saw the abrupt truncation of Russell’s tenure at Culture, in which he had started with huge promise.
He had come to Culture from Environment, from where he had himself needing rescue in the wake of stooshie he had created in 2008, here in Argyll in particular, through an ill considered scheme to lease 25% of Scotland’s viscerally important Forest Estate to foreign logging companies for a period of 75 years.
With the Forest Estate figuring large in the natural and employment landscapes of Argyll, meetings in community halls across the county were filled with protesters; and he area’s Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Reid, facing relection in 2010, made hay while the political sun shone.
The earnings from the proposed scheme were fairly slender and could not weigh against the perceived negatives. Russell was air-lifted out, replaced by Roseanna Cunningham – and moved to Culture, which must have felt like the homecoming of a lifetime.
This was a world he knew, from much of a life spent politically and personally in the creative arts. It was a world he was well qualified to speak to and to speak about; and it was a world in need of the sort of forced intervention which is his hallmark.
Temperamentally, the key to Russell is that while he barks loudly and rudely – and bullies where soft targets present themselves – he does not actually have the stomach for a serious contest between equals or against a more powerful opponent. All of these characteristics were his downfall at Education.
His bullying was infamous, with imperious – and shamingly successful – demands for the scalps of those who got across him ; yet he gave ground he did not have to give in the moratorium he introduced on school closures, which let dishonest and incompetent councils [like Argyll and Bute] unnecessarily off the hook; and he failed to confront COSLA as it needed to be confronted – because, as a powerful and determined combatant, it was the sort he shies away from taking on.
Russell’s pragmatism also led to his making inconsistent decisions on the school closures across Scotland which, as Education Secretary, he had ‘called in’ for his ministerial adjudication.
There were schools which ought never to have been closed and where his intervention cemented serious injustices. There were others to which he had personal connections of one mind or another which were reprieved. One such sequence led to a Judicial Review in which Lord Brailford found for the petitioner, Western Isles Council; and where the resulting ministerial appeal saw Lady Paton, in upholding Lord Brailsford’s opinion, issue one of the most finely argued legal opinions Scotland has seen.
Scotland’s education today sees the foolishly trivial and content free Curriculum for Excellence, so-called, is measurably leaving our children losing competence in the most basic skills of numeracy. The college sector, arguably more vital to employment and to the Scottish economy than the university sector, is left incoherent and destabilised. This has not been a successful but a damaging deployment.
But at Culture – from which ‘he was untimely ripped’ there had been an excitement in his appointment, a sense of expectation of the sort of brouhaha only the arts can dish up and in which Russell performs with bravura.
The arts sector, itself, by nature performance-centred, instinctively understood him, would professionally have appreciated his rhetoric and, while undoubtedly capable of offering him fierce opposition, would not have been been the alien force that was COSLA.
It remains a great pity, for Russell himself and for Scotland’s still incoherent creative sector, that governmental necessity saw him moved out of that job. So much might have been so very different.