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The poetry of Robert Burns
Hand written manuscripts on display at the National Library of Scotland

It has come three years late but it’s welcome for a’ that. We have finally seen a significant fall in unemployment. It is down to 6.4 per cent, the lowest figure for five years and a big fall from the usual figure of over 7 per cent. (It’s still 7.1 per cent for the UK as a whole.) In particular there has been a very welcome fall in youth unemployment, though it is still nearly 20 per cent.

Unemployment is down

Unemployment is down

Does it mean the years of austerity are over? Certainly not. Firstly, it’s not clear if the figures can be trusted – they seem to have caught the experts by surprise. Secondly, the bald figures do not give us the breakdown for part-time or temporary work – and the Labour Party tell us that a third of jobs in Scotland are now part-time or temporary. Thirdly, real earnings are still falling behind inflation. And fourthly, the Chancellor seems intent on cutting more jobs from the public sector.

So I’m left feeling unsure about whether we are entering a period of sustainable economic growth or just stumbling towards another quagmire. Certainly the Scottish government has been complaining that the budget it’s been given is still in austerity mode. But when the finance secretary John Swinney outlined its £35 billion worth of spending to parliament this week he did manage to squeeze out a little more money for childcare (£59m) and free school meals (£55m) and £20m to help council tenants offset the so-called bedroom tax.

Alex Rowley MSP Victor in Cowdenbeath

Alex Rowley MSP
Victor in Cowdenbeath

This was enough to persuade the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to add their votes to the SNP majority and the budget was passed by 90 votes to 13. There was a further outbreak of collaboration when Labour’s finance spokesman Iain Gray revealed he was in “constructive” discussions with Mr Swinney about the best way to protect people from the “Tory bedroom-tax”. This is rainbow politics indeed.

While this was going on at Holyrood, across the water in Fife the parties were fighting each other in the Cowdenbeath by-election. It was no surprise that Alex Rowley held the seat for Labour – he is after all the leader of Fife council. On a low turnout, of 34 per cent, the other parties did as expected, the SNP coming second, the Conservatives third. But the Liberal Democrats suffered another disaster, coming in fifth, behind UKIP.

In the wider referendum campaign, we’ve had another of those curious opinion surveys showing that if people thought they would be £500 a year better off, then support for independence rose from its usual 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. And if they thought they would be £500 a year worst off support for independence sank to just 15 per cent. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also shows that voters are not much influenced by arguments over currencies or membership of the EU. Professor John Curtis says, in his analysis here in the Caledonian Mercury, that this is because opinion on these issues is equally divided among supporters of both the Yes and the No camps. It leads him to the conclusion that the economy is the crucial battle-ground.

Prof John Curtice Are modern Scots just a 'parcel of rogues'

Prof John Curtice
Are modern Scots just a
‘parcel of rogues’

I am reluctant to disagree with the world expert on these matters but here goes. I think the 1500 Scots who took part in the survey were not being serious. They were caught in bar-room mood. We are not such a parcel of rogues to be swayed by a £500 bribe, or by predictions over currencies or memberships. I think as we get closer to 18th September, people will vote with their heart not their head, and cultural and historical issues will determine the matter.

There was evidence of that Scottish heart last week when 3-year old Mikaeel Kular went missing from his home in Edinburgh. Hundreds of neighbours turned out to help the police search for him. And then, sadly, they turned out again to lay flowers and attend a church service to remember him. His body was found in woodlands in Fife and his mother Rosdeep Kular appeared in court on Monday charged with his murder.

We suffered another very different tragedy on the same day young Mikaeel was found. This time there were no crowds, only a mountain rescue team. Donald Tiso (50), of the famous Tiso family of adventurers, died while climbing with a friend on Ben Starav south of Glencoe. He was a director of the chain of 21 Tiso outdoor clothing and equipment stores and a keen photographer and supporter of the Scottish music scene. His father, who founded the firm in the 1960s, was also a keen mountaineer but died in a boating accident when he was just 57.

Burrell Collection  Items can now be leant out

Burrell Collection
Items can now be leant out

MSPs had one final duty this week. They passed the Burrell Collection Lending and Borrowing Bill, a private piece of legislation which will allow Glasgow City Council to lend pieces from the Burrell art collection to galleries abroad. It breaks one of the conditions laid down by the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell when he left his huge collection of world paintings, tapestries, sculptures etc to the city when he died in 1958.

