Parliamentary principals at each other’s throats
Tory leader Jackson Carlaw, the chamber at Holyrood and FM Nicola Sturgeon.
The great debate over the Scottish Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is descending into a political dog fight.
We reported earlier this week that two of the principals, Tory leader Jackson Carlaw and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, were at each other’s throats.
Normal People these two are not.
There is no love lost between the Conservative Party leader and the darling of the SNP, well about half of the SNP, where the Sturgeon Salmond Split increasingly becomes ever wider.
Carlaw’s frustration with the First Minister is understandable.
She is well-groomed, immaculately dressed and keeps her cool most of the time.
Sturgeon delivers long, complicated briefings and offers condolences to relatives while briefing MSPs on statistics involving hospitalisation and deaths of Scots who have contracted the dreaded coronavirus.
But Carlaw doesn’t know if these figures stack up. Nobody knows!
This whole business is unprecedented and precedent is an essential tool for seekers out of the truth.
Everything to do with coronavirus is, to use a good Scots word for it, a bourach, which is Gaelic for a shambles.
Everything is challengeable. Everything keeps changing. That was then and this is now is a short but extremely valuable much turned to plea in mitigation for the First Minister.
She smooths her skirt and keeps her cool, addressing her remarks not to parliament or the presiding officer but to her multitude of followers she knows are watching. Watching on television.
She even appears to be on First name terms with the cameraman who films her daily walk to the chamber accompanied by one of her Ministers or an aide who makes it clear he/she is keeping a two metre distance between them.
Twenty/twenty vision is achievable; 20/20 hindsight is not. The FM is on a roll and she knows it.
Jackson Carlaw’s day has started badly – and is about to get worse.
He chides Sturgeon with his first sentence which contains the barbs we are becoming accustomed to from him – “I note the limited relaxations that the First Minister announced; indeed, I welcomed every one of them a fortnight ago when they were announced elsewhere, to much derision from her.
“We need much more ambition from the Scottish Government. Children need it so they can get back to school and continue their education, and working parents need it so that they have a chance of staying in work.
“The Scottish Government is simply not listening on economic recovery. We read that leading companies across Scotland are unable to get a call with ministers or civil servants. We hear from senior business figures, some of whom are close to the Scottish National Party, who think that the First Minister does not get it or that there is no plan. Today, the head of the Scotch Whisky Association, Karen Betts, urged the Government to make ‘an open call for all hands on deck’.
“She wants the Government to reach outside the First Minister’s inner circle so that fresh ideas can be brought in. Will the First Minister do so and will she do it now?”
The First Minister replied: “I will not do that right now because I am standing up in the Scottish Parliament’s chamber answering questions. However, this afternoon I will speak to all the key business organisations and the Scottish Retail Consortium. I will continue to speak to interests and organisations right across the country, but I will never take my eye off my fundamental responsibility, which is to keep the country safe and avoid lives being lost.
“Jackson Carlaw said that he would have welcomed the lifting of restrictions that I have announced today two weeks ago. That would have been utterly reckless and it would have put lives at risk. That is why increasing numbers of people across Scotland are glad that Jackson Carlaw is not standing in this position.
“We have to act carefully and we have to put the health of the country at the centre of everything that we do, because if we ease restrictions too quickly, the virus will run out of control again and we will be back to square 1, imposing a lockdown and requiring businesses to close. That would be wrong and irresponsible and, if we were to do it, Jackson Carlaw would be the first person in the chamber to stand up and say that we had gone too quickly and had not discharged our responsibilities, because he blows with the wind—or, rather, he blows in whatever direction his colleagues at Westminster tell him.”
Jackson Carlaw hit back: “I am glad to hear that the First Minister is engaging with all those organisations. I hope that she is not just talking to them, but is finally listening to them. She needs to listen, because she needs all the help that she can get.
“On one hand, the First Minister’s top economic adviser claims that the United Kingdom will be the worst-performing developed economy in the world and that Scotland will be even worse. On the other hand, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes—the minister who is supposed to lead our response to this generational crisis—finds time to go on Twitter to attack the media for reporting the adviser’s comments, and insists that it is all fine. Could someone tell Scotland’s finance secretary that Trumpian tweets and getting the Twitter mob to blame the media do not make jobs? Is not it the case that the SNP Government does not comprehend the depth of the economic crisis that we are about to go through?”
“We’ve comprehended the depths of the health crisis, the economic crisis and the education crisis since day 1. With my ministerial colleagues, I have literally been working around the clock to steer Scotland through this crisis. We will do that for as long as it takes, and we will continue to try to steer a steady, consistent and safe path for the country.
“Despite the tone and tenor of exchanges today—prompted by the tone of Jackson Carlaw’s questions—I will, as far as I can, continue to do that in a non-party-political way. I regret the constant tendency of Jackson Carlaw to politicise all the issues. Scrutiny is important, but anyone who doubts that that tendency exists should reflect on the fact that Jackson Carlaw supports, when the UK Government does them, most of the things for which he criticises the Scottish Government. There are many examples, from schools to the economy. The most egregious example of that inconsistency—if I can put it so mildly—is that Jackson Carlaw led the pack that bayed for the head of Cath Calderwood but lost his tongue over Dominic Cummings. Such party-political engagement, inconsistency and hypocrisy have no place when we are dealing with a national crisis.
“This time is tough and hard for individuals, businesses and Governments across the world, and my job is to focus on getting the country through it. Regardless of Jackson Carlaw’s attempt to distract attention from that—which I suspect is more about distracting attention from the travails of a Government somewhere else—I will focus on the job at hand and get Scotland safely through the biggest crisis that we have ever faced.”
Jackson Carlaw replied: We all welcome plans to get the country out of lockdown, but Scotland does not need just a plan to open back up—it needs a route map back to recovery, as well as imagination, ambition and an open mind. However, one high-profile business figure said about the SNP last week: “I’m not sure they understand the scale of it all. What’s the plan? There’s deafening silence.”
“Children need a plan so that they can get back to school, parents need a plan so that they can get back to work and Scotland needs a plan so that we can avoid a depression as great as we have ever seen. I hope that the First Minister will deliver that, but it does not augur well that the front-bench team deals in angry tweets rather than in common sense solutions. Is not it time for Scotland to get back to work, and for ministers to engage with everyone else in order to achieve that?”
Ms Sturgeon looked askance at him: “Jackson Carlaw should deal with the Twitter trolls among his own members before he starts to give anybody else lessons. This is serious stuff. Let me try to introduce a note of consensus: Jackson Carlaw is right to say that Scotland needs plans for all those things. Scotland has those plans and will continue to see them being implemented. I have hard work to do, so if Jackson Carlaw wants just to snipe from the sidelines, I will leave him to do that, although I regret it and would welcome him back to a constructive approach so that we can collectively get through this. I will get on with the hard graft of getting the country safely through coronavirus and building the sustainable recovery that we all want. I will focus on that job and will leave Jackson Carlaw to indulge in whatever makes him happy.”
This is the level and length of debate at the Scottish Parliament. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to meet the time allocated to it.