John McTernan: No way to treat higher education

SO, IT turns out the Scottish Parliament has a killing floor after all. Last week's hot air may not have melted a single flake of snow, but it terminated a ministerial career.

This is a genuine milestone, an assertion of the autonomous power of the parliament as a chamber. It's just a shame that it was over such a trivial and over-inflated issue. Next time, let's hope it's on a point of principle.

This week, for instance, Michael Russell should be driven out of office for crimes against the Scottish economy. I say this with some regret because Russell is exactly the kind of politician we need in the parliament - witty, intelligent, cultured, iconoclastic.

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Almost precisely the qualities one would wish in an education minister.

And yet, on an issue of fundamental importance to the country's future, he is allowing himself to be a mouthpiece for an emotional Trotskyism.

For, make no mistake, that is what the promise of free university education is. It's political impossibilism, a "transitional demand", a promise that cannot be delivered but which is intended merely to highlight flaws in the current settlement.

This is no way to treat higher education. Get this wrong and lecturers and researchers will leave Scotland.

The full-scale privatisation of higher education in England and Wales is a disgrace. But the point remains, university education at the scale of 40-50 per cent participation cannot be supported by the taxpayer alone.

So what's it going to be - only one in five pupils going to college, or some form of student contribution?

This fault-line between impossibilism and pragmatism should be the major one in the long and the short campaign for the Scottish Parliament. But that depends on Labour.

Scottish Labour has been on the up since last spring. The momentum that produced a general election swing to them has fed through into rising support for Iain Gray. Scotland is important to Labour nationally. A return to government here would be an important milestone for Ed Miliband on the road to electoral recovery.

Of course, Ed has a broader agenda here. In his daily press conference yesterday, he opened his arms to disaffected Lib Dems, while also repeating his aim of making them "extinct" in Scotland. Treat them mean, keep them keen. Miliband understands that if the Scottish Lib Dems go backwards next May, then pressure will rise on the parliamentary leadership in Westminster.

And, ultimately, one can envisage Ed saying: the true place for social democrats is in a social democratic party, not in a Tory-led coalition.But for Scottish Labour to fulfil Miliband's ambitions they will need to act according to the principles of the "new generation". If that is to mean anything it involves repudiating a safety first, small target political campaign in which you tell the public as little as you can get away with so as not to risk losing any of the support you have.

The public need to be inspired by Scottish Labour, but first they need to be informed - what would Labour do?

This is the most unfair question that is ever asked of an opposition. It's Catch 22. Without access to the thousands of staff of the Scottish Government and the full facts and figures, how can Iain Gray come up with attractive, achievable policies? But without specific, symbolic policies, why should voters grant Gray access to the resources to develop and deliver them?

Time for some risk-taking. It's the unspun nature of Gray that makes him attractive to middle-ground voters. Only by digging deeper, showing what he stands for, and would actually do, can he keep those voters who still want to believe that government can make a difference.

What, though, about the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. In power nationally. Responsible for 40 per cent of public spending in Scotland. Driving change forward at a furious pace, including the biggest change in the financial settlement in Britain since the Treaty of Union.

They are becalmed in Scotland. In office, but without influence. Or at least without a shaping influence on the prism through which the politics of Scotland are seen.

David Cameron's "human shield" strategy has been immensely successful. He and George Osborne retrench the state and Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are the fall guys, sent out to "explain" the cuts to a sceptical public.

Now, by all accounts, Danny Alexander has been the Third Man. It's a troika who are dismantling the welfare state, and according to Treasury insider Alexander is "more Catholic than the Pope" on his zeal to suppress public spending.

Fortunately for the Scottish Lib Dems, Danny hasn't fronted very many things in Scotland. And long, if you care for their electoral prospects, may it last. As ever, the best defence is offence. The Lib Dems only have one card, but as a sharp-eyed Scotland Office press officer has identified, it's a big one, and in tune with the zeitgeist.

Michael Moore's comment on the latest SNP-sponsored opinion poll wisely observed that it showed huge support for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, not a tide for independence. And, more to the point, that's what is being offered in the Scotland Act.

The smart Lib Dem move would be to make themselves the party of greater power for the parliament, and to keep the Chief Secretary in a cupboard somewhere.

And the Tories? For all the fuss about rebranding and reinvention, real renewal will only come with electoral success. And that will only come if they stick to their strengths.Which, in short, are David Cameron and Annabel Goldie. Both Cameron and Goldie are Tories who can communicate with non-Tory voters; they are a bridge back to voting safely voting Tory.

Annabel, in particular, should make much more of her role in tempering the SNP minority government. The Scottish budget has been, in reality, an SNP-Tory budget. Claim the credit.

This has been a busy year politically. Not just the general election, but the coalition negotiations, the emergency budget, the comprehensive spending review. Christmas and New Year provide a brief hiatus.

Make the most of it, put up your feet, stoke the fire, pour yourself a large sherry and enjoy the reruns. Then in the new year, fasten your safety belts - it's going to be a bumpy ride.