The Education Secretary, a standards investigation and the upcoming election

<em>Picture: Scottish Government</em>
Picture: Scottish Government
Mike Russell is, without doubt, the most combative and articulate of Alex Salmond’s ministers – but he will need every ounce of that skill if he is to crush completely the allegations, claims and counter claims swirling around him at the moment.

The Education Secretary is under attack over claims that he may have broken the rules governing the conduct of MSPs and ministers over his intervention in plans to close primary schools in Argyll and Bute.

This has come about because of a highly unusual – perhaps even unique – set of circumstances. Mr Russell is the Education Secretary. If, as has happened in the past, the Education Secretary has to deal with school closures in his or her own constituency, then the system has provisions to allow that to happen. The minister would be allowed to intervene as a constituency MSP – as long as he then passes the ultimate decision on the closures to another minister.

In this case, however, Mr Russell is not the constituency MSP for Argyll and Bute but he has a very real interest in the seat. Mr Russell is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Argyll and Bute and that is where this whole issue gets really messy.

There is no real provision in the guidance issued to MSPs or ministers to cope with this unusual situation. Mr Russell’s future as a politician hangs, to a large extent, on the result of the Argyll and Bute constituency vote in May. He has campaigned in the constituency, he is desperately trying to win votes in the constituency, he lives in the constituency and his wife is a teacher in the constituency: yet he is not the MSP for the area – hence the trouble he is now in.

Mr Russell knew that the closure of more than 20 rural primary schools would be an election issue and he, as the Education Secretary, might well end up getting the blame and suffering at the polls as a result.

So, what was he to do? Get involved but stress that he was doing so as the SNP candidate, not the Education Secretary? Or try to influence the SNP group on the council to retreat on the closure plans? Mr Russell has apparently tried to do both while attempting to stay onside with the both the Ministerial Code and MSPs’ code.

The results have been confusing, to say the least, which is why Mr Russell now faces an investigation by Holyrood’s standards commissioner.

This is what appears to have happened. In November last year, the parents at one of the threatened schools invited Mr Russell to a meeting. He cleared this with Jim Mather, the constituency MSP, but did not, apparently, inform the council’s education department.

At the meeting, he clearly told the parents he was there as the SNP candidate, not as the Education Secretary, but one parent then stated afterwards that Mr Russell had been invited purely because he was the Education Secretary.

Then, later that same month, Mr Russell intervened with the local SNP group and it is here that things get even more murky.

Mr Russell sent an email to SNP councillors from his parliamentary email account not, crucially, from a private email account, asking that the consultation process on the school closures be stopped.

In that email (subsequently leaked) Mr Russell stated: “If the group supports these proposals next week, we will have very severe problems which could be very destructive of our reputation and prospects.”

The message appeared pretty clear – go through with these plans and we might not win the seat at the Scottish elections in May.

In all these instances, Mr Russell has claimed that he has been acting solely and wholly as the SNP candidate and, if that was all he was, there would be no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

But Mr Russell is not just the SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute, he is also the Education Secretary and that is not something he can drop for half an hour when he wants to write an email, particularly when that email comes from his parliamentary email account.

It is this grey area between Mr Russell stating that he has been acting only as the SNP candidate and the knowledge that all those on the ground have that he is also the Education Secretary that has caused the problems.

He may say he is just the SNP candidate but is that how his interventions have been received?

For instance, after his email, the SNP councillors quit the coalition – as he asked them to. Would they have done so had the request come from any run-of-the-mill candidate?

The ministerial code is quite clear. It informs ministers they must ensure that “no conflict arises between their private interests and their public duties”. Likewise, the MSPs’ code of conduct states that an MSP cannot intervene in an area outwith his or her constituency without prior agreement.

Mr Russell’s private interests lie in being elected as the next MSP for Argyll and Bute. His public duties lie in performing his role as Education Secretary. This is not his constituency, but it may be his constituency come the elections in May.

It has hardly helped Mr Russell’s arguments that the chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council has written to the Scottish Government expressing concern over the way the school closure issue has been handled.

So is there a case to answer? Labour certainly think there is. It was a former Labour parliamentary candidate, David Graham, who made the complaint to the standards commission and Labour clearly see the potential to subject Mr Russell to an investigation and to embroil him in controversy in the run up to the election.

Given Mr Russell’s reputation for pugnaciousness, he will undoubtedly come out fighting and, because there is so much confusion and so many grey areas here, he is likely to emerge intact, both from an initial commissioner’s investigation and from any subsequent committee sparring to come.

