Most newspapers carry as part of their political coverage a political sketch column. These are intended as a lighter note to the portentously-titled analysis pieces, and usually try to strike a humorous or satirical note – often rather leaden humour – but they sometimes also serve as vehicles for the sketch writer and, who knows, the newspaper itself to give full rein to blatant bias under a cloak of jollity.
Since abandoning the Scotsman to its fate, a paper which is in decline into irrelevance as a serious newspaper, I have for the moment replaced it with the Times. This choice was dictated by the fact that its layout is impeccable, and it comes in a Scottish edition, whose Scottishness unfortunately does not extend to its Letters page.
It also comes with Angus Macleod, who rarely lets his unionism get in the way of facts, because he is a fine journalist.
But back to the sketch columns, which today in the Herald and the Times both cover yesterday’s FMQs at Holyrood. Holyrood FMQs, for all its vigour, is a model of good democratic theatre, as contrasted with the baying mobs on the green benches of Westminster, and in the last term, 2007-2011, it had four fine lead actors in the weekly mini-soap, expertly cast – the rumbustious hero/villain (dependent on your political orientation) Alex Salmond, the dour, humourless villain/hero Iain Gray, a feisty heroine in Annabel Goldie and a smoothly irrelevant nice guy in Tavish Scott.
These four principals, together with some interesting support actors, provided ready material for the sketch writers, as did the finely balanced plot of a minority government struggling to stay afloat in a boat where the three other parties were in a semi-permanent state of near-mutiny, conspiring against the Captain, who despite his vulnerability, kept lashing them unmercifully. Annabel seemed to like this, Tavish didn’t and Iain Gray took it with a sullen stoicism.
Alas, the soap is now based on a new ship, with the Captain firmly in charge, having decisively put down the mutineers and packed the vessel with his own loyal crew. Iain Gray has been told by his party that he has been written out of the script, and just has the residual role of dying in a suitable spectacular manner until a replacement is found. Annabel has been replaced by a Parliamentary newcomer, a young actress who made her name in kung-fu movies, but is otherwise inexperienced. Her fellow actors didn’t want her – the one they wanted is sullenly hiding at the back of the boat – and this leaves her expecting attack from the rear as well as the front.
In replacing Tavish, the casting director has gone for someone at least as ineffectual but also lacking in presence. The fact that he is named after a popular brand of antacid hasn’t helped, and he leads a tiny, shrunken, demoralised band. Not much for the sketch writers yet.
Magnus Linklater in the Times deals with this by pretending he has watched a different FMQs to the rest of us, which I suppose was the only coping strategy open to a unionist. In the episode he watched, which nobody else has seen, Iain Gray is the hero – serious, with an air of decency about him, he rise to the challenge, and delivers rejoinders with great passion and great effect. The First Minister of Scotland, the overwhelming choice of the electorate, in contrast, has weaknesses in his truculent arguments, is supported by a backbench clique – he bridles at criticism deliver by our hero Iain, he has standard Salmond lines, etc.
The only problem with your review of this episode of FMQs, Magnus, is that no one else has seen it, only you. It must have been a discarded pilot, run by mistake on a minority channel. Or perhaps it was a Dallas fantasy dream sequence, and you and Iain will now awaken to the Gray reality on November 2011. The electorate may view the real episode for themselves, in fact, I may link – later …
Ian Bell does a more objective job in the Herald, and keeps his powder dry. Rather like Angus Macleod, he does not let his nostalgia for that old-time socialist religion get in the way of the facts. But Ian is unhappy about the way that Scotland is going – he just makes a better job of hiding it than Magnus Linklater.
LORD ROBERTSON OF PORT ELLEN
I am delighted to support the wee Lord of Islay’s claim that SNP critics hound him. Here I come Geordie, baying after your scent …
The noble Lord, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by his close association with the weapons of war and the merchants of death, especially the nuclear deterrent aka weapons of mass destruction, sees NATO as a job creation scheme for Scottish industry, rather than as a paranoid defence organisation. Why question the purpose of the armaments or their relationship to any real defence need, or the price in blood that must be paid for them when they are such an unfailing source of jobs to Scotland, not to mention lucrative directorships and consultancies to politicians? How else is a wee boy from Islay going to get to be a Lord? Ask John Reid, he knows – or ask Liam Fox, a wee boy from East Kilbride. No, on second thought, don’t ask Liam Fox – he never made it to the Lords, although he was well on his way. Shame, that …
So he warns Scotland of the terrible consequences of attempting to be a free nation, to have defence forces appropriate to its real defence needs, to be free of the intolerable financial and moral burdens of WMDs, to stop sending its young men and women to die in the foreign wars that are so necessary to the profit machine called the military/industrial complex.
Of course, they are not consequences, they are empty threats, designed to intimidate a free people and suppress their democratic instincts .
But then, that’s what British foreign policy is all about, isn’t it, Geordie?
Oh, my sweet Lord – with apologies to George Harrison.
EXTRACT FROM 24th September 2011 BLOG
But of course, the high road to England has been the glittering prize for ambitious Scottish Labour Party politicians, and indeed all Scottish politicians with the exception of the SNP – a route to Westminster, ministerial office and ultimately the Lords, the final escape from democracy and the tedious need to get elected to make money. They have the shining Labour examples from the past to inspire them – Lord George Foulkes, Lord Martin, the disgraced former Speaker, Lord McConnell, Lord Watson, convicted of fire-raising in a Scottish hotel, Baroness Adams, once distinguished as having the highest expenses of any member of the Lords, despite having spoken in the Upper chamber only once (2009), Lord Reid, Lord Robertson – the list goes on.
However, the last two are interesting, since they were both Scottish Labour MPs who became UK Secretaries of State for Defence, and in Lord Robertson’s case, grasped the even more glittering prize of Secretary General of NATO.
It is fair to say that no such exalted – and highly lucrative – posts would ever be open to a Scottish MP who decided to devote himself or herself solely to the interests of the people who elected them to Westminster, and are certainly not open to those who decided to become MSPS and serve the Scottish people in Scotland.
Now the most ambitious Labour MPs – and MSPs - grasp these essential facts very rapidly indeed, and at the earliest opportunity get the hell out of Scotland and as far away from the realities of the day-to-day lives of their constituents as possible. While Springburn crumbled into even greater dereliction and poverty than that which had been the legacy of decades as a Labour fiefdom, Michael Martin was sitting in the Speaker’s chair, acting as shop steward for the MPs who were ripping off the taxpayer through the expenses system.
George Islay MacNeill Robertson left Islay as fast as possible, and despite being elected six times as MP for either Hamilton or Hamilton South, moved swiftly to more exalted UK posts, and ultimately to NATO. He now bristles with directorships and consultancies.
John Reid, MP of Motherwell North and then Airdrie and Shotts soon saw the attractions of the classic route to power – Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Defence, and held numerous other Cabinet posts besides. A former Communist and a product of a very rough realpolitik Labour environment, he once described the Labour Party in 1983 as "Leaderless, unpatriotic, dominated by demagogues, policies 15 years out of date". Twenty eight years on, his description still more or less fits. But he saw the light and the road to power, prestige, wealth and a Lordship very clearly indeed, and the rewards have been substantial indeed for the Baron of Cardowan.