All things considered, there is a case for a change of leadership at Glasgow School of Art. It begins to look as if Muriel Gray and Professor Tom Inns, after a decent period of national mourning, should be asked to fall on their swords. In the event of a shortage of swords in what little remains of the Mackintosh building, no doubt the necessary implements could be borrowed from the props department of the fancy Royal Conservatoire of Scotland nearby.
At the moment, however, this appears to be wishful thinking. The building may have moved a worrying six inches, but there is no sign that Gray and Inns are in imminent danger of collapse. The most we have had from the chair is tears at bedtime – or rather in front of a BBC camera – and an 'exclusive' interview with the (Glasgow) Herald, while the director had the presence of mind the morning after to send a memo to staff instructing them not to speak to the media but to direct all enquiries to the comms team.
This was inspired leadership in a crisis, for the comms team was then promptly ordered – or, less plausibly, decided all by itself – to say nowt. Even when Eileen Reid
blew the whistle in the Scottish Review, revealing a number of inconvenient but well-sourced facts, journalists seeking confirmation or denial of her disclosures were informed that GSA 'didn't have time' to respond. By the weekend, the Sunday Herald, having added material of its own, was rightly complaining of a 'culture of secrecy.'
In the end, Gray and Inns will be expendable – if their heads are the price that has to be paid for another £100m of public money on top of the many millions that went up in smoke in Inferno 2. Less expendable, for reasons I am about to explain, is the deputy chair, Sir Muir Russell, who maintains his customary impenetrable silence.
Russell is not merely a pillar of the Scottish establishment. He is the Scottish establishment personified. When Jericho falls – or its 21st-century equivalent, Garnethill – this is the man who will still be standing after the last trumpet has sounded.
The current anger over the GSA's management will dissipate eventually. It will then be deemed expedient to dust down the begging bowl for another round of mega-funding. At that critical moment, the school will be able to access the widely celebrated knowledge and wisdom – to say nothing of the enviable contacts – of Sir Muir Russell.
But there is another reason for embracing Scotland's mandarin supreme as the saviour of Mack. It should never be forgotten – though most have – that it was Sir Muir, in his then incarnation as permanent secretary at the Scottish Office, who oversaw the financing of the Scottish parliament building at Holyrood.
That pesky project was not without its difficulties. Initially the cost was estimated at £62m. First minister Donald Dewar gave this figure to MSPs, apparently without knowing that the civil service had in its hands a consultants' report putting the cost at £89m. An awkward question arose: why was the higher figure not passed on to the first minister? Why was he not in full possession of the facts?
The permanent secretary's explanation was a masterpiece of its kind (as well as a rare public utterance): 'There would be a lot of different numbers around what may or may not be the final cost and for the team to continuously report these would have been, let's call it, a distraction.'
That cheeky chappie, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, took a less sanguine view when he came to investigate the soaring costs of the scheme. On the publication of his report, he told a press conference he was 'astonished' that ministers had been kept in the dark and named Russell as the man who was 'technically responsible' for the circulation of an erroneous figure. Fraser recommended that, in future, ministers should be properly briefed by civil servants.
Russell was mightily displeased. 'It is surprising,' he said, 'that he [Lord Fraser] should have commented as he reportedly did at the press conference, and I repudiate utterly any suggestion that I was responsible for misleading Donald Dewar.' So we never found out who gave the first minister duff info. All we know – the only information we can rely on – is that it wasn't Muir Russell. We have his word for it.
By then (September 2004), events had moved on. Dewar was dead; the final cost of the Scottish parliament building was neither £62m nor £89m but £431m; and Russell was no longer a civil servant. He was said not to have enjoyed the easiest relationship with one of Dewar's successors, Jack McConnell, and resigned in 2003. Any disappointment he may have felt was softened by a lump sum payment of £150,000, a £50,000 a year public pension, and a better paid job as principal of Glasgow University.
The unfortunate spat with the notoriously loose-tongued Lord Fraser of
Carmyllie, the disputed matter of the briefing to MSPs, the fact that Holyrood was delivered £369m over budget and that his critics held the
permanent secretary at least partly responsible for the overspend, can be viewed in retrospect as blips in the upward trajectory of Sir Muir Russell. Garlanded with honours, he is a person of such probity that he was entrusted with the chair of the Judicial Appointments Board. The notion that he too might have to fall on his sword – a ceremonial one in his case – over the GSA debacle is clearly ludicrous.
Instead, it may be time to draw on the unrivalled experience he must have gained from those dark days on the spreadsheets of the Scottish parliament. If they feel they need a project manager to keep an eye on costs for the next attempt to restore the Mackintosh building, Muir's the man. But don't worry. It might never happen.