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by Liam Kirkaldy
07 July 2014
The final test

The final test

There is a line from John Adams, the first vice-president of the United States, that the Education Secretary is fond of quoting.

Mike Russell fishes out his iPad from the desk of his ministerial office – looking out onto the cliff face of Salisbury Crags – and reads aloud from the screen: “He wrote this as the US prepared itself for independence, it goes, ‘The opportunity of beginning Government anew from the foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human race, have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of Government for themselves and their children? How few have ever had any thing more of choice in government, than in climate?’”

The Education Secretary is speaking with just weeks to go until the referendum. With the vote so close, he says he has found himself reflecting on the route that took him to where he is now, from attending Marr College in Troon, through to training to be an Episcopalian priest (before pulling out), onto a career in broadcasting and up until the present, quoting an American President on the nature of self-government. The journey has been a winding one.

For a start, Russell was originally a member of the Labour Party.

“I have always been interested in politics – I come from what I would call a disputatious household, there was always a lot of arguing, a lot of debate about issues over breakfast or over the dinner table, so it wasn’t that unusual or unexpected – I was interested in politics from a very early age. But I joined the Labour Party in university, I was in the Labour club up until 1974 when the president was one G Brown, who went on to do something else.”

He continues: “But I had a very, very close friend – who is dead now – he was my best man and he was a Labour Party candidate. He had been on the Labour Party National Executive Committee in London, he was a vet student and a politician and he was the Labour candidate for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles in February’ 74 and I spent three weeks campaigning for Labour in the Borders – driving around. I came back to Edinburgh for the election and I voted for the SNP. Now that might sound quixotic but it was because I had come to the conclusion during that election that if you want the kind of things that I did want in Scotland – the kind of mainstream things that Labour wanted, you could only get them through a Scottish Parliament. You would not get them through Westminster.”

Russell joined the party as it started its move to the left, brought about, to his mind, by the influence of former leader William Wolfe.

“The SNP was moving in a much more social democratic way. I think a generation before, or probably two generations before, the party had been seen as much more right wing. I never thought the tartan Tory thing was the right description; the tartan Tory line was a kind of epithet claimed during the Labour Government from ’64-70, during the devolution period, particularly the accusation that the SNP brought down Labour in ’79 and ushered in Thatcher. That is an accusation that is not true historically.

“I suppose it was the effect of that generation in the seventies that started that process – led first of all by Billy Wolfe. Billy argued that the party could not just be a movement – it had to have principles and a philosophy and it based itself on that broad left of centre philosophy, which is where I came from in politics. So there were people like myself and the First Minister and others who were involved in moving the party in that direction. Jim Sillars, of course, joined the Scottish Labour Party after the disappointment – well the failure – of the first devolution bill in 1976. I brought Alex Neil into the party – I signed him up. He was on his way anyway but I knew him from something else. He had been the secretary of the Scottish Labour Party.”

He adds: “Now that is the history of the thing and it sometimes seems a long way away but you do reflect upon it in the months before the referendum – it has been quite a long journey.”

The idea that Russell started off in Labour and moved to the SNP could serve as a case study in the grabs the party is currently attempting to make into the Labour vote. Taking Labour voters is widely held to be central to any chance of tipping the balance in the referendum, as demonstrated by Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech. Instead of talking at the party faithful – as is the norm – she looked Labour voters in the eye and asked them for their help. Some saw it as arrogant, but in many ways it typified the changes to Scottish politics that emerged following the election of the UK Coalition Government and the widespread dissatisfaction that followed.

“Look at our landslide in 2011 – clearly the definition of a Labour voter is no longer as accurate as it should be. In many constituencies, people would not have won if they had not got a very broadly based vote, which might previously have gone to Labour. Labour has been very proprietorial over their vote, this assumption that they have a group of society that will vote for them come what may. This is not true. It is not true of any party and it is certainly not true of them. If you look at my constituency in Argyll and Bute, we have a comparatively small Labour vote but in Campbeltown in 2011, I got lots of those votes. People who might have voted Labour in 2011 but could see the SNP, and can still see the SNP, as an important voice for what they believe.”

The party has certainly benefited from the move to the left – even if critics point to areas such as corporation tax as evidence that an ideological eclecticism remains. Another factor in the SNP’s success has undoubtedly been the record of the Coalition Government, with anger at austerity fuelling support for separation. It could be argued that the policies of George Osborne and co have made the SNP’s job easier, while the decision by Labour to share a platform with the Conservatives under the banner of Better Together has perhaps not done them many favours. Even in education there are constant comparisons between the Westminster approach and that of Russell and his colleagues.

One example emerged following the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations – focused on claims that hard-line Islamic groups had launched a concerted plan to ‘infiltrate’ a number of Birmingham schools and radicalise pupils. Many in the education profession – and beyond – were shocked by Michael Gove stating that the solution lay in pushing a stronger sense of British identity on pupils. It was not the reaction, or the language, that Russell would have turned to.