It’s a timely example of Robert Burns’ famous line: “Nae man can tether time nor tide.” Circumstances change. One generation cannot bind another.

To celebrate Burns Night – on Saturday – the National Library has put on public display one of its greatest treasurers, the Glenriddell Manuscript, copies of some 50 poems, all in Burns’ own hand, and 27 of his letters sent to his friend Captain Robert Riddell in the 1790s. They somehow found their way to a gentleman’s club in Liverpool which disgracefully put them up for sale in 1913. Luckily, a rich American John Gribbel from Philadelphia bought them and returned them to Scotland. Unlike Sir William Burrell he did not need a parliamentary vote to persuade him to do the right thing. The collection contains such classics as Holy Willie’s Prayer and the aforementioned Tam o’ Shanter.

Unfortunately it doesn’t contain his later song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” which is perhaps best suited to these times of austerity and with which I raise a glass to honest Rab on his birthday.

“Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an a’ that:
The coward slave we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that !
For a’ that and a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

Unemployment down to 6.4%

The latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics show that unemployment in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level for almost 5 years. This follows a sharp drop towards the end of last year and has brought the unemployment rate down to 6.4% – its lowest level in January for five years. The number of jobless now stands at 176,000, down by 25,000 on the previous quarter.

John Swinney MSP 'Positive news'

John Swinney MSP
‘Positive news’

Earlier this month, the Scottish government published estimates which concluded that the economy here had grown by 0.7% in the third quarter of last year. This was in addition to a number of other recent surveys which have also shown very positive signs about the state of the economy. For instance, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce published a survey which suggested that economic activity and growth were both at their highest levels for many years, suggesting that the worst of the recession may now have passed.

The figures have been broadly welcomed across the political spectrum. Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney, said that the figures “provide more positive news for the Scottish economy, with the number of people in employment in Scotland continuing to increase, following on from last week strong GDP results. Scotland has a higher employment rate and lower unemployment rate in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Consistent increases in employment levels show that the policies of the Scottish government to create jobs and boost the economy are making progress.”

In the view of the Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, “it’s extremely encouraging to see unemployment in Scotland at its lowest level in nearly 5 years and employment increasing by 90,000 over the past year. The number of people in work in Scotland is close to the record highs seen before the recession and there has been a big fall in the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.”

Iain Gray Need to 'look behind the headlines'

Iain Gray
Need to ‘look behind the headlines’

For Scottish Labour, the finance spokesman, Iain Gray, described the latest figures as welcome but added that the Scottish government needed to commit to further action. “We need to be confident that these additional jobs are sustainable,” he said, “and will lead to increased consumer spending. We need to look behind the headlines and make sure the opportunities that are available full-time are secure and give people the scope to plan for their future and put our economy back to pre-recession levels.”

Colin Borland, the Head of External Affairs at the Federation of Small Business, said that every business which had increased their headcount over the last quarter had their part to play in today’s statistics. “These figures match the FSB’s, which show that Scottish small firms plan growth and investment in 2014. It’s important to remember that the recovery is neither uniform or assured,” he added. “Communities across Scotland need small enterprises and all levels of government to collaborate to continue to drive growth and create jobs.”

The employment figures were also welcomed by Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. He described the figures as “a great way to start the New Year. It also encouraging that both women and men experienced falls in unemployment over the last quarter and that long-term unemployment starts to fall across all age–groups.” But he went on to add that there were reasons to be cautious about the strength of the recovery, concluding that the figures, while welcome, “provide no cause for complacency.”

Best results since 2007

The latest Bank of Scotland Business Monitor shows surge in economic activity, described as the best since 2007. Indeed, the bank’s figures suggest that economic activity in Scotland has returned to pre-recession levels with the prospect, if the current trend continues, of the economy recording a year of growth in 2013.

Professor Donald Macrae Bank of Scotland

Professor Donald Macrae
Bank of Scotland

The survey – based on results submitted from 414 Scottish firms – suggests a “substantial improvement” in the growth of turnover growth. 45% of firms reporting growth in the period June to August; however, 22% reported a decline and 33% said turnover was flat.

The Bank said that 4 out of 10 businesses surveyed reported an increase in the volume of new business; a quarter said they’d experienced a rise in the volume of repeat business. But more firms reported a fall in export activity compared with those reporting a rise in overseas sales. However, this was the only negative trend in the survey.

