Tavish Scott: College row marks a turning point for SNP
THE chairman of a Scottish college resigns. Government funding is being cut by 24 per cent, according to the nation’s auditor, as colleges are centralised with forced mergers and closures.
Meanwhile, no minister can explain how many young people across Scotland have been refused college places in this desperately difficult time for school leavers.
With all this going on, and allegations of ministerial bullying, intimidation and arrogance laid at the door of the education secretary Mike Russell, what should parliament do? Run for the hills, if the SNP gets its way.
Yesterday, Stewart Maxwell, the SNP convener of the parliament’s education committee, said it would not enquire into former Stow College chairman Kirk Ramsay’s departure. Mr Maxwell had not asked the members of his committee what their view was. This is, in one respect, entirely logical. Mike Russell and the government will have made it clear behind the scenes that no parliamentary committee should be allowed near this issue.
What is particularly disturbing is the committee convener’s defence. Mr Maxwell claimed the facts were known and therefore the committee had no role. Wrong: parliamentary committees are there to hold the government of the day to account.
Parliament should question Mr Russell on his role in this shoddy affair. Did he speak directly to Mr Ramsay? Did he have his civil servants contact others to support his campaign of vilification of Mr Ramsay? Is this part of a pattern where Scotland’s colleges are told by Mr Russell to take their funding deal or else? Why was a meeting of 80 college representatives secret? Yet, in refusing to hold an inquiry, a Nationalist convener has put his party before the committee and parliament.
This goes to the heart of how this government behaves. Parliament is neutered by the SNP’s absolute majority. The government stopped the European committee investigating the EU and an independent Scotland. Opposition MSPs cite numerous cases of the Nationalist majority on committees being used to mitigate any criticism of the government. In the 2007-11 parliament, when the SNP was in a minority government, the finance secretary paid considerable heed to committee recommendations on spending. Now the government uses its committee majority to block any opposition proposal.
This abuse of power also relates to the way Mr Russell behaves. There is no doubt he is intelligent and able. But when a government has been in power for some time, personal strengths become secondary to the ministerial way of life. The ministerial car, teams of civil servants hanging on every word, endless speeches and dinners. When a minister gets to the point where he starts to throw his weight around and forces a resignation then he and his government look out of touch and arrogant. The Ramsay saga is that moment – for the SNP and Mike Russell.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland
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