WHEN Wendy Alexander met with the business community last Monday evening, to report with Jack McConnell on the progress that had been made with Gus MacDonald’s 1999 Pathfinders to the Parliament document, she joked that in the three years since the document had been published, almost all the business leaders that had led the consultation had changed. “So it’s not just politicians that have a short shelf life”, she quipped.
There can be few political establishments in the world as inherently secure as the Scottish Labour party, in the first few years of the Scottish parliament that it created by overwhelming public acclamation. And it’s not that the opposition has given them much trouble. For all their stumbles, muddles (and/or fiddles) over its first three years, the other parties have really failed to land a glove on them.
So isn’t it quite remarkable, that with one exception, every one of Donald Dewar’s first cabinet has already left the scene. That exception, of course, is Jack McConnell.
It makes you begin to wonder a little if Scotland has some inherent problem with being governed.
So why did Wendy resign, and why now?
I believe that she decided to go when she realised that she was no longer going to be able to realistically achieve results. After a scrappy battle during Jack McConnell’s reshuffle late last year to preserve the link between Enterprise and Higher Education, her victory was less than sweet when she was also given the massive challenge of transport to add to her agenda. It was not her choice, and her request for a junior minister to help with the workload was summarily turned down. Gaining the label “Minister for Everything” wasn’t very funny, especially when you are the kind of person that believes in trying to deliver actual results.
And why now? That’s easy. It is exactly five years this week since "new" Labour was elected. Five years since Donald Dewar asked her to become his special advisor. That work led to the devolution bill, and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. Wendy managed to persuade Donald to put the Enterprise brief together with the Lifelong Learning one (ELL), creating a bridge between education and knowledge, and the future economic development of the nation. This allowed her to develop a very clear 'smart successful Scotland' strategy. She sees this week, the fifth anniversary, as a good time to mark the end of this effort.
There is never a real end point in politics, and if you believe, as she does, that the political world is only a small part of a modern economy, it must lead you to make a judgement about how much of your life you will devote entirely to it.
The combination of personalities engaged in this mission in recent times was a striking and productive one: Eddie Frizzel, who leads the ELL Department, Robert Crawford, the Chief Executive of Scottish Enterprise, and the minister, Wendy Alexander. Each one of them from the same kind of west of Scotland background, each of them went to the University of Glasgow, each with a common understanding of the future direction for Scotland. It seems highly unlikely that we shall see quite such an alignment of common understanding anytime again soon.
The business community is naturally suspicious of the Scottish Parliament. They think, with some justification, that very few MSPs have any real knowledge of business or economic affairs. In Wendy Alexander, the Executive had a minister who was clearly on top of her brief – who could hold her own with any captain of industry.
In his decision on how to replace Ms Alexander, Jack McConnell now needs to make a very clear statement. Are we still committed to the skills-led growth agenda, as defined in 'smart successful Scotland', or are we going to retreat to a less ambitious vision for Scotland.
Few of us get the chance to read our own obituaries, so Wendy Alexander has an unusual experience as she picks the Scottish papers off the mat this morning. But the obituaries are premature – I don’t for a moment believe that we have seen the last of her.
Few people are as committed to the future of Scotland as wholeheartedly as she is. She has an extraordinary understanding and passion for our country and she will, I am sure, want to make a huge contribution.
Once she has worked out exactly how to do it, she will be back.