The bank’s chief economist, Professor Donald MacRae, said that the “…tentative rise in confidence identified in the previous Business Monitor has been realised with achievement in summer this year of the best quarter’s results since 2007. The summer months have seen a surge in economic activity to pre-recession levels accompanied by rising business expectations for the remainder of the year. If it continues through to December, the Scottish economy should record a year of growth in 2013. Consolidation of the recovery would be enhanced by firms increasing investment.”

Iain Gray Labour's Finance Spokesman

Iain Gray
Labour’s Finance Spokesman

The results were welcomed by the Finance Secretary, John Swinney. He said that the the “positive results follow recent labour market and GDP figures which show Scotland is outperforming the UK in terms of employment and growth. Youth employment figures also continue to outperform the UK. Against a backdrop of continuing economic challenges, the Scottish Government is taking action where we can, and we are seeing results, but there is much more that we could be doing with the economic and fiscal powers of independence to strengthen our economy and create jobs.”

Labour’s finance spokesman, Iain Gray, also welcomed good news about the Scottish economy, adding that “we have a duty to look beyond the headline figures to ensure everyone benefits from this recovery. Even this positive report has elements which show how fragile the economic recovery is. What we need is a Scottish Government that is focused on securing that recovery and making sure that everyone in Scotland benefits. Instead we have a Scottish Government that is entirely focused on the referendum and that’s the wrong priority.”

Housing – a key part of the Scottish Budget

Delivering his Budget for the coming two years, Scotland’s finance secretary, John Swinney, said his spending plans would boost the economy.

John Swinney Finance Secretary

John Swinney
Finance Secretary

He told the Scottish Parliament that, despite having the money available to him cut by Westminster, there would be more cash for housing and he also promised to “limit the damage” faced by Scottish families cope as a result of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. Among the other details in the draft budget was money to pay for a national performance centre for sport. He added that the council tax freeze would continue and other universal benefits such as free prescriptions would also remain.

With just over a year to go before next year’s independence referendum, he used his 20-minute speech to emphasise that Scotland has “a highly skilled workforce, a long-standing reputation for innovation, a respected and recognisable brand, world-class universities and sectors and companies competing at the highest level across international markets. With the full decision-making powers of independence, I should, today, be able to present a budget that puts all of that economic strength to use in building a more prosperous and a more just Scotland. Instead, as a result of Westminster’s decisions, I must today present a budget constrained by significant cuts.”

Iain Gray Labour's Finance Spokesman

Iain Gray
Labour’s Finance Spokesman

Labour’s finance spokesman, Iain Gray, focused on the way the SNP Government has adopted a slogan before the announcement – “budget for independence” – which had been subsequently dropped. He dismissed the idea claiming that instead it was a “don’t-rock-the-referendum boat budget for a Scotland at a standstill on pause. Will he take this budget for independence away and bring back a real budget for jobs and a budget which banishes the bedroom tax from Scotland this year, next year and the year after as well?”

For the Conservatives, finance spokesman Gavin Brown said the budget would “penalise” businesses to the tune of almost £450m, under plans to increase the income from business rates from £2.4bn this year to more than £2.8bn in 2015-15.oday’s budget should have been about the economy – but as far as the economy is concerned, this is a budget that has both under-promised and under-delivered.”

Much of the comment on the Budget has focused on aspects of housing. For example, the chief executive of Homes for Scotland, Philip Hogg, welcomed additional spending on housing. However, he added that recent quarterly figures showed a 25% fall in housing completions across all sectors and starts slumping to their lowest figure on record. “Tackling this issue,” he said, “will require bold vision, commitment and action from all parties in order to halt the decline of what is a key national indicator.

Mary Taylor, Chief Executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) said she was “encouraged at the commitment to investment in affordable housing, of over £1.35bn over four years. We understand that times are difficult for public sector investment within the recent spending review settlement, but there is no more important capital investment than housing as the cornerstone of healthy successful lives in Scotland. Investing in affordable housing is itself a form of preventative spend, helping to prevent costly public interventions, particularly in promoting health, well being and independent living.”

Graeme Brown Shelter Scotland

Graeme Brown
Shelter Scotland

The news about the Scottish Government’s decision to give financial help to those hit by the so-called “bedroom tax” led Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland, to say he was “delighted that the Scottish Government has listened to Shelter Scotland’s campaign and is making £20million available to help thousands more households in Scotland affected by the so-called bedroom tax. This is a victory not only for supporters of Shelter Scotland’s Banish the Bedroom Tax campaign, but for the people suffering hardship who will benefit from this move. We hope that local authorities across Scotland will act quickly to top up their discretionary housing payments budget so that the maximum number of people this year can be helped.