“I respect Michael in certain regards – I think he is a clever man but I do think that is silly. I think that to try and say to people, you must have this identity, and that will stop this from happening is silly. You can’t take things away from people. The big thing about identity – and I am not a big fan of identity politics – is that you make a mistake when you try and take things away, or you try and change identity. You need to try and add on. So it is quite conceivable that someone could feel passionately Scottish or British, profoundly Muslim, with a profound belief in Islam, but also have all sorts of other identities – identity is multi-faceted and I think to insist that there is some sort of core identity which applies to all of us is rather silly.”

He continues: “I always find it rather entertaining when I hear Gove and others talking about the need to preach British values or ‘Britishness’. If I said that type of thing about Scottish values and Scottish schools, I would be pilloried. I believe in a broad, inclusive education. I believe that there are elements of Scottish tradition and history and values which should be taught but they are not exclusives. Scotland has been described as a mongrel nation and I think that is a much better description.”

The appearance of a young man from Aberdeen – from Michael Gove’s old school – in an ISIS recruitment video will also have brought questions over identity back to the fore, while reminding Scots that the problem of radicalisation is not solely an English one.

“What we need to do is create circumstances in which people do not wish to become radicalised. There are two elements to that – one is to create a more equal society where people do not feel marginalised or disadvantaged. Then the second one is to make sure that the people with a vested interest in radicalisation do not get a hearing. So we have a job to do and I think the First Minister put it well today in response to Kevin Stewart – all of us need to see this as a challenge to democracy and fight it as such because those people who espouse violence as a means of changing society and the world are the enemy of all of us who believe in democracy and all of us – or the vast majority who are democrats – need to stand against them.”

So what about Gove’s other recent controversy, the idea that schools should be prioritising British books? “I think there are authors from various parts of these islands that have contributed a great deal to literature. When I wanted to see a single compulsory Scottish text in the Higher curriculum – just one – I was denounced. The Tories denounced me, I think Labour did – Ken Macintosh called it brainwashing. I think you need a very broad view of the world in your education. You should certainly understand the country you live in, but not at the exclusion of all else. As far as I understand Michael Gove’s point of view, he wanted to exclude certain writers. I think we should include more writers.

“I would love to see more Scottish literature taught in school, I am a particular fan, for instance, of Robin Jenkins, I am a fan of John Galt, I would like to see that taught in schools but it is not at the expense – and this is the view that some journalists put – of Shakespeare. It is not an attempt to drive out any writer. It is an attempt to have a broad view of the world. Take Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka’s play. I gave him dinner here when I was culture minister and we went to look at the statue of Robert Fergusson up at the Canongate Kirkyard. Now that is a profound play by a Nobel prize-winning author about cultural alienation – we can learn a great deal from it and indeed the values within that play, the values of people who have traditional beliefs and find them difficult to exercise in the modern world are as true as anything in terms of learning and we should be looking for the values of what we read and not just where it comes from.”

Russell is clearly passionate about literature – and culture more generally. In fact, the Education Secretary has authored books spanning culture, poetry and identity. If he supports widening the curriculum to allow as many authors as possible, could his own be taught in school?

He laughs: “My own books! I doubt it very much. I can’t imagine why they would be taught in schools. I hope one day that I may be a good enough writer to have a book taught in school but I don’t think it is likely to happen soon.”

CfE is very much associated with being Russell’s project. The exam diet has just finished and with students the length and breadth of the country soon sitting down to nervously await their results, the referendum is not the only issue that is occupying the Education Secretary. But he denies that there are any huge risks involved in the first round of assessments for the new curriculum.

“I don’t think there is a worst-case scenario, this is a process that has been going on for a considerable period of time and it will continue to go on. It is not an event, it is a process which is continuing. The next stage will be to make sure that the SQA do their job – which they always do, and they do it well – which is to make sure that the results are processed, come out and are given to young people in an ordered and fair way. What we need to be mindful of is that there is no exact comparison from exam to exam – particularly National 5 to Standard Grade.

“This is a different curriculum, it is designed for a different purpose; it has a different trajectory, so we need to understand that there is a broad comparison between the achievements of National 4 and National 5 and what would have happened last year at Standard Grade but it is not an exact comparison. So we will learn as we go forward. But I think the exam diet went well, I think there was a general feeling that teachers who had worked exceptionally hard have come through it and learned from it, difficult though it was for some. Then we come on to the next stage, which is the results and then we use that lesson to inform what we do next year. You know, there is this group that the management board has set up to see what we can learn and we will take that up going forward.”

But still, someone has to take the exams first. This is unavoidable, there has to be a year of young Scots acting as guinea pigs, so surely that brings pressure? After all – as these children are repeatedly told in the revision period – these exams will play a big role in their future. Russell claims the feedback so far has been positive.

“We had to deliver – and will deliver – the best possible experience that we can. It is a better set of exams and I have heard sixth-year pupils say, ‘gosh, I wish I was younger and doing that course because it sounds fascinating’. But there is always a first, there is always a pathfinder, and I think they have enjoyed it and done well out of it. The issue is that how we do education has changed in Scotland and that is how we will roll on forward.”

