Lord Agnew's resignation from Boris Johnson's government has a lesson for Scotland – Brian Wilson
Resignations come in all shapes and sizes, even while waiting for the big one. Theodore Agnew, aka Lord Agnew, minister of state at the Treasury, provided a masterclass in how to do it.
Indeed, his mode of departure, which involved announcing from the dispatch box he’d had enough, then turning smartly on his heel and departing the chamber, was so stylish that it risked detracting from the substance of why he had gone.
Lord Agnew is a man of business who failed his eleven-plus exam and had a genuinely interesting career before politics. Critically, his experience as an employer told him something had to be done about education and he made that his mission, first in his native Norfolk.
Confronted with low literacy and numeracy standards, he was early into outsourcing to India. “That's when the penny dropped… I could see that if we could not bring our own workforce up to the same level as the emerging countries then we had no chance of maintaining living standards for the next generation.”
He worked closely with Michael Gove to flesh out Tory education policy which involved all the stuff about academies, pupil premiums for kids from poorer backgrounds and so on which has been very specifically rejected in Scotland, without much sign of alternatives.
The ideology behind these approaches is certainly debatable but the question which drives them is as relevant here as in Norfolk. How well-educated and skills-trained a workforce is our system producing? And are we honest enough to recognise its deficiencies?
But let’s stick with Lord Agnew and his reasons for resigning. As a man who knows the value of money, he witnessed with horror the cavalier approach with which the Treasury supplied Covid-related grants and loans to fraudsters.
It shocked him that £4.3 billion of Covid loans was written off. In answer to a Labour question, he startled the Lords by being completely frank. A “combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance” was “freezing the government machine”. There had been “schoolboy errors” in giving loans to over 1,000 companies which were not trading when Covid struck.
“I hope that as a virtually unknown minister, beyond this place, giving up my career might prompt others to get behind this and sort it out," he said. Then he picked up his papers and made his exit.
The resignation of Graeme Dey as Scottish transport minister took an entirely different form. He cited reasons of “health and well-being”, which should be respected. It is difficult to see how dealing with the various debacles for which he inherited responsibility just eight months ago could have been beneficial for either.
One of the matters Mr Dey had to address was the quite astonishing failure of the Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow to build two medium-size ferries for less than £300 million.
This, proportionately, contributes to similar levels of squandered public money that tipped Lord Agnew over the brink. However, the response here is simply to batten down the hatches and pretend it is all someone else’s fault.
However much we deride the Lords, it occasionally attracts individuals who are sufficiently independent to act on what they believe, even when it causes inconvenience to their own side of politics. There is no such forum in Scotland.
One under-reported aspect of the Ferguson affair is that it has proved completely impossible to recruit on Clydeside people with skills required to build ships. The whole operation, as the “turnaround director” confirmed in his valedictory report, is dependent on labour from eastern Europe.
We’re now onto talking about the ScotWind programme being the next saviour of Scottish industry. I wonder if anyone in Edinburgh has stopped to ask: “Do we have the skills, even if it proves possible to keep work in the country. And if not, what are we doing about it?”
I think it might be worth an intelligent conversation with Theodore Agnew, now he has more time on his hands. About the value of public money, about skills, about political integrity when you see something is just plain wrong. Horror of horrors. We might learn something.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.