From the business point of view, the main reaction came from CBI Scotland. Its assistant director, David Lonsdale, accepted that the Budget contained “a number of positive announcements on affordable housing, digital technology and the local carbon economy. We also welcome the continued council tax freeze and the decision not to use the Scottish Variable Rate.

“However the Budget,” he went on, “was a missed opportunity to introduce an air route development fund in order to establish more direct links with key overseas business destinations, and to signal a fresh direction on public service reform through contracting-out the delivery of a wider range of public services to the private sector. The lack of a moratorium on any new or additional rates levies is disappointing, not least as Scottish Ministers have already introduced £131 million of extra rates this past year with their levies on larger retailers and firms with empty properties.”

snp1SNP strategists believe there will be no need for a “devo max” option in the referendum if they can make independence appear as reasonable as possible.

Senior SNP figures have revealed that their plans for an independent Scotland – which will be published in detail before the referendum – will be deliberately moderated in a bid to appeal to wavering Scots.

The proposals will stress the continuation of many aspects of British life in an attempt to do away with any need to put “devo max” or “indy lite” on the ballot paper.

Alex Salmond has offered a three question referendum: independence, “devo max” and the status quo. And he has challenged his opponents to come up with a form of “devo max” which could then be put to the people.

However, Mr Salmond’s offer has been knocked back by all three main unionist parties, who believe the first minister is laying a trap for them.

They believe Mr Salmond only wants “devo max” on the ballot paper to give him a fallback position in case outright independence isn’t successful.

But it has now emerged that the SNP strategy will be to make independence appear to be reasonable, not only so that there will be no need for a “devo max” option, but also to win over all those Scots who might have voted for “devo max”.

Indeed, the version of independence that will be put to Scots will look remarkably similar to those versions of “indy lite” which have been trailed by the SNP in the past.

The plans will adopt a “best of British” theme. They will include:

● Keeping the Queen as Scotland’s head of state and the royal family.

● Keeping the pound as Scotland’s currency.

● Relying on the Bank of England to anchor for that currency.

● Allowing interest rates to be set by the London-based Monetary Policy Committee for the whole of the UK.

● Creating a new “social union” between Scotland and England to replace the existing parliamentary union.

● Keeping UK embassies as joint UK/Scottish bases.

● Keeping most BBC programmes in their usual places – so Scots can continue to watch EastEnders and their other favourite shows at the usual time.

● Allowing British defence forces to use Scottish bases and to work alongside Scottish service personnel.

● Setting up only the most minimal control posts on the Scottish–English border.

● Keeping the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency as the body organising driving licences for the whole of the UK, including an independent Scotland.

● Keeping the same sort of vehicle number plates in an independent Scotland as in the rest of the UK.

A key SNP strategist said: “People think we are being clever by allowing a second option of ‘devo max’ to be put on the ballot paper for the referendum, but they miss the point.

“Look at what we are saying about the currency, the royal family, the social union, the BBC and so on. We are going to present a view of independence which is so overwhelmingly reasonable that there will be no need for ‘devo max’.”

David McLetchie, for the Conservatives, said: “However the SNP dresses it up, separation is separation. It is the Nationalists who are scurrying around trying to find this way or that to sell the unpalatable. It won’t work. The SNP prescription of so-called independence in Europe – and the euro – is a recipe for ruin.

“The majority of Scots are content and proud to be Scottish and British. It is the way we are. Scotland is better off in Britain.”

And Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader, said: “It is as if Alex Salmond is giving up on separation and trying to replace it with some kind of federalism, so he should be honest and admit it.

“His problem is he knows the majority of Scots oppose separation so he keeps trying to rebrand it in some watered down sense as ‘devo max’ or ‘indy lite’. But no matter what window dressing he puts on it he cannot escape the hard facts about what separation will mean and how the uncertainty over it already threatens investment.”

And Mr Gray added: “No matter how much the SNP try they cannot avoid key questions such as what would be the effect on pensions, benefits, tax rates and EU membership.”

