Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Sunday, 5 October 2008 12:01 UK

Politician with survival instinct

Jack McConnell

By Andrew Black
Political reporter
BBC Scotland news website

As Scotland's longest-serving first minister to date, Jack McConnell spent more than five years at the pinnacle of Scottish politics.

He took charge of the Scottish Government following the resignation of Henry McLeish after an expenses row and before that the unexpected death of Donald Dewar.

Mr McConnell was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, in 1960 and raised on a sheep farm on the picturesque Isle of Arran, off Scotland's west coast.

His interest in politics took off after leaving island life for Stirling University, although his first career was working as a maths teacher.

Despite a brief flirtation with Nationalism in his formative years, in 1984, at the age of 24, the now Labour man was elected to Stirling District Council where he served until 1992.

As general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party between then and 1998, Mr McConnell earned a reputation as a shrewd operator, building up a power base among party members, MPs and councillors.

In 1997 he co-ordinated Labour's Yes Yes devolution referendum campaign and, after his election as MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw, he was appointed finance minister in Donald Dewar's coalition Scottish Executive in 1999.

Any leading politician has their ups and downs - and there are a few downs that Mr McConnell would rather forget
He narrowly won the selection fight to stand as an MSP, after knocking on practically every door of every Labour Party member in the constituency.

In parliament, his confident performances earned him the nickname Jumping Jack Flash, but his robust style often brought confrontation with colleagues.

His first brush with controversy came when a newspaper alleged it had evidence that executives at PR firm Beattie Media boasted of privileged access to Mr McConnell, who had previously worked for the organisation.

A parliamentary probe later cleared him of any wrongdoing in the so-called "lobbygate" affair.

When Mr Dewar died suddenly in 2000, the ambitious minister saw his chance to grab the reins of power and was only narrowly defeated by Henry McLeish - managing to take the contest a lot closer than was thought possible.

Mr McConnell then took up the "poisoned chalice" of the education portfolio, tackling a crisis at the Scottish Qualifications Authority head-on.

When Mr McLeish quit as first minister, Mr McConnell was immediately installed as the front-runner - but one obstacle stood in his way.

Sceptical move

He admitted at a media conference - with his wife Bridget sitting beside him - to having had an affair.

The move paid off, spiked the guns of anyone who may have been delving into his background.

He married his wife in 1990, adopting her two children. He said it was important for his relationship with them that he did not father his own.

As first minister, tackling crime, education, an inquiry into the Scottish Parliament building costs and an international development project in Malawi were among his headline decisions.

However, his most famous one was the Scotland-wide public smoking ban.

Mr McConnell was at first sceptical of such a move, first put forward by the SNP.

Following a visit to Dublin to learn about Ireland's smoking ban, his road to Damascus-style turnaround saw him proclaim that Scotland could go down that route.

He uncharacteristically stayed on as leader after the SNP's 2007 election win, but the Jack McConnell who returned to Holyrood was a more sombre and serious one than before.

Announcing his decision to step down several months later, it emerged Mr McConnell was to become British High Commissioner to Malawi, a posting which was due to begin in 2009.

'That' kilt

Before he had a chance to take on the post, Gordon Brown decided to appoint him his special international representative on strengthening conflict resolution capacity, provoking speculation that the move would avoid a Labour by-election defeat in Motherwell and Wishaw.

Any leading politician has their ups and downs - and there are a few downs that, as first minister, Mr McConnell would rather forget.

They included giving a personal message of support to former Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus, in contrast to a belated congratulations to Ayrshire violinist Nicola Benedetti when she became BBC Young Musician of the Year.

And there were also those pictures of him in an ill-fitting, pin-striped black kilt at the New York Tartan Day celebrations.

More serious was his decision in 2004 to attend a golf club dinner rather than D-Day commemorative events in Normandy. He later reversed the decision and admitted he had got it wrong.

Mr McConnell was also criticised after telling a group of high school pupils it was okay to get drunk "once in a while".

The Scottish Executive insisted he was speaking about adults and his comments were "a recognition that people will get drunk".

He also vigorously defended a foreign holiday with the broadcaster Kirsty Wark.

Overall though, one of this politician's traits has been his strong survival instinct, above all else, which transformed an ambitious former maths teacher into a leader.



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