But there is extreme party politics at play here too, both inside and outside the SNP. Outside the SNP, Labour has seen the opportunity to drag another SNP minister into controversy. They managed it with the former transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, over the pre-Christmas snow, they managed it with the finance secretary, John Swinney, over the Tartan Tax and the health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, over her lobbying for a convicted fraudster.

If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell too, that would be seen as a notable pre-election success – and forcing him out of office would indeed be the icing on the cake for Labour.

But inside the SNP, too, there are also forces at play. Mr Russell has never enjoyed unqualified support within the Nationalist movement partly because he is seen as arrogant by some, smug by others and not left-wing enough by others.

Somebody leaked Mr Russell’s email to SNP councillors, the email which is causing him so many problems now which shows that, at least to some, he remains a somewhat divisive character.

Mr Russell will probably head off this standards’ committee challenge and survive to fight the election in May. However, he will have learned one key issue of public perception – that what you say you are, and what people think you are, are often at odds.

  • Jimmy the One

    Mmmmm. I think his tea’s oot, as they say.

    • Gaavster

      Oh dear oh dear Hamish…

      There’s nothing to see here…. move along

      Jimmy, the tea’s no even made it as far as the oven….

  • spagan

    Hamish
    If allegations were being made about you every second day, how would you “crush completely the allegations, claims and counter claims”???
    This is absolutely trivial stuff and nonsense from New Labour – a North British segment of which have consistently done sod all for the people of Argyll.
    Sad, sad, sad that you continue to pedal and promote and attempt to give substance to every New Labour media release issued. Pourquoi?
    What about a negative story or 2 on New Labour or the Liberals? Certainly no shortage of material there.
    Slainte Mhor

  • Alibi

    This is a non-story. Were this a Labour minister, the press would not be interested.

    How shameful, a government minister trying to improve Scotland. And he’s doing it deliberately, to quote some wino Labour numpty.

    • >> This is a non-story. Were this a Labour minister, the press would not be interested.

      As I recall, the SNP – more specifically, Alex Salmond – did go after Labour ministers, and then senior Labour MSPs. If, in your hypothetical, the media were not interested, that would reflect poorly on them… not the rights and wrongs of Russell’s actions.

      Of course this should be discussed. If mitigating factors can be identified, all good and well. But, to immediately call for discussion to be shut-down ‘cos… well… it’s the SNP, and who could criticize that… it’s, as you accuse others of, bad journalism.

      As for Grey’s “gaff” about Montenegro, in what way was it any worse than Salmond’s shameless and simplistic comparison of Scotland to a country which had emerged from a region wracked by bloody civil war and genocide?

  • liberty

    Minister or not, presumably he was elected to serve the people and not the treasury – how many street protests have there been demanding school closures and how many politicians campaigned on the back of policy to ‘close rural schools’?

  • RandomScot

    Another recycling of a Labour press release.

    Nothing on Mr Gray’s latest diplomatic gaffe?

    Is that not newsworthy?

  • CWH

    “If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell too, that would be seen as a notable pre-election success – and forcing him out of office would indeed be the icing on the cake for Labour.”

    Is that all Labour has to offer the people of Scotland? Playtime Politics.

  • Georgie Kent

    It is good to see Mr Macdonell confirming that the BBC and Scottish Labour are one and the same. I do not remember Labour initiating the attack on Mr Stevenson, I’m almost sure it was the BBC. But, if this piece’s author would have that it was a Labour “notable pre-election success”, who am I to disagree with his perception that Labour and the BBC are as one.

  • Scotland tops #TIME list of aspiring nations.

    http://the-universality-of-cheese.blogspot.com/2011/01/scotland-independent-nation-to-be-or.html

    Naturally BBC Scotland and BWB have blocked me from posting again. Hopefully Brian and his BBC colleagues will rejoice at this good news.

  • Andy Simpson

    Oh dear dear dear out comes the Cal Mercs resident anti SNP placeman.
    Don’t know if you noticed but there is a great rumour that the leader of the Labour party in Scotland had caused a diplomatic incident by insulting a foreign nation.
    I wouldn’t have any problem with you highlighting this story as regards Mr Russell the likelihood is that it is more unionist hysteria but as with all the other nonsense we have heard over the last few months it will all come out in the wash.
    However the reason for this,its to try and damage an identified SNP minister just a pity you are not so keen to cover potential stories on Labour politicans .
    So sorry Cal Merc you have just lost another reader I’m simply not prepared to read stories flagged up as political analysis that are clearly political opinion by a writer who is openly anti SNP.