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labour6aDouglas Alexander, the most senior Scot in the shadow cabinet, has today delivered a devastating critique on his own Scottish party in a latest bout of bloodletting to follow the party’s woeful election result this year.

Mr Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, berated the Scottish Labour leadership for the party’s successive election defeats to the SNP in 2007 and 2011.

Mr Alexander accused Scottish Labour of failing to embrace “New Labour”, of being stuck in the past, of adopting the wrong slogans and sticking by tired old tactics that were never going to work.

Alex Salmond’s successive election victories, culminating in his humiliating defeat of Labour in this year’s Scottish parliament elections when the SNP secured the first majority in Holyrood history at Labour’s expense, were the result of Labour’s own failings, Mr Alexander said.

And while the Paisley and Renfewshire South MP did not name his sister Wendy Alexander, she will have to take at least a share of his criticism because she led the party directly after its defeat of 2007.

Mr Alexander’s criticisms are also more clearly directed at Jack McConnell, the first minister from 2001 to 2007, who was in charge when Labour lost to the SNP for the first time – and at Iain Gray, who took over from Ms Alexander in 2008, leading the party to its ignominious defeat this year.

Mr Alexander’s remarks represent an escalation in a war or words within the Scottish Labour Party which started as soon as the scale of Labour’s disastrous election defeat in May this year became clear.

Even though Mr Gray announced his intention to resign as Scottish Labour leader soon after the election, senior figures in the party have been looking for others to blame ever since – with Westminster and Holyrood politicians accusing each other for of being responsible for the party’s position.

Mr Alexander clearly believes that his Holyrood colleagues are to blame.

He said that Labour stuck with the same anti-SNP “divorce is an expensive business” campaign all the way through from 1999 to 2011 – despite the fact that it was never going to work more than once.

“I said after the 1999 election that it was the last time I thought we could run such a campaign,” Mr Alexander said, “and yet it is surely now clear that in the decade that followed, too little was done by my party to tell a different story of possibility about Scotland.”

And he added: “In 1999 we identified what would have been the wrong path for Scotland, but thereafter we didn’t do enough to describe the right path by which to achieve a better nation.”

Mr Alexander criticised the party for not modernising in the way the London-based Labour Party did under Tony Blair, and that left the party vulnerable when the SNP started to do well.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Mr Gray’s ill-fated campaign theme this year, which was designed to scare voters with warnings about the Tories, Mr Alexander derided his colleagues for continuing to warn of the risks of Thatcherism.

And he argued that Labour complained about the SNP’s failure to deliver on its promises without coming up with enough examples to justify these attacks.

“Labour, in opposition, was seen as too often concerned only with opposition for its own sake,” he said. “Too many Scots judged us to have complained in unspecified ways about the SNP’s failure to deliver, without articulating a clear enough alternative story and account of Scotland’s possibilities.”

Mr Alexander also criticised the Scottish Labour Party for opposing minimum pricing for alcohol when voters wanted something done to tackle binge drinking.

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Frank Maguire <em>Picture: Thompsons Solicitors</em>

Frank Maguire Picture: Thompsons Solicitors

Tributes have been paid to the campaigning lawyer, Frank Maguire, who has died aged 55. The joint managing partner of Thompsons Solicitors, he died at home in Ayrshire after a long battle with cancer, his family at his side.

A specialist in personal injury and health and safety law, Mr Maguire came to prominence first through his work representing trade unions following the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and then through his long struggle to win justice for those who had been exposed to asbestos at work or who suffered with hepatitis C through infected blood.

His firm has been appointed to represent all transfusion and haemophiliac victims at the Penrose Inquiry, set up by the Scottish government two years ago. It is gathering evidence on how hundreds of people in Scotland were given contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s.

In a statement, the Maguire family said: “Frank’s wife, Fiona, and their sons, Calum, Matthew, Luke and John, would very much like to thank all those who have been concerned in Frank’s care, especially over recent weeks.”

“Our heartfelt sympathies lie with Fiona, the boys, and Frank’s immediate family,” said Syd Smith, joint managing partner at Thompsons Solicitors. “Frank Maguire combined a a razor-sharp intellect with a passionate commitment to fight for justice for victims, particularly those suffering from industrial diseases like asbestos exposure and Hep C.

“His loss will be keenly felt by everyone who knew him, but particularly his colleagues at Thompsons, his fellow campaigners, politicians at Holyrood and Westminster, the legal profession and the trade union movement.”

