We don’t know if anyone still reads the BBC’s “Blether With Brian” column since the Corporation banned Scottish readers – uniquely in these islands – from posting comments on it, nor can we normally think of a reason why anyone would. It’s generally the blandest-possible summary of events people have already seen for themselves, with no effort to impart any sort of insight or analysis.
However, once in a while the understated approach yields a more profoundly powerful result than screeds of polemic, and we can think of no way to better illustrate the bizarreness of Johann Lamont’s chosen line of attack at yesterday’s First Minister’s Questions than to simply relate the events as they transpired, in the most neutral and factual manner, as the national broadcaster’s Scottish political editor does today.
“How to decide who has won an election? The customary method is to count the ballot papers – and to award victory to the one with the most votes. Now the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies adds a degree of sophistication to that. But, still, the spoils tend to go to those with evident popular support.
This, apparently, is an old-fashioned outlook. Just so Twentieth Century. At Holyrood, Labour’s Johann Lamont suggested another test might be used instead. The SNP, she said, might have won the council elections “on the arithmetic”. But “on the politics” they “got stuffed.”
It is difficult to be entirely certain, but I suspect that most political leaders would probably settle, on balance, for winning “on the arithmetic”.“
Stranger still was Brian’s citation of Fat Les in support of his assertion, but other than to wistfully dwell for a moment on our long-held dream of Scottish fans repurposing the song in question with the words “Irn Bru” replacing the title, we’ll let that one pass.
First Minister's Questions is rarely a hugely edifying spectacle, but this blog could barely watch to the end of yesterday's proceedings. Labour's leader exhibited a heady mix of ignorance and xenophobia, while the FM's Conservative counterpart opted for a barely-believable combination of direct personal abuse (which could truthfully be paraphrased as "You're fat, ha ha!") and petty timewasting. If we tell you, dear readers, that Willie Rennie took on the role of the calm, intelligent voice of reason (with a dull but substantive question about freedom-of-information laws), you'll perhaps grasp the full degree to which the other two opposition leaders lost the plot.
It was one of the rowdiest FMQs in recent memory, with the Presiding Officer forced to repeatedly call for order, specifically warn Labour's Jackie Baillie to behave herself, and on one occasion even resort to a sharp bang of her gavel in order to silence the cacophanous hooting and jeering coming from – mostly – the opposition benches. The First Minister himself looked dismayed, surprised and somewhat ashamed at the picture of Scotland's political elite being portrayed to the world, and it would be hard for any impartial observer to disagree with his judgement.
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Holyrood witnessed an exceptionally dismaying FMQs this week, with all three opposition leaders embarrassing themselves to varying degrees. Iain Gray once again wasted his entire allotted time on pointlessly demanding a precise date for the independence referendum, which is still some three or more years distant. The First Minister's replies could have been provided by a tape recording and accurately predicted in advance by a primary-school child or an Old Firm supporter, and Gray was further humiliated by some stinging quotes from prominent Labour figures, including one previously highlighted by this very blog.
The Labour leader also came disturbingly close to an outright lie, in misrepresenting the views of the Parliament's former Presiding Officer George Reid by claiming that Mr Reid wanted the referendum supervised by the Electoral Commission. This was despite Mr Reid making his (somewhat different) actual position painstakingly clear in the Scotsman's letters page on the very same day.
But the real clanger was dropped by the new Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who castigated the Scottish Government for dropping legislation aimed at preventing the reduction of minimum sentences, affecting (among others) rape cases. The First Minister gently informed Ms Davidson that she had been misinformed by her researchers, pointing out that the legislation was in fact going ahead and would be brought before Parliament by the end of this month. Davidson sailed straight over the correction without a suggestion of retraction or apology, and went on to make an impenetrable point about demanding life sentences without possibility of parole for certain serious offences – seemingly asking the Parliament to do so regardless of the restrictions placed on such actions by the European Convention of Human Rights.
For the Lib Dems, Willie Rennie went for a worthless point aimed at the tabloid "Our Brave Boys" audience, demanding to know if Scottish soldiers serving in the British Army would be forced to resign and join a Scottish Army in the event of independence. Once again, an opposition leader could think of no more pressing concerns facing Scotland in 2011 than a trivial and hypothetical issue from a hypothetical future, many years away from anyone needing to worry about it.
Even when given a clear and direct answer from the FM – that no, soldiers would not be forced to do such a thing and would be free to choose which army they wished to serve in – Rennie persisted in some aimless rhetoric about soldiers currently fighting side-by-side somehow being pitched against each other and made to "choose between their colleagues and their country". Salmond slapped the line of attack down uncompromisingly with a retort about coalition-imposed redundancies among serving forces and election results in constituencies with military bases, and that was that.
First Minister's Questions is theatre, but it's nonetheless depressing to see all three opposition leaders so ham-fistedly squandering their main opportunity to hold the government publicly to account, something vital to any functioning democracy. Salmond can occasionally be made to look evasive and blustery at FMQs, but he didn't have to get out of second gear to crush his opponents today. He could have phoned it in, and that's no fit state for any self-respecting Parliament.
One of the most dismaying aspects of the state of Scottish politics is the way that the weekly Holyrood joust between the party leaders appears to be conducted solely for the benefit of those in the chamber, with no regard at all for the watching electorate. This week's episode was a case in point.
Iain Gray chose to spend his entire allotted time battering on about whether an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the EU, and under what conditions, particularly in terms of currency. This, we'd hazard, is somewhere near the bottom of the average voter's priorities at the moment – given that we're several years away from having to think about it, and that the way things are going you wouldn't necessarily want to bet your mortgage on the EU and/or the Euro existing at all by then - but the opposition sense a weakness (not unreasonably) in the Scottish Government's disappointing refusal to release its legal advice on the subject, and so we get a concerted attempt to score a fairly meaningless playground point rather than usefully addressing any real-world issues of actual concern to the Scottish people.
As the session showed, the simple fact is that nobody knows what will happen with regard to Scotland's EU membership in the event of independence, not least because it's a decision wholly outside the influence of anyone in Holyrood. Both sides were able to quote a litany of sources supporting their respective views, none of them in any way definitive, and the exchange ended with nobody any the wiser, resulting only in the generation of massive heat but absolutely no light. (FMQs does seem to be a bottomless well of the former, and so is perhaps the ultimate in renewable energy sources. Who needs oil?)
Ruth Davidson's debut appearance at the front of the Conservative benches was no better than Gray's ineffectual jabbing, pointlessly repeating the futile demand that the Unionist parties have been making for the past seven months – namely that the SNP should hold the referendum immediately. It's perhaps fitting that on the eve of Armistice Day, the spiritual leader of the Union would choose to adopt the Douglas Haig approach to battle: if you've got a strategy and it's failing again and again and again, keep doing it anyway just in case the 50th time is the charm. The SNP are extremely well entrenched on the high ground here – having clearly laid out their proposed timing in the election campaign and getting an unprecedented mandate from the electorate – and Davidson's feeble shelling didn't so much as scuff the barbed wire.
Willie Rennie's question was so boring we've forgotten it already, and the entire spectacle was an unedifying waste of everyone's time. And since the agenda of FMQs is set by the opposition leaders, for that they must carry most of the blame.