Euan McColm: Education secretary needs to learn lessons in restraint

Michael Russell. Picture: TSPL
Michael Russell. Picture: TSPL
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IS THERE a more delightful sitcom archetype than the puffed-up-but-thwarted little man? I’m struggling to think of one. Harold Steptoe, Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Del Boy, David Brent... a string of lead characters, repeatedly brought low by their own unrecognised limitations, these are the greats, surely?

We laugh as they remind us of the silliness of men, and touch us with the pathos of their masculine delusion. But maybe, like me, you’ve watched those episodes too many times and the freshness has gone. Maybe you crave a new buffoon.

In which case, let me direct you to the BBC’s iPlayer service, where you will find an episode of Reporting Scotland, broadcast on Thursday evening. There he is, a new comic creation to join the pantheon: Mike Russell, aged 59 and one quarter (and an education secretary screaming out to be played on-screen by Richard Briers).

Having sat in the debating chamber nodding with satisfaction while First Minister Alex Salmond rejected Labour claims that college budgets had dropped with a misleading statement that they’d risen, Russell was captured on camera striding along the corridor beside his leader, wearing what can only be described as a smirk. This is not a good look for politicians, especially when the BBC’s chasing them down corridors.

Russell turned, briefly and – and I wish there was a better word than “snootily” – said of Labour leader Johann Lamont’s call for his head: “I think that she has called for everybody’s resignation as the First Minister has said, except his.” And then, after a pause just too fleeting for any self-awareness to creep in, he added: “Very silly.”

Cut to the debating chamber and Russell sits, ashen-faced (the haunted look of a Cabinet Secretary who knows he has displeased the First Minister) as Salmond apologises for misleading parliament. A First Minister humiliated and a Government shaken and all because Mike – he’s more call-me-Michael, these days – Russell had a do-you-know-who-I-am tantrum.

We’d have known nothing about these inaccurate college funding claims – which were first reported to parliament by ­Russell some months ago – if he hadn’t chosen to pick a fight with Kirk Ramsay, former chair of the board at Glasgow’s Stow College. I write “pick a fight”, but really Russell chose to bully him.

Ramsay had used a recording device – a “spy-pen” for added breathless drama – during a meeting between Russell and around 80 representatives of colleges ­invited to discuss reform of their sector. Skipping over the fact that the idea of a meeting between a Cabinet Secretary and 80 people might result in any coherent, meaningful progress seems fanciful, this could not possibly have been considered a private event.

But Russell had a hissy fit and summoned Ramsay to his office where, alongside three officials, he demanded he ­resign from the Stow College board. To those defending Russell, if it looks like a bully, and tells you to resign in front of its mates like a bully, it is a bully.

It was a ludicrous over-reaction, but hardly surprising to anyone who knows the education secretary, for whom the old gag “he’s a clever bloke, and if you don’t believe me, just ask him” could have been coined. In his silliness, Russell has created a far bigger problem for himself.

The college sector is not like the university sector in which the rather grand Russell is more comfortable. It is resistant to change, and inextricably linked to municipal Labour. Mike Russell is not an easy fit with college people, but, despite the unease of that relationship, he did have a chance to make progress in finding the £74 million of cuts (a considerable 24 per cent) required by the end of 2015.

Johann Lamont recently called for a ­serious debate on how we pay for the Scotland we want. Russell had the chance then to co-opt the opposition into his strategy. Instead, he blew his top, exposed himself as a man of fragile yet massive ego, and wrecked any chance of a decent relationship with the college staff he needs to persuade.

Cuts are cuts and they’re inevitable, of course, but Russell will find few friends in further education as he tries to make the necessary savings. In this regard, further education begins to resemble the SNP.

Smart, if cynical, college principals could do worse than pick their own fights with Russell now. Then, if they do suffer cuts, they can accuse him of being a bully. That’s the sort of vulnerability Russell has created for himself. He has shown his weakness in all its pompous splendour.

That’s not just a problem for Russell, but for Alex Salmond who, in the run-in to the 2014 independence referendum, expects his Cabinet secretaries to manage and contain controversy. This, even Russell’s staunchest defenders could not say he has done. This controversy is a gift to Labour. Russell is weakened, and Labour’s friends in the college sector will happily maul him for months to come.

I wonder if this reality has struck the education secretary. He did find time on Wednesday, as the crisis grew, to block a number of people on Twitter – including, to my personal amusement, the lead ­guitarist of Glasgow band The Pastels, who’d dared to ask a pointed question. I’m not sure if this is the best use of ministerial time. It does suggest he’s frightfully touchy.

Friends (and he has some) say Russell has one of the best intellects in Holyrood, but none disagree with the view that only he, among Cabinet secretaries, could have had the sort of tantrum that brought him to this place of public derision and conflict with lecturers. The education secretary faced a huge challenge in making cuts to the college sector. Now he has made that task even more difficult for himself. And, like all classic sitcom heroes, he has been his own worst enemy.

You have been watching... Mike Russell destroy his own credibility.

Twitter: @euanmccolm