First minister's questions

Sometimes politicians proceed by stealth. Sometimes the narrative is evident.

At Holyrood today, Labour's Johann Lamont contrived to combine these facets and functions.

Her narrative was fairly obvious. That Alex Salmond and the SNP are so obsessed with independence that they are neglecting the immediate, daily concerns of the Scottish people.

Ms Lamont stated this point several times. However, each time, she arrived at the point via a fairly circuitous route.

She raised, inter alia, Scotland's satellite, college budget cuts, the claimed lack of delivery on capital investment and the provision of drugs to cancer sufferers.

Depends upon your take, of course, but you could view such an approach as scattergun - or as a structured analysis of Ministerial failings, culminating in a conclusion.

The narrative of an "out of touch" FM is one which Ms Lamont has pursued assiduously.

The publication of the Scottish government's proposals for the transition to independence gave her another opportunity.

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The points Johann Lamont raised have been pursued relentlessly in the chamber over several weeks. But by the Tories”

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Ministers, she said, envisaged an easy leap to autonomy - making Scotland like "Namibia or Togo", she said - while they were apparently unable to divert productive expenditure to capital investment in schools.

To this observer, there were two slightly weak points in Ms Lamont's assembly.

Firstly, the points she raised have been pursued relentlessly in the chamber over several weeks. But by the Tories.

That meant the attacks - on non-profit distributing capital investment and a proposed cancer drugs fund - were familiar to the first minister.

He was also able to note that the latter policy had been supported by the Tories alone - while Labour backed the SNP approach.

Again, to be fair, the lack of novelty does not negate the contentiousness of the issues. Mr Salmond offered a robust rebuttal re capital investment.

Re cancer drugs, he was much more circumspect - in particular as he was confronted by Ms Lamont with an individual case.

This issue is, as the FM indicated, hideously difficult in the face of limited resources and particular demand.

The second faint weakness in Ms Lamont's approach is that her attack line re the constitution resembles, to some extent, the type of arguments which the Tories used to adduce against Labour proposals for devolution.

Now, Ms Lamont will argue that independence is a rather different proposition.

Armed forces

She will argue that devolution, as evidenced by the 1997 referendum, had palpable popular support.

But independence is Mr Salmond's stated preference. He has scarcely hidden it. He believes, further, that it would ameliorate at least some of the daily concerns raised by Ms Lamont.

In which case, he would argue, he is entitled to pursue it. And Ms Lamont is, equally, entitled to decry it.

For the Tories, Ruth Davidson lampooned Scottish government preparations for defending an independent Scotland.

There were, she said, just seven civil servants working on this - while the Ministry of Defence had 65,000 supporting the armed forces.

Mr Salmond responded in satirical form. Were the Tories now suggesting that more resources should be devoted to independence preparations?

And among those 65,000 at the MoD, he suggested, were the planners who contrived to produce an aircraft carrier design - without aircraft.

It was, on the day, an effective riposte - even if it sidestepped the main issue.

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Older readers will remember the political War of Jennifer's Ear. Today we had the Battle of Alex's Backside”

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Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats was still feeling sore over the lack of a consensual deal re the Budget Bill - which carried yesterday with principal Opposition parties all voting against.

In particular, he urged again that Scotland should follow the English model of enhanced nursery provision for two year olds.

At the very minimum, this produced a substantive, if brief, debate - with Mr Salmond arguing for qualitative provision and Mr Rennie insisting that such was possible with the English model.

The session closed with a bizarre exchange. Older readers will remember the political War of Jennifer's Ear. Today we had the Battle of Alex's Backside.

Not Alex Salmond, you understand. We speak not of Scotland's prime political posterior.

Rather Jackson Carlaw, with a wicked smile, retailed a letter from a correspondent who had been shocked - yes, shocked - to see Alex Neil, the Health Secretary, plank his backside upon a ward bed while his government prated about hospital infection.

Plainly, the Carlaw smile was itself infectious.

Mr Neil developed a broad grin and Mr Salmond smirked solemnly as he promised that anti-infection measures would, in future, extend to government ministers.

Brian Taylor Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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