Being prepared at FMQs

Alex Salmond is a qualified, experienced economist. He has an occasional, if understandable, tendency to remind his inquisitors that he is a qualified, experienced economist, particularly if matters financial are under discussion. Not today.

Pursued by Labour's Johann Lamont on the issues of youth and female unemployment, Mr Salmond looked and sounded serious, concerned, even pained - but never patronising.

That is because he is alert to Ms Lamont's strategy. For weeks now, she has sought to confine the First Minister to an enclave populated by the elite - while depicting herself as the down-to-earth voice of the people.

She pursued that path again today, scattering names (or rather Names) with an abandon which was in no sense casual.

The First Minister, she said, was in conflict with Donald Trump, he was gathering Tweeted support from Rupert Murdoch, he was haggling with David Cameron. He launched his referendum consultation "in a castle" (actually, the Castle, Edinburgh version.)

You can discern the narrative, can't you? Alex Salmond is too posh, too distracted by global connections to trouble himself with those losing their jobs back home in Scotland.

Superior knowledge

Once more today, Ms Lamont was rather effective. Her story-telling is subtle rather than clunky. It is also driven by authentic empathy on the issue. But it is, equally, a planned strategy, a sustained attack.

Had Mr Salmond succumbed to the temptation to remind the Labour leader of his economic qualifications, of his superior knowledge in this field, it would simply have enhanced the Lamont message.

Indeed, had he sounded patronising to any degree whatsoever, he would have reinforced her projected self-image as a tribune of the people.

He emphatically did not. Rather, he recited the efforts undertaken by the Scottish Government to mitigate the rising unemployment identified by Ms Lamont. He noted that he was in tune with Labour's First Minister in Wales in urging action by the UK government on such matters as capital investment.

Ms Lamont accused him of "breath-taking complacency". Which was, of course, precisely what Mr Salmond was determined to avoid in responding to her accusations.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Both Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch got mentions at FMQs

By contrast with these sonorous exchanges, the FM resorted to biting satire to deal with Ruth Davidson of the Tories.

She had questioned the origin of the First Minister's assertion that an independent Scotland would be sixth in the OECD wealth rankings.

Mischievously, Ms Davidson appeared to believe that this analysis owed its provenance to a certain qualified, experienced economist who moved into politics.

Yes, said Mr Salmond, the projection was made by the Scottish Government - but it was based upon established data and was true.

Then the FM veered off into a droll peregrination through Ms Davidson's various comments on the constitution, citing her appearances on my own Big Debate and on Newsnight Scotland in a "remarkable" interview with my colleague Glenn Campbell.

In splendid mock shock fashion, he professed himself puzzled by the Tory perspective on future powers for Holyrood. He asked;

  • was she backing the PM? Was she backing Lord Forsyth?
  • was she backing Murdo Fraser whom she defeated for the leadership?
  • and What happened to the constitutional "line in the sand" which she drew in order to secure that victory?

It was a classic US-style roast, taken in very good part by Ms Davidson herself.

As to the rest, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats amplified points made by Tory MSP John Scott in pursuing the issue of vital information withheld by Ayrshire and Arran health board.

Mr Salmond repeated his promise of an inquiry. Not, Mr Rennie averred, soon enough.