Sketch – Goodbye, farewell

Belatedly it is time to acknowledge some of the political characters who are exiting stage left from Holyrood this year. A record number of  MSP’s are standing down at this election, evidence of the growing age and maturity of the parliament. High profile former ministers such as Cathy Jamieson and Nicol Stephen are amongst those withdrawing from the chamber but space dictates that we must concentrate on three of our departees.

Firstly former Labour leader and First Minister Baron McConnell of Glensorrdale, or plain old Jack, is leaving the building.  It would be easy to write Jack the Lad off as a failure. He was after all the first Labour leader to lose power in Holyrood. He was also often seen as a somewhat lightweight ‘jumped up councillor’ in comparison to his esteemed predecessors, Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish- and the less said about Kirsty Wark’s villa in Spain the better. However, it could be argued he was merely a victim or circumstance, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Labour party had been in power in Westminster and Holyrood for a decade by the time the 2007 election rolled around and many people just wanted something fresh – which presented itself with the return to Holyrood as SNP leader of the undeniably charismatic Alex Salmond. Certainly his administrations have some lasting legacy, not least the introduction of the smoking ban. Even more certainly most in the Labour party would prefer to have Jack the Lad in charge now as opposed to the Gray man.

Jack the Lads successor as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Wendy Alexander and her famous pout, is also leaving us. Again, judged purely on her short tenure as leader, Wendy could be written off as a failure. In her previous life as minister for everything but the kitchen sink, she juggled a seemingly ever-expanding portfolio admirably. She was and is clearly highly intelligent and hard-working and was seen as a demanding but usually fair task master by her civil servants. She was clearly not cut out for leadership however. In this she is not unique, Gordon Brown, William Hague and John Swinney are others who spring to mind as clearly talented individuals who’s talents, unfortunately, did not include political leadership. Being slapped down by Gordon Brown early in her leadership over her infamous ‘bring it on’ comments regarding an independence referendum did not help her cause. An incident that sticks in my mind encapsulates her problems as leader though. When she became mired in the donations controversy I was getting off a train at Glasgow Queen Street when Wendy came along the platform. A local wag cried ‘”Haw Wendy what aboot these donations?” She turned and fixed the wag with a stare that could have halted a rampaging Mongol horde. And that was a problem, during First Ministers questions Wendy would lay into Eck over a subject. So far so good. Then Eck would respond with a jibe over Labours  policy or record on the matter. Wendy’s pout would downturn accompanied by the furious shaking of her head and the same stare the Glasgow wag received. It gave the air of someone mortally wounded, not an opposition leader in the ascendency.

Our final farewell is to a man who was never a minister but nonetheless leaves a lasting legacy. In 1999 Robin Harper became the UK’s first ever parliamentarian and he has remained in Holyrood, along with his Tom Bakeresque scarf ever since. Seen either as a breath of fresh air or somewhat eccentric but marginal figure, sometimes both at the same time, he was undoubtedly a trailblazer both for the Greens and minor parties in general. One thing that is often said, usually erroneously, is that it is difficult to find anyone in politics with a bad word to say about a retiring or dead politician. In Harper s’ case it is true and he, unlike his fellow maverick MSP from 1999 – Tommy Sheridan, is leaving with his reputation and integrity intact.

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Sketch – The leaders

04/04/2011

 

The first televised leaders’ debate took place last week to a blaze of apathy. Judging from the number of people claiming to have watched the broadcast it is not going to be threatening Eastenders for viewing figures – in fact it wouldn’t have threatened Eldorado in that respect. Nevertheless it was a fascinating first opportunity to see the four main protagonists away from Holyrood in some verbal jousting.

And what did it tell us? Nothing particularly new or surprising is the somewhat disappointing answer. As we know Iain Gray has been developing a tough new image in recent weeks and his hard man act was to the fore early on here. Constantly interrupting and hectoring Alex Salmond may have seemed like a good idea but not only does it make Gray appear rude and childish it has very little chance of putting as accomplished a media performer as Slick Eck off his stride.

