FMQs: 'Gonnae no dae that?'

Brian Taylor
Political editor, Scotland
@tannadiceladon Twitter

  • Published
Nicola SturgeonImage source, PA Media

Tone matters enormously in political discourse. It is seldom enough simply to consume the verbal content. One must absorb the timbre too.

For example, a political leader may appear to be praising an opponent. Yet the words can be delivered with a satirical slant or gesture which changes their character entirely.

I was decidedly struck by the influence of tone upon today's exchanges during First Minister's Questions.

Firstly, there was a slight, emergent note of exasperation in some of the FM's comments anent efforts to contain the virus.

This is decidedly understandable, given the prolonged nature of this crisis and the evidence that individual actions may be countering collective effort to contain the persistent threat.

Nicola Sturgeon noted at one point, with wry resignation, that she has perhaps answered more questions about the virus than any other leader on the planet. It was, she insisted, her duty.

Inevitably, though, such interrogatory encounters may become repetitive. Talk about anomalies, challenges about apparently differential treatment. Questions, questions.

Line of defence

And so, on occasion, Ms Sturgeon may resort to fundamentals. OK, she will say, there may well be anomalies. But this is what we need to get things done, to pursue our priorities from education to employment.

Indeed, she argued that folk in Scotland, every one of us, were the true first line of defence against the virus. Not testing, not quarantine, not medical expertise. Us.

There was a decided note of pleading in her voice as she said we all had to do that job of containing the virus a bit better.

I was reminded, for some reason, of a trope from the magnificent comedy show, Chewin' the Fat.

Image caption,
Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan were the stars of Chewin' the Fat

Remember two of the many characters played by Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill? Lighthouse keepers, they were.

Faced with a trying situation or a practical joke exercised by his pal, Greg's guy would bemoan: "Gonnae no dae that!"

Came the assertive reply: "How??" Followed by, in even wearier fashion: "Jist gonnae no."

Simple but brilliant. And it works for today.

Mind-numbing detail

Nicola Sturgeon is telling us to abstain from certain styles of behaviour. Instantly, she faces questions about anomalies, about practicalities. In short, "how?"

Engrossed in the minute, mind-numbing detail of this pandemic, she must be tempted to amplify her exhortation by declaring: "Jist gonnae no." Mostly, she provides a rather more thoughtful reply.

But there was more variegation of tone on display today. On occasion, Nicola Sturgeon can deliver something of an earful to Labour's Richard Leonard. Not today. For two reasons.

Image source, PA Media

One, Mr Leonard was asking about mortality in care homes, a topic he has pursued with stolid dedication. Political banter and bile sit very uncomfortably with such a solemn matter.

Two, Ms Sturgeon was acutely aware that Mr Leonard is facing an internal challenge to his leadership, with senior MSPs declaring that he is not up to the job.

Did she go deliberately easy on him for that reason? No, see above for the principal cause. Rather, she was seemingly content to let matters develop within Mr Leonard's party, well aware that any intervention from her might be counter-productive to the SNP's long-term ambition of supplanting Labour in Scotland.

Mr Leonard battled gamely on. But tone matters again. You could almost hear the note of uncertainty and anxiety in his voice, as he pursued his topic. You could tell his thoughts were, in part, elsewhere.

Jeremy Corbyn

Matters may develop but, as things stand, this seems unlikely to end remotely well for Labour.

Either Mr Leonard stays in post, citing his election in a broadly-based party vote just three years ago. In which case, he is surrounded by colleagues, some of whom think he is a loser. Just like the situation which confronted Jeremy Corbyn.

Or he is ousted /persuaded to quit. In which case the Left, reflecting upon that popular contest three years back, will cry foul and presumably seek to exact revenge.

But, if the exchanges with Mr Leonard were subdued, the same could not be said for the discourse between the FM and Ruth Davidson, she who is the stand-in leader of the Scottish Tories at Holyrood.

Image source, PA Media

It all began in formulaic and rather effective fashion, with Ms Davidson suggesting that the FM should concentrate upon sorting education, rather than pursuing a draft Bill on a putative independence referendum.

Both were making their respective cases. Ms Davidson arguing that pupils were being let down, possibly through a reduced scholastic scope. Ms Sturgeon insisting that her daily priority was to maintain Scotland's precious pedagogical record.

Then the tone changed. Was this further evidence of incidental exasperation on the part of the FM? No, I suspect it was pre-planned. The phrasing seemed just a mite calculated and deft.

Ermine cloak

Anyway, Ms Sturgeon returned to a familiar theme: that Ms Davidson intends to leave Holyrood at the next elections and head to a seat on the red benches of the House of Lords.

According to the FM, that meant she was preparing to leave the democratic arena while still seeking to thwart the prospect of a democratic referendum in Scotland.

Then the stinger. "No ermine cloak in the world will cover up that hypocrisy." Answer, inevitably, came there none from Ms Davidson. The FM had kept her sharpest line for last.

Image source, PA Media

There were issues of tone, too, with the other leaders. Patrick Harvie of the Greens trod a careful path, as a Glasgow MSP.

The new constraints in the city and neighbouring areas were, he said, "necessary" to stop further local outbreaks.

Yet "many people" found it hard to understand why home gatherings were targeted and not other venues. Many people, note. Not the Green co-convener.

To be clear, I am not remotely chiding Mr Harvie for this. It was a neat way of raising concerns - he went on to talk about international students - without being over-prescriptive.

Test and protect

The complexities of coronavirus, he said, required "unity and collective spirit" to pre-empt unhelpful actions. Altogether now, "gonnae no……"

Finally, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats. He queried, given the outbreaks in Aberdeen and now Glasgow and the west, whether Scotland's test and protect scheme was up to the job.

Again, faintly exasperated - just a mite - Ms Sturgeon implied that her interlocutor did not fully understand the system or had not studied it sufficiently.

Oh dearie, dearie me. Nothing is more calculated to annoy a politician. Mr Rennie visibly bristled and declared in stentorian tone that he was perfectly entitled to ask questions and, if the FM didn't like that, then tough.

Just a little wearily, only fractionally, Ms Sturgeon insisted that she had no objection whatsoever to questions. The challenge lay in finding answers. And that challenge confronted every one of us.