  • I cant believe the cal merc is turning into the daily record, what a disappointment.

  • drumnadrochit

    ‘If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell too, that would be seen as a notable pre-election success – and forcing him out of office would indeed be the icing on the cake for Labour’.

    and:

    ‘This is what appears to have happened’

    I’m sorry Hamish but this is a pathetic piece of so-called political journalism. Comment on and criticise Mike Russell by all means but the above is just so much nonsense.

    So why no comment on Iain Gray’s Montenegro gaffe? Surely that was not in the ‘this is what appears to have happened’ category but actually did happen and live on TV, too. I would hazard this was worthy of political comment.
    I thought CalMerc was going to set the heather on fire but it appears to be following the same agenda as the BBC. If it’s critical of the SNP, contrived or otherwise – print. Critical of Labour? – ignore.

  • Embradon

    Let’s see now:- Senior politician has a word in the ear of councillors of his own party, in the county WHERE HE LIVES, advising them against having any part in a crazy policy of closing most of the rural schools.

    Labour, and therefore of course Hamish, think this is A BAD THING.

    I would imagine that Mike Russell is looking forward to the discussion.

  • Embradon

    “If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell”…..

    This is not a tactic the SNP can adopt in retaliation as none of the Labour front bench HAVE any reputation to tarnish.

    Neither have they any policies that the SNP can attack beyond forelock tugging unionism.

  • Angus Jura

    Perhaps Hamish you should venture into the ‘wilds’ of Argyllshire and ask the parents what they think? As far as my understanding goes, any appointment with the Eduction Secretary has to be made through his parliamentary office and is officially arranged as part of his official diary. From what I’ve heard (I’m an Argyll man myself) any visit that has beem made to any of the schools has been carried out in his capacity as the candidate for Argyll & Bute and has been done using his own transport and in his own time.
    Had the consultation process gone ahead, I understand it would have been dealt with by his deputy, Angela Constance, with Mr Russell taking no part, in conformity with the rules of parliament.
    One Independent councllor, who was approached, said, “I think to consider that a local politician with local connections is not gpoing to show some interest would be amazing.” However, the desperation of the opposition parties to find any straw to clutch at in the run up to the election knows no bounds, so we shhould not be surprised!
    I am surprised, however, that Ian Gray’s slight of the Motenegrins has gone virtually unreported, and certainly unapologised for. To my mind that is much more detrimental to the good name of our country than a local politician sticking up for his potential constituents. Those locals whom I know who were involved in the school closure ‘hit list’ have certainly told me what they think – and they have no political axes to grind. Surprisingly they are not complaining about Mr Russell’s actions. Now, if he had decided to charge university students £9000 per annum tuition fees……!!!
    Storm, teacup. end-of!

  • Harry Wragg

    Hamish – you really should have investigated this a little further.
    The complaint about Mr Russell was made by David Graham, who works for Argyll and Bute Council – in the department which drew up the school proposals.
    Further to this, Mr Graham is the campaign manager for Argyll and Bute’s Labour candidate, Mick Rice – he of Birmingham Sex in the City fame.
    Something stinks here – and it’s not Mr Russell’s behaviour…

    • Embradon

      My understanding is that employees of the education department are forbidden to comment or to take part in the campaign against school closures. Are wannabe Labour politicians exempt?

  • soosider

    It certainly has the feel of a storm in a tea cup and well done for highlighting the very unusual circumstances ie being a candidate and a sitting MSp and Minister.
    However I think that to complete the picture we should also be aware that the person who made the allegation David Graham, as well as being the failed Labour candidate last May is actually the election agent for the Labour candidate for the Holyrood election and that he actually works for the Chief Executive of Argyll and Bute Council. One has to hope that he did not use his position to access the email in question, but leaving that aside it would be wise to be clear about his full position as this allows a clearer view of his intentions and perhaps even an alterer motive.

    • J. R. Tomlin

      Ah, political reporting. Good job, soosider. Too bad that supposed a certain supposed political reporter couldn’t do as well. Mr. Russell is not one of my favorite people, but isn’t that just a little bit silly?

      Hamish, Hamish, Hamish, perhaps a lesson or two from soosider would help. Now about Montenegro….

      But yes, we know you’d rather not mention something that is a bit beyond a teeny splatter in a teacup like your wee go at Mr. Russell.

