Leaders on the spot: Annabel Goldie

The Student rating – 4/5: Goldie’s plans for student finance might not win her support, but she certainly gained our respect.  Despite her media image as kindly granny, she nevertheless showed that a tough, no-nonsense Tory dwells inside, and came across as the most honest and straight-forward of all the leaders.  Advocating spending cuts and a graduate tax, she might not have that many cards to play, but what she does have are clearly laid out on the table.

Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes Cobb

Thatcher’s disregard for Scotland during the 1980s did much to toxify the Conservative brand, and since devolution in 1999, the party has established itself as a small but not insignificant third party, never making much progress beyond 16 per cent of the vote, but never falling lower than that, always being able to rely on a small but solid core of support.

While being permanently trapped in third place might deflate other leaders, it seems only to embolden Annabel Goldie, who has been extremely adept at winning policy concessions in exchange for supporting the minority Nationalist government and seems to relish the fact that this has made it possible to be truer to her voters: “In the last four years minority government has created and delivered a different kind of politics for Scotland, it’s a politics were opposition parties, if they want to, can do a lot more than just oppose”, meaning that when elections come around she “can go to voters and say ‘don’t listen to my words, look at my deeds, judge me by what I’ve done.”

Goldie is acutely aware of her reputation as a tough-but-caring matron-like figure administering a medicine that the patient may not like but will benefit from in the long run. She smiles wryly upon hearing the simile before going on to confirm it: slamming the other parties for “hoodwinking” voters and presented her party as the only one who “fighting this election with a very solid manifesto of common sense.”

Her tough-talking is not just a tactic – the urgency in her voice and the way she leans over and looks you firmly in the eye betrays a genuine anger at what she sees as the dangerous profligacy of the other parties. Telling us that she sat for many years on the governing council of a leading university, she presses home the point that her plans for a graduate contribution are the only way to ensure a “secure, continuous provision of funding that lets our universities plan responsibly for how they run themselves and what they can do and most of all, we reassure young people that the courses will remain, that the places are there, and we cannot do that without finding some additional source of funding. Would I like to say to students in Scotland ‘absolutely no problem, you can have your education for free’, well I could say that, [but] what do I think is a consequence of that? We’re going to lose universities, we’re going to lose talent from these universities, we’re going to see departments contract…we’ve estimated we would lose about 16,000 places…is that what I want for our universities in Scotland?”

She freely acknowledges that she won’t win much student support with a policy that is not “particularly sexy”, but – switching in an instant from concerned grandmother to earnest politician –  “we don’t do this because it’s populist, we don’t do this because we’re desperately afraid of scaring aware voters, which is why I think the other three parties have adopted their position.”

Goldie takes issue with the SNP handling of the higher education funding gap predicted by predicted 2014/15: “The Scottish National Party says the funding gap is as low as £90-92 million. Nobody else seems to agree with that. Universities Scotland say the funding gap is £202 million…Can you realistically plug that gap, if it’s £202 million, from the public purse? You can’t. The money’s not there.” Goldie is insistent that cuts are going to have come from elsewhere to pay and, sighing deeply, bemoans the fact the other parties have been vague on where the money is coming from : “The other three parties are going to have to explain what they’re cutting to get the money in to fill that gap.”

A graduate contribution – to which she attaches a figure of £3,600 and £4,000   –  is for Goldie not simply a necessary evil to plug the funding gap but is also an issue of fairness: “The average graduate can expect to earn £12,000 a year more than a non-university graduate, that’s half a million quid over a working lifetime and what is fair about asking the non-graduate, out of their taxes, to subsidize that greater earning potential for a graduate?”.

Assured from the start and with every fact and argument at her fingertips, her only major stumble comes when we press her on how she would ensure that a graduate contribution would be spent on teaching and student services directly. Glancing furtively to her adviser, she engages  in a short, half-whispered discussion with him, before directing us vaguely toward the Conservatives’ costings document and runs out the clock with an unrelated anecdote.

Pressed on the fact that her manifesto does not contain the promises of apprenticeships and graduate jobs offered by other parties, Goldie is dismissive of the idea there should be specific growth strategy focused on young people: “The best thing we can do for young people, including our graduates, is to create an overall economic situation where, for everyone, whether you’re a graduate or non-graduate, opportunities exist where jobs can be created and where a buoyant economy delivers to people who have those skills”.

Asked how she would foster that buoyancy, she pivots to her core beliefs in  the role of small businesses:  “governments can’t do that, governments can’t create jobs for graduates, what governments can do is create the circumstances that help businesses who do create the jobs to get going, to expand if they’re in business anyway and to employ more people on to start-up and start employing people who’ve never been employed before.”

Towards the end of the interview, Goldie’s staff keep glancing at their watches, nervously eying some waiting journalists who have been scheduled to interview the Tory leader next. Our interview, she tells us, as she straightens her dress and makes ready to go, is the first of several that day, and she seems somewhat bemused by the attention she is getting compared to the previous election.

A poll at the start of the campaign showed her to be the second most popular and well-known Holyrood figure next to Salmond.  This is unlikely to translate into many votes and she admits she’s not measuring up carpets and curtains for Bute House, but it does show that the public, like us, have developed a new respect for the battleaxe from Bishopton.

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