Having interviewed Mr Maguire several times though the years, he always struck me as a man of great integrity, strength of character and determination. That was also reflected in the admiration and indeed affection of those whom he represented, sometimes without reward.

That determination was demonstrated last year when he won a major victory for the victims of asbestos-related illness when Lord Emslie threw out a bid by insurers to block a law passed by the Scottish parliament which confirmed the right to compensation.

Leading the tributes to Mr Maguire at Holyrood was the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who described him as “a true champion for the underdog. His tireless campaigns for the victims of Hepatitis C blood contamination and former shipyard workers, their families and others affected by asbestos-related diseases, will live on as a tribute to him.

“As legal adviser to many of the UK’s leading trade unions, Frank’s advice and counsel led to many victories for ordinary men and women seeking compensation from rogue employers. He will be sorely missed.”

The funeral arrangements will be announced later in the week.

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Burnt-out bus, Croydon <em>Picture: GeorgeRex</em>

Burnt-out bus, Croydon Picture: GeorgeRex

Alex Salmond was today described as “unhelpful” and “small-minded” after he tried to distance Scotland from the “English” riots.

The first minister told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland that he was frustrated that the four days of unrest were been characterised as UK riots when they had nothing to do with Scotland.

“We have an obligation to help if we can and that is what is being done,” Mr Salmond said. “We are not complacent. We have already had resilience meetings of the government over the last few days.

“We know we have a different society in Scotland. One of my frustrations yesterday was to see the events being described as riots in the UK.

“Until such time we do have a riot in Scotland, what we are seeing are riots in London and across English cities.”

The first minister’s comments were derided by both the Conservatives and Labour, with David Mundell, the Scottish Office minister, warning Mr Salmond not to make “political capital” from the riots.

“I welcome the fact Scottish police forces will be deployed to help assist other UK forces,” Mr Mundell said. “We need to band together in times of adversity and many Scottish families will be worried about the safety of relatives and friends living in London and other English cities.

“It is a good example of the UK banding together and putting resources where they are needed and times like this show the values we share across the UK rather than the differences between us.”

And he added: “That is the positive side of the first minister’s comments this morning. What is unhelpful is the tone he has adopted in trying to make political capital out of a terrible situation. It is a parochial and petty view to say he was frustrated by media descriptions of ‘riots in the UK’ as if that was the most pressing issue we currently face. I think most Scots would prefer to see the Scottish government concentrate on providing practical assistance as part of the UK rather than scoring cheap points.”

Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, also intervened to express his “disappointment and embarrassment” at what he described as the first minister’s “small-minded” reaction to the riots.

“The first minister’s reaction to the riots is small-minded and embarrassing,” Mr Gray said, “if he really thought the most important thing was that they should be called ‘English riots’ on TV. Surely he could have seen his way to expressing solidarity with the communities devastated by this criminal violence first and foremost?

“My daughter marries a young man from Manchester this week and I spent the afternoon showing his family round the Scottish parliament. These visitors to Edinburgh are worried about events in their city. I was proud to show them the Scottish parliament but embarrassed by the Scottish first minister’s keenness to distance himself from their concerns and portray the riots as an English problem.”

Mr Gray added: “Alex Salmond does not seem to recognise that there are many parts of England that are luckily untouched by riots like Scotland and that an argument about their geography helps no one.

“He has let himself and Scotland down badly trying to push his narrow party political point at a time of crisis.”

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Burnt-out bus, Croydon <em>Picture: GeorgeRex</em>

Burnt-out bus, Croydon Picture: GeorgeRex

Alex Salmond was today described as “unhelpful” and “small-minded” after he tried to distance Scotland from the “English” riots.

The first minister told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland that he was frustrated that the four days of unrest were been characterised as UK riots when they had nothing to do with Scotland.

“We have an obligation to help if we can and that is what is being done,” Mr Salmond said. “We are not complacent. We have already had resilience meetings of the government over the last few days.

“We know we have a different society in Scotland. One of my frustrations yesterday was to see the events being described as riots in the UK.

“Until such time we do have a riot in Scotland, what we are seeing are riots in London and across English cities.”

The first minister’s comments were derided by both the Conservatives and Labour, with David Mundell, the Scottish Office minister, warning Mr Salmond not to make “political capital” from the riots.

“I welcome the fact Scottish police forces will be deployed to help assist other UK forces,” Mr Mundell said. “We need to band together in times of adversity and many Scottish families will be worried about the safety of relatives and friends living in London and other English cities.

