THIS is a story about the First Minister of Scotland going into a school through the back door. And about the state of our country.
We’ll start with that school visit, which took place during the Aberdeen Donside by-election in June. The SNP invited journalists to meet Alex Salmond, Education Secretary Mike Russell, and candidate Mark McDonald outside the delightfully named Bramble Brae Primary, where they could listen to parents’ concerns over plans to close it.
This little campaign event duly took place and, a few days later, McDonald retained the seat – left vacant by the death of MSP Brian Adam – for the SNP.
Almost two months on, Bramble Brae is at the centre of a bitter row between the First Minister and the Labour leader of Aberdeen City Council Barney Crockett. It has emerged – and I’ll forgive you if you remain underwhelmed by this fact – that Salmond in fact entered the school without the permission of the local authority or the knowledge of the head teacher.
Cue the accusation from Crockett that the First Minister had sneaked in like a thief to campaign on the sly.
Salmond responded by insisting the visit was private and unplanned, the result an invitation from a member of the parent council. He accused the councillor of leading a kamikaze organisation and running the risk of bringing it into disrepute. That was when Crockett called Salmond a bully.
Almost immediately, the head of Scotland’s civil service, Sir Peter Housden cleared the First Minister of breaking parliamentary rules with his visit (doesn’t it sometimes seem Sir Peter is employed to do little more than clear the First Minister of this thing or that?). Determined that there must be a reckoning, Councillor Crockett then called on the head of the UK’s civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, to investigate the First Minister. This will drag on. And then nothing will happen.
While we wait for nothing to happen, this row gives us interesting things to consider about political priorities, particularly during this period of unofficial – but nonetheless passionate – independence referendum campaigning. And Aberdeen is as good a place as any for us to start.
It’s our third largest city, a wealthy place with an economy casting a shaft of light in the recession gloom. And it’s a mess.
In places, its main thoroughfare – Union Street – could be running through a depressed Lanarkshire town, not what should be a great, buzzing, European city. Plans to redevelop Union Terrace Gardens started off bold, were watered down by indecisive councillors, and were finally rejected. A proposed new football stadium has been delayed because of treacle-thick bureaucracy and a lack of political vision.
Aberdeen seems held back by the sort of petty, grindingly slow local politics that we should have got rid of a long time ago. Councillors may talk of their ambition for the city, but the reality doesn’t necessarily bear that out.
Aberdeen’s poorly marketed and the way those major projects – the gardens, the stadium – have been handled doesn’t identify it as the sort of can-do place that’s attractive to investors.
Can you imagine if Aberdeen had a Boris Johnson figure directing the show? Would a confident civic leader with a little chutzpah, in the mould of the Mayor of London, be writing letters over school visits instead of singing a positive song about his city? I’m not at all convinced he would.
There’s no doubt Crockett feels mightily aggrieved by Salmond’s behaviour. The First Minister’s anger over accusations made against him is equally tangible. But isn’t this just another silly spat of the sort that seems to define our national politics as a little childish and underdeveloped?
Not fair! It’s the SNP’s fault for being led by a “bully”.
Not fair! It’s Labour’s fault for running that “kamikaze” council.
This row comes almost two months after it might have been of any use to the Labour Party, some sections of which seem still not to see that the First Minister will not be defeated in the 2014 referendum or (if he is still leader by then) the 2016 Holyrood election because of the details of a visit to a primary school but because it can show some of the confidence exuded by Salmond’s SNP.
Labour strategists will tell you that it’s important to continue to build pressure on Salmond, to question his integrity, and present evidence of shady political plays whenever they uncover them. But this tactic may be counterproductive if over-used. If a “scandal” doesn’t quite catch light, it might still leave a taint on the politician in question. But for all those voters muttering, “I told you there was something about that one”, there are others for whom it’s just the same old muck throwing. We’re entitled to ask whether this is in the genuine interests of anyone.
Salmond’s attack on Crockett’s running of the City Council may have been intemperate but it contained a grain of truth. Though if the First Minister is at all correct about the skewiff priorities of the local authority, then he has to accept that his own government has a similar problem.
The dominance of the constitution in our politics means that little else seems to be receiving proper care and attention.
It’s months, for example, since the education secretary made a very good speech on the future of our schools and colleges. Russell called for a thoughtful discussion about what we want and expect from them. Since then, nothing.
Any country has to change and adapt according to the times and the needs of its citizens. But the SNP’s narrative that real change can only come through independence means a policy paralysis has stricken the government. Isn’t the slow progress of Aberdeen replicated at a national level?
Alex Salmond may have gone through the back door to Bramble Brae primary and that may have been the wrong thing to do so but is the ensuing row really worth the energy expended?
Is it really the sort of politics that Aberdeen – that all of Scotland – deserves? I do hope not. «