As for Slick Eck himself he gave a typically forceful performance. He seemed under pressure only occasionally, noticeably over the release of al-Megrahi when the majority of the audience and the rest of the panel appeared at odds with him.  However, he was helped by being given a relatively easy ride from his adversaries. As mentioned Gray started aggressively but floundered throughout and often found himself under attack from the others. Many of his arguments appeared unconvincing and moments that stick in the memory include his claim that the Labour party didn’t vote for the Scottish budget and it’s 25,000 apprenticeships because “it was not enough” which seemed weak. Annabel Goldie was the second best performer on the night. Sure she occasionally overdid the scolding school mistress act but she used the freedom of not being a serious contender for First Minister to put across her arguments. Tavish Scott was also there. His main achievement on the night was to make Gray, who must have welcomed Scott’s presence, seem a little less innocuous. As with Gray his choice of arguments against the SNP seemed flawed. While inward business investment is desirable and vital most would see his attack on the government backing Amazon and their 900 new jobs in Fife as a little odd.

So at the end of part one Salmond and Goldie put in solid performances while Gray and Scott must do better. In particular the opposition parties must pick their fight more wisely in future. There are areas where the SNP can be got at such as class sizes and al-Megrahi – the others must formulate a plan to best utilise these matters. So all aboard for round two of Slick Eck, Headmistress Goldie and the two invisible men.

Sketch – The re-awakening of Baron Forsyth

21/03/2011

Scottish Conservative leader, Annabel Goldie, has the appearance of a primary school headteacher. Capable of striking fear into any wayward pupil she still manages to appear somewhat benevolent underneath. She certainly trades on an image of being a tough old mare and a tough old mare who knows what is best for you. At last week’s conference in Perth she highlighted this in her speech saying: “There is an old nag in the field who’s been round the course and who’s got form when it comes to taking on the boys.

“Someone who decides what they can and cannot do, somebody who holds the balance of power in this parliament and who will act without fear or favour.

“That old nag is me.”

So there you have it, anyone steps out of line and it will be six of the best from Ms Goldie. However, if Goldie does have some benevolence about her then another Tory making his presence felt last week certainly does not. Somewhere in darkest Stirlingshire a creaking coffin door was heard to open as the prince of darkness Baron Forsyth of Drumlean rose. Of course in his previous life he was Thatcher’s tartan bogeyman Michael Forsyth and he was back on form in Perth.

Speaking at a fringe meeting he attacked the party for backing the Scotland Bill and its increased fiscal powers for Holyrood. As a mortified Murdo Fraser looked on the feared Baron broke rank from party policy and launched a staunch defence of the union. A parliamentary candidate from another party opined, in private, recently that party’s don’t like having debates on controversial subjects as part of the main conference due to them being reported on as ‘splits’. At Perth you could see the reason why, Fraser and his cohorts are doing their best to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland. It will certainly not be helped by the spectre of 1980’s Thatcherism, unionism and being told what is best for you. Goldie may get away with a bit of lecturing but Forsyth almost certainly will not.

Sketch – The strange case of the Gray hard man

By Andy Mackie

14/03/2011

Celebrity dancer Anne Widdecombe once said that there was ‘something of the night’ about Michael Howard. That being the case then many would say there is something of wet afternoon in Saltcoats about Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray.  With a Scottish election coming up that could be a serious problem for the Labour party’s hopes of forming the next administration.

As recently as last month a poll in the Scotsman found that fewer than 20% of the public could identify Gray’s picture. Set against the high profile of the SNP’s slick Eck – first minister Alex Salmond – Grays facelessness must be a major worry to party strategists. History tells us that, other than John Major, boring leaders do not win elections.

Gray is obviously trying to improve his image in the run up to May 5th. Unfortunately his performance in last weeks’ first minister’s questions suggests that his new image is of a faux hard man. Quizzing Eck over the NHS, always a fruitful subject for an opposition party, he started well enough pinning Eck down over waiting lists and operation cancellations. Things went awry when he offered to ‘take the first minister on any time’ over SNP and Labour’s respective records. Nothing wrong with a bit of confrontational politics it was just that Gray didn’t sound particularly convincing or threatening when he said it. Eck laughed, Nicola Sturgeon laughed and when Eck delivered his put down comparing Gray to Mr Angry even Conservative headteacher Annabel Goldie seemed to allow herself a small chuckle.

The Labour party of course still hold a sizeable lead in most polls, however, as we head into the nitty gritty of the election campaign Gray may yet find the road from Saltcoats to Bute House a rocky one.