    • spagan

      I wonder if Hamish knew that David Graham actually worked for the Chief Executive whose administration’s crazy policy it was to close most of Argyll’s wee community schools – with very doubtful supposed “savings”?
      I’m sure he would have placed this fact within the story.
      He wouldn’t have left it out to be a wee bit more anti-SNP?
      Would he Stewart?
      Slainte Mhor

  • John Malcolm

    I’ve read the Cal Merc on and off since it came out.I think I even suggested in a poll that I would consider buying a weekly paper version of the Cal Merc.
    I have to say if I was asked that question now the answer would be no,no more than I would buy the record,the sun the herald or the Scotsman.
    I want a balanced view of political events in Scotland.Now soosider above has just provided further information that I am sure this journalist was aware of yet he omitted to publish that information,why ???
    I am aware this journalist also does work for the discredited BBC Scotland and given their political loyalties and all out war with the Scottish government at the moment its not hard to see why he tends to ignore any stories regarding Labour politicans.
    So why not try reporting on Jackie Baillie misleading people on NHS lease cars ,Iain Gray on insulting small nations,Charlie Gordon losing the place in a Holyrood committee,why Labour and Lib Dem politicans let the tax powers lapse etc etc etc because at the moment it seems that the increasingly rabid unionist media ,and I’m sorry Cal Merc but you are slowly slipping in there as well,will jump at any story true or false to try and discredit the Government while turning a blind eye to Labour.

  • baglady

    i’d have thought by now that electionering should be left to poiticians…

    and NEWS for NEWS=PAPERS….. but some people never learn….here we go

    again, two-faces,why in the interest offairness dont you print a little

    of the tittle-tattle,that hangs around other political parties….

    and theres plenty scope.i dont think labour [as thats what its all about]

    needs your help…..but i see once a unionist always a………..but i have to wonder……

  • Carnaptious Curmudgeon

    Oh, come on Cal Merc. Open your eyes. Give us your analysis of a real political story. Here’s a clue…Grey…FMQs…Live TV…Montenegro…insult. Got it?

    At worst, Mr Russel can be accused of fighting the closure of rural schools. He has my backing for that action whether he used his private or parliamentary e-mail account.

    Jeeez!

  • Ivan K

    First visit back for some time to see if this site had improved since reading a previous article penned by this Daily Mail hack – laughably described as a ‘journalist who does not run with the pack’ by the Cal Merc editor. No improvement, just the same old recycled mush.

  • JPJ2

    “Mr Russell’s future as a politician hangs, to a large extent, on the result of the Argyll and Bute constituency vote in May”

    Unionist supporting trash. I have no doubt that most in Argyll are delighted with Russell’s efforts and won’t give a damn for the nonsense being stirred up by Hamish and unionist fellow travellers.

    The analysis is also politically incompetent as Russell is a viruall certainty to be elected on the list even if he loses on the constituency vote (which he will not, mark my words, Hamish)!

  • Summerston Chris

    I am no friend of the SNP and have little time for Mike Russell. But surely he is allowed to campaign to win his seat? If he was using undue influence then there would be a problem, but as he can’t very well say nothing then what else is he supposed to do?

    As for sending it from his ministerial email account (a) so what? I order Amazon books from my work email and I don’t think it means that my employer is endorsing Ian Rankin and (b) if SNP councillors are like councillors in any other party they will not take kindly to being told what to do by a MSP or Minister in Edinburgh. Can you imagine Andy Kerr emailing orders to the likes of Stephen Purcell: can you imagine the response?

  • Angus Jura

    How sad that the full identity of David Graham was not included in all the newspaper hysteria about this very local little difficulty (though not so for all those childrena and parents attendingf the 25 schools threatened with closure). Lots of unnamed, unattributed ‘others’ being quoted on the ‘anti-Russell’ side, but no attempt made to get any comment from those most affected.
    In my humble opinion, this is purely another feeble and time-wasting attempt by a panicky Labour party to try to blacken the SNP. What really saddens me, as your average Scot, is the lack of a level playing field in the reportage of the Scottish media.
    As ‘Mr Average’, I’d have Michael Russell before Ian Gray, Des McNulty, Andy Kerr, or any of the main opposition politicians,any day. He at least has a vision; they can see no further than the point of their own snub noses.

  • David McEwan Hill

    The silly Labour Party will rue the day they started this nasty little piece of nonsense. Their candidate in Argyll and Bute can afford no scrutiny whatsoever and he would have gone to election – which he has no chance of winning – with a fairly lurid history largely unremarked but they have just ensured that this will no longer be the case.

  • EphemeralDeception

    This is a misleading and mischevious article.

