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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

McConnell quits to fight Africa poverty


JACK McCONNELL today quit as Scottish Labour leader to take up his "dream job" of fighting poverty in Africa with Bill Clinton and Sir Tom Hunter.

The former First Minister is to take on a voluntary role, heading up education programmes in both Malawi and Rwanda.

It was announced later Mr McConnell would become the next British High Commissioner to Malawi after being nominated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The former teacher and Education Minister has long held an interest in Africa, and two years ago launched a Scottish Executive programme to help tackle poverty in Malawi.

He will join the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative (CHDI), working with the former US President and the Scottish entrepreneur in their drive to tackle poverty, climate change and key world issues.

Mr McConnell, who is tipped for a peerage in the New Year's Honour's list, told the Evening News today: "My two great passions are education and tackling poverty in Africa, so if there is anything I could have chosen to do then it would have been this. It's an absolute dream job."

Announcing his resignation at a ten-minute press conference in Our Dynamic Earth later, he said it had been "an honour" to lead the party since the early years of devolution.

"Scotland is a far better place now than it was six years ago. We are more prosperous and more confident as a nation.

"But today, after accepting an offer last week to help improve education for some of the poorest children in the world, I am resigning from my position as Labour Leader in Scotland with immediate effect.

"All my life I've wanted a Scottish Parliament, and a chance to change Scotland. I'm pleased to have made my contribution to that."

He added: "The Scottish Labour Party needs to respond to the election defeat in May and hear what the Scottish people had to tell us.

"We need to re-engage with our people to develop the policies and the approach which will rebuild our support, because those with the least need us to be successful."

Sir Tom welcomed Mr McConnell to the new role with CHDI , which will see him lead research and project development on educational services in the two countries.

"The Board of CHDI welcomes Jack and looks forward to his contribution to our thinking and strategy in regards to supporting educational development in Rwanda and Malawi," he said.

"Jack's credentials in addressing this huge challenge require no explanation.

"It's now all about rolling up the sleeves and getting on with assisting us and our government partners in defining a sustainable, scalable and affordable solution to the challenges both countries face in education."

Just hours after Mr McConnell formally stepped down, the Prime Minister announced his intention to make Mr McConnell a high commissioner.

Mr McConnell will continue serve as MSP while the current High Commissioner, Richard Wildash, completes his posting, scheduled to end in 2009.

The President of Malawi also welcomed the proposal.

“I’ve received a very kind offer from the Prime Minister to have a role in the future in Malawi that would be very special,” Mr McConnell said. “I’m delighted to accept that opportunity.

“I’m sure in addition to representing the UK government there, it would be a real opportunity to further enhance the relationship between Scotland and Malawi and to support those thousands of Scots that are now involved in partnerships with Malawian organisations and people from Malawi on the ground.”

Mr Brown said today Scotland had developed a special connection with the people of Malawi and said Mr McConnell would be suited to the role of High Commissioner.

“I know he cares passionately about two of the great issues of international development – the relief of poverty and the provision of education.

“I believe that he will make an excellent representative of the United Kingdom Government in Malawi and I am pleased he has accepted the Government’s offer of the position of High Commissioner to Malawi, after the present High Commissioner completes his posting at an appropriate moment.”

The appointment is subject to approval of the Queen.

Former Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson takes over as interim leader of the party, though shadow finance minister Wendy Alexander is almost certain to succeed Mr McConnell, with the new leader in place by the end of next month. Sources confirmed today that both former Health Minister Andy Kerr and former Parliament Minister Margaret Curran had ruled themselves out.

The only uncertainty is whether another candidate will stand to ensure there is a contest, with suggestions that Edinburgh North and Leith MSP Malcolm Chisholm may throw his hat in the ring.

Ms Alexander said: "The whole of Scotland owes Jack McConnell an enormous debt of gratitude. This is the right moment for myself, the Labour Party and Scotland to say thank you."

Ms Alexander would not be drawn on her own future other than to say: "It is Jack's moment and there will be plenty of time to talk about the future."

Tributes to Mr McConnell's reign as Labour leader came from across the political spectrum.

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "I extend Jack McConnell every good wish for the future.

"He once said that the job of First Minister was to leave Scotland a better place than he found it. With the smoking ban and his work in Malawi he has certainly done that.

"Addressing Scotland's poor public health record and extending Scotland's horizons abroad will also be regarded as substantial achievements."

Scots Tory leader Annabel Goldie said: "Whilst the Scottish Conservatives and Jack McConnell disagreed on many aspects of domestic policy, we never doubted his wholehearted commitment to devolution, to the Scottish Parliament and to Scotland.

"As First Minister he discharged his responsibilities with diligence and tackled all his challenges with assiduous determination.

"We wish him well for the future as he takes on new and exciting challenges which are clearly close to his heart."

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Nichol Stephen added: "To be First Minister of a coalition government of two parties was a difficult challenge.

"Jack McConnell was prepared to put aside narrow party political dogma to seek to build consensus on a positive way forward for Scotland."

Mr McConnell's predecessor Henry McLeish, who quit as First Minister in 2001 in the "Officegate" affair, said Mr McConnell had given the Scottish Parliament "status" and "legitimacy".

He acknowledged Wendy Alexander was the front-runner to succeed Mr McConnell.

"I think she is the favourite and I think she would be a good choice.

"That doesn't mean to say there should not be alternatives," he said.

She had a "formidable" intellect and had matured over the last decade.

"I suspect people grow into a job and if Wendy is successful, she will take Labour hopefully in a different direction.

"The good thing is she has the confidence of Westminster - the main thing is she should not be too much dictated to by that."

Mr McConnell's replacement will be the fourth Scottish leader since 1999.

From sheep farm to top Scottish politician

BORN in Irvine in 1960, Jack McConnell grew up on a sheep farm in Arran before attending the University of Stirling, where he served as president of the Students Association.

He became a maths teacher before entering politics as a councillor in 1984, working his way up to become general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party in 1992.

In this role he managed Scottish Labour's 1997 Westminster election success and co-ordinated the party's "Yes Yes" devolution referendum campaign.

Following Henry McLeish's departure, he took over as First Minister in 2001.

Mr McConnell has been widely tipped to win a place in the House of Lords in the New Year's Honours list.

He is married to Bridget and has one daughter and a son.

His son Mark hit the headlines in 2006 when the Evening News revealed how Mark's friend Euan MacDonald had posted video footage of himself cavorting around the First Minister's official residence Bute House in a dressing gown.

MacDonald was forced to apologise for filming the footage and posting it on the internet without telling Mark.

£60 million scheme to help with education and health

BILL CLINTON and Tom Hunter launched the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative (CHDI) in Malawi's capital Lilongwe in 2006.

The scheme will invest around £60 million over ten years in Malawi and Rwanda to help local communities develop a sustainable economy through support for education, health, water and sanitation.

Mr McConnell will lead research and project development on educational services in both countries.

He was behind an agreement with Malawi in 2005 that involved Scotland offering practical help to the African nation in areas such as health, education, and economic development.

The two countries have ties going back 150 years to the work of missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

Bruce Lindsey, chief executive of the Clinton Foundation and board member of CHDI, said: "The Clinton Foundation strongly supports CHDI's mission to promote economic growth in Rwanda and Malawi.

"As another step in that direction, we welcome Jack McConnell's generous contribution of his time and energy to work with local partners and identify programmes that can strengthen education in these countries."

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