There are many adjectives and phrases that can be used to describe Mike Russell, the education secretary. Shrinking violet, however, is not one of them – judging by his inflammatory outburst yesterday.
Political observers have become increasingly accustomed to bad-tempered exchanges between the SNP and the coalition government, but Russell’s remarks ramped up things to a new level on the referendum apoplectic-ometer. Claiming that UK government immigration policy was reducing the number of Indian students coming to Scotland, Russell said: “The debate south of the Border is being driven by Ukip and by a nasty xenophobia, which certainly revolts me and I think revolts many others.”
A canny political operator, as well as a published author, Russell is only too aware of the power of language. So one can only assume that he was bracing himself for the angry retorts that his comments inevitably provoked.
“Outrageous”, “hypocrisy”, were two of the terms used by Russell’s opponents, who were quick to point out that the education secretary himself has faced accusations of discriminating against English students by charging them when Scottish undergraduates get free tuition. One suspects that Russell was deliberately raising the temperature on immigration in the knowledge that this controversial issue is becoming a focal point of the referendum.
Last week, the UK government published a paper claiming that Alex Salmond’s plans to attract more immigrants to Scotland was incompatible with an independent Scotland remaining part of the Common Travel Area (CTA) made up of the UK and Ireland.
By questioning the Scottish Government white paper, which claims that Scotland could pursue a different and more welcoming immigration policy than the rest of the UK while remaining in the CTA, UK ministers raised the prospect of passports having to be brandished at the Border. Could it be that SNP politicians are keen to emphasise the idea of differing attitudes to immigration north and south of the Border in an attempt to drown out the practical difficulties of having a distinctive Scottish policy plus an open Border?
An article by the external affairs minister Humza Yousaf in the Scottish Left Review yesterday chimed with the sort of sentiments expressed by Russell in more measured tones. The UK government, Yousaf argued, was kowtowing to a Ukip-driven agenda, which contrasts with the “inclusive and humane” policies of the Scottish Government.
Given the venom with which Russell expressed his view, we can expect this message to resonate over the coming months.