    There h

  • EphemeralDeception

    There has been a lot going on at Argyll and bute, essentially the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
    To get a better idea of what is really going on have a look at the ForArgyll website (people who actually live in and represent the region).
    http://forargyll.com/2010/12/argyll-bute-council-the-administration-or-the-price-of-a-community/

    The SNP had no choice to quit the council after what was essentiall a coup d’etat by the unholy trinity between alliance, lib dem and tory councillors.

  • EphemeralDeception

    In addition, from forargyll website, today:
    “David Graham, who stood for the Labour party in the contest for the Argyll and Bute seat in the 2010 UK General Election – and polled very well indeed – lodged a complaint with the Standards Commissioner over the email SNP candidate, Michael Russell sent from his official rather than his private email account.”

    “We have now discovered that, in his employment with Argyll and Bute Council, Mr Graham works for….

    …. Cleland Sneddon –

    the hapless Executive Director responsible for the school closure plans whose incompetence has been embarrassing for and damaging to the credibility of the council – and which they’ve just had to bin.”

    and from a poster to that site “David Graham is campaign manager for Mick Rice, labour’s candidate for May’s election.”

    Wheels within wheels.

    I think that is enough info to show clearly the poor and misleading comment from the author of the article on this page. This is not unexpected given the author but the Caledonian M. Editor needs to give careful consideration to journalistic standards here.

  • Robbie

    IS McDoughnut actually paid to spout this rubbish ?

  • spagan

    Hamish has served his purpose.
    No “bad SNP stories” for the BBC this week – so now Brian Taylor is spouting the same erstwhile New Labour press release.
    Would the last credible journalist left in Scotland either start to investigate or turn the lights off ………..
    Slainte Mhor

  • Sid the sceptic

    looking forward to the debate in Parliament today my one hope is that Mike Russell does not apologize for anything as that is exactly what the labour party want. do they want to do anything at all about education on Argyll and Bute ? do they even have a policy ? or are they just looking for a soundbite – yet another snp minister forced to apologize they are pure rubbish. the BBC are salivating at the chance that another SNP minister is to be forced to apologize by the opposition whilst the opposition don’t have a clue what they would do.
    Sid

  • GavivC

    Sorry to find my contribution moderated out with no explanation. It didn’t contain false accusations or abusive language, bit I did ask for balanced reporting.

  • Jimmy the One

    It’s all immaterial anyway. Mr Russell may well get returned as an MSP but I think four years in opposition beckons. And I’m an SNP voter.

  • Jimmy the One

    And great photie of the man himself on the BBC website, by the way!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12175171

  • David McEwan Hill

    I will be very surprised indeed if the SNP do not considerably improve their position in the election in May and Mike Russell will win Argyll and Bute handsomely

  • David McEwan Hill

    The inananity of the unionist opposition in the Scottish Parliament is exposed on this issue.
    They appear to imagine they can damage Russell on this issue.
    In fact they have hugely raised his profile, have changed him into Argyll and Bute’s champion and ensured his election.

  • John Malcolm

    Well that debate backfired massively on the unionists. That was a very polished and confident performance from Mike Russell and really showed up the hypocrisy of the unionists in this matter.
    Lesson to the writer as well,in future publish all the facts not just the ones that suit your own agenda, either that or openly adnit where your political loyalties lie because at the moment you time and time again sound like a unionist spin doctor desperately trying to find the anti SNP angle.
    There really is a place for a Scottish political journalist to put their head above the parapet and report fairly.I put this point to an SNP supporting journalist friend who is not allowed to cover politics,he laughed and said his career would be over if he was ever put in a political position.

  • Jimmy the One
    • soosider

      Jimmy
      Come on, an “exclusive” in the Scotsman does not really count as turning up the heat on anyone, actually it does not count at all. In essence the story is that Edinburgh parents whose school faces closure accuse him of duplicitous behaviour as he did not visit them? Completely ignoring the fact that he could have no remit other than as Minster for Education, which would have been a serious breach of conduct, we also have to accept that equating the closure of rural schools that could result in very long journeys for children to a school closure in Edinburgh where the additional journey time would be a few miles?
      All I can say Jimmy, is if that is the best they can do then it really is rather weak not to say desperate.

  • GrassyKnollington

    The problem with this article is that it is the equivalent of getting an energetic, appraising and very hungry, cat to write a neutral piece about a blue tit on a low bird table.

    The lack of empathy for the subject of the piece except as dinner would cloud the cat’s judgement too much.

    Now if Hamish were to write “I’d like to see the back of Mike Russell and the entire SNP because I’m a unionist” it would be a startling revelation along the lines of the cat writing “I want to kill and eat that blue tit because it’s in my nature to do so”.