Our conversation feels odd, in that for a while at least we are talking about politics as normal, discussing a new and important piece of policy without examining it through the lens of the referendum. Education is a devolved issue but it has still not escaped being sucked into the whirlpool of debate over the country’s constitutional future. But isn’t that just a distraction? Isn’t there a sense that education is one of the areas on which independence will have less effect given it is a devolved issue?

“In some ways that is true – if you look at CfE, in some ways, independence would have little effect on it. But in other ways, the effect would be quite profound. If you look at the attainment gap, I think we have done quite a good job, PISA certainly said so last year but we need to keep going. But the attainment gap is a result of poverty and you can’t eliminate poverty without tax, welfare and labour market regulation powers in this parliament.

“So actually, the overall attainment of Scottish pupils will be raised by independence because a parliament with full powers could bring those to bear on poverty and give every child a fair chance, so that is quite a profound change. Higher education is another example – our institutions are autonomous but migration is a big issue and the changes that we need to see in migration would have a profound effect on Scottish universities. Education is far from apart from constitutional change. The same applies to childcare – the only way we can achieve the transformational childcare that we want to have is through independence.”

Russell continues: “Education has been a big part of the debate, even if people had not thought 18 months ago that it would have been. The question of how higher education could remain to be free has been a big part of the debate, research funding has been a big part of the debate and I think we have risen to the challenge.”

The attainment gap has been dominating education headlines for some time, offering yet another example of the way that the referendum debate has brought inequality to the fore. I ask Russell about a recent Yes poster, featuring a child with grubby knees and a tattered skirt. It says: “Let’s become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty.’ Underneath, it claims independence is ‘the only one guaranteed way to reverse the growing numbers of children living in poverty.’ Child poverty is a horror that honest politicians have grappled with for centuries. Is it responsible to ‘guarantee’ that independence will end it? Is there any chance that Yes might come to regret making a claim like that?

“I think it is very responsible. I did an event last week in New Lanark with the Child Poverty Action Group and educational unions and I think one of the outcomes was that some of the teachers didn’t know what the issues were and how bad things were. I think the job we have to do in Scotland, increasingly, is to say that this is a national change that we need to bring about. So far from making claims and then watching the issue drop back off the agenda, this gives us the opportunity of a lifetime to address it and to cure the problem. I think there is a growing focus in Scotland that we should not be living in a country that has food banks. I was speaking at a village hall meeting recently – I’ve been doing a lot of them – and one of the people there was a lawyer in Oban, not someone who has been an active campaigner – and his speech was all about how in Oban there is a food bank. That is absolutely astonishing. Oban appears to be a well set, prosperous town and that is something we should not tolerate.”

He continues: “I think this is the first and only genuine grassroots political movement that I have ever seen. I mean genuinely, it is all over the place. And it is not under the control of one politician or another. There are Yes groups everywhere and I have set myself the task of speaking at as many of these meetings as I can. It has been very positive – even in tiny places, there are at least 40 or 50 people there. There has been a big change – people want to talk and they are not all Yes voters, but there is a dialogue going on. That is, first of all, going to continue to create more momentum for a Yes vote – I firmly believe that, it is building up all over the place, all the time. But secondly, after a Yes vote, if there is one, that momentum will need to keep going because the next thing we will need to do after negotiations is to build a constitution.

“There is a real desire to have a vision of the country we want to create and then go and create it. The energy from that is huge, it is fantastic and I have learned a lot from it. And that also comes from sharing platforms with greens, community leaders and artists – a huge variety of people are debating key issues and I have never experienced anything like that in Scotland.”

Much has been made of the grassroots campaign, conducted both through town halls and over the internet, and in the future it will no doubt be studied by academics and historians as a key aspect of the campaign. But at the moment the Yes vote is still trailing, though it seems plausible that momentum will build as the vote moves closer. In fact the SNP have long stated that they do not expect a swing in their favour until the very final moments. But the question is whether Better Together has any more tricks up its sleeve. Is Russell concerned there could be another move like the intervention over a shared pound?

“Let’s hope they try something like that again – it was very foolish of them. It had the opposite effect of what was expected, it did not close anything down, it opened it up. People do not want to be told what they can do. If there is a genuine grassroots movement with people genuinely debating their future then the last thing they can be told is what they can do. You can discuss advantages and disadvantages but hearing something like that is what will drive you to create change. That is what people are talking about.”

Change. The topic returns to the one covered by John Adams, writing in 1776. The circumstances Adams wrote in were completely different – but then what parallels are there for the event facing Scotland? As Russell says, the situation is unique.

“How few of the human race have ever had that chance and it is an extraordinary opportunity that people have, because they can imagine a better country, a better way of doing things, and they can be involved in doing that. I visit schools across Scotland and when I look at the kids in front of me, that is what I see – a generation who may have the opportunity to do something absolutely unique. That is enormously exciting.”

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