Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Next First Minister

In less than 5 weeks we will have a good idea about who the next occupant of Bute House will be - who will lead Scotland through the next 4 years. The testosterone poisoned rants and name calling of Salmond and McConnell are hardly inspiring. Who can respect someone who slates another politician's teeth, as Salmond did Douglas Alexander? Who can be bothered with the tired old tirades which come from McConnell, Brown and Blair. I don't think he's said one single positive thing recently.

In contrast, Nicol Stephen has set out a bold and ambitious programme to tackle climate change, to deliver health care as locally as possible, to invest in young people rather than demonise them, to get rid of the unfair Council Tax. The target to produce 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2050 will provide a cleaner and more sustainable future and attract investment to boost Scotland's economy.

I can barely bring myself to admit this, but it's nearly 20 years since I first came across Nicol during the 1987 when he stood in Kincardine and Deeside. That campaign laid the foundations for his stunning by-electon victory four years later. Over the years he has gained experience from local government, the Westminster Parliament, running his own business and, latterly, as a Minister. As a father of 4 young children, he understands exactly the pressures on Scottish families.

I've seen him at quite close quarters since he became leader two years ago so I have a reasonable idea of what makes him tick. He is at his best when he's out and about meeting people and listening to what they have to say. During the Livingston and Dunfermline by-elections, I lost count of the times when he would approach a group of young people who initially looked at him with, at best, suspicion. Within a few minutes, they were having a good, positive dialogue. He does make you feel that he is bothered about what you think.

Anyone with a family and a demanding job will know how difficult it can be to balance both and, for Nicol, his ministerial and party responsibilities do mean spending a lot of time away from home. I have always been impressed to see him taking the time out to ring his kids round about bedtime, no matter what else he is doing. You can't really imagine McConnell and Salmond paying much attention to the minutiae of domestic life, but Nicol understands what life is like for real people. I met him on a train on his way to Livingston during the by-election. He was on his mobile phone having a discussion with the customer services department of some company who had mucked up delivering some new appliance to his home. He was clearly getting the runaround but he deliberately and calmly got the matter sorted to his satisfaction.

He is not the sort of person to let anyone pull the wool over his eyes, be they civil servants, Party staff or Party workers. If he thinks he's not getting told the full story, he doesn't scream and strop, but he does question you quite forensically until he knows the exact situation - and if there's a problem he will give clear guidance and advice to sort it - he resolves instead of blaming.

While Nicol might not have the hot air and theatrics of the others, he's a decent human being and he does have the vision, the experience and the passion to lead Scotland forward.

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