“It is a good example of the UK banding together and putting resources where they are needed and times like this show the values we share across the UK rather than the differences between us.”

And he added: “That is the positive side of the first minister’s comments this morning. What is unhelpful is the tone he has adopted in trying to make political capital out of a terrible situation. It is a parochial and petty view to say he was frustrated by media descriptions of ‘riots in the UK’ as if that was the most pressing issue we currently face. I think most Scots would prefer to see the Scottish government concentrate on providing practical assistance as part of the UK rather than scoring cheap points.”

Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, also intervened to express his “disappointment and embarrassment” at what he described as the first minister’s “small-minded” reaction to the riots.

“The first minister’s reaction to the riots is small-minded and embarrassing,” Mr Gray said, “if he really thought the most important thing was that they should be called ‘English riots’ on TV. Surely he could have seen his way to expressing solidarity with the communities devastated by this criminal violence first and foremost?

“My daughter marries a young man from Manchester this week and I spent the afternoon showing his family round the Scottish parliament. These visitors to Edinburgh are worried about events in their city. I was proud to show them the Scottish parliament but embarrassed by the Scottish first minister’s keenness to distance himself from their concerns and portray the riots as an English problem.”

Mr Gray added: “Alex Salmond does not seem to recognise that there are many parts of England that are luckily untouched by riots like Scotland and that an argument about their geography helps no one.

“He has let himself and Scotland down badly trying to push his narrow party political point at a time of crisis.”

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First Minister Alex Salmond <em>Picture: Scottish parliament</em>

First Minister Alex Salmond Picture: Scottish parliament

Alex Salmond refused to apologise today in the increasingly acrimonious row over the UK Supreme Court and, as a result, he now faces the possibility of having to contest a defamation suit brought against him by one of the country’s top lawyers.

The First Minister was given three opportunities during First Minister’s Questions today to withdraw remarks he made, both about Professor Tony Kelly, a visiting professor at Strathclyde University and an authority on European human rights law, and about Lord Hope, one of Scotland’s senior judges.

But, despite being accused of “bombast, arrogance and conceit” by his opponents, Mr Salmond spurned each one.

Professor Kelly announced this morning that he was so upset with Mr Salmond’s remarks in Holyrood magazine this week that he could not let them go by unchallenged and that he intended to take steps to take the issue further through the courts.

A full and unequivocal apology by Mr Salmond during First Minister’s Questions today could, possibly, have averted a defamation case but the First Minister’s decision to brazen it out now makes a legal suit against him more likely.

The row over the UK Supreme Court has been smouldering for weeks. It is the final court of appeal for UK human rights cases and, on two occasions recently, the court has made controversial decisions which affect Scots criminal law – even though the cases were brought under human rights legislation.

This has angered many, including Mr Salmond, who has gone on the attack, not just against the structures which have made the UK Supreme Court an unexpected arbiter for some contentious Scots law criminal cases, but against Scottish judges sitting on the court as well.

This reached a peak yesterday when Holyrood magazine was published containing an interview with the First Minister.

Mr Salmond used the interview to lambast, not just Lord Hope of Craighead, one of the Scottish judges on the Supreme Court, but also Professor Kelly, one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers.

The First Minister accused Prof Kelly of exploiting the system to make “an incredibly comfortable living” from human rights cases.

Mr Salmond said: “The judicial system does not exist to serve Professor Kelly, it exists to serve the people and any judicial system which allows that to happen would fall into disrepute, and what’s more, it costs lives because if you take £100 million out of the justice budget you cost lives; less police, less courts, less effective justice and incidentally, less Legal Aid and it is an inevitable consequence of that sort of thing.”

And, on Lord Hope, Mr Salmond said: “All I would say to Lord Hope is that I probably know a wee bit about the legal system and he probably knows a wee bit about politics but politics and the law intertwine and the political consequences of Lord Hope’s judgments are extreme.

“And when the citizens of Scotland understandably vent their fury about the prospect of some of the vilest people on the planet getting lots of money off the public purse, they don’t go chapping at Lord Hope’s door, they ask their parliament what they are doing about it.

“I am perfectly happy if Lord Hope wishes to exercise his freedom of speech and I hope he is happy with mine but at least I went to the bother of being elected. It may be an inconvenience but nonetheless it has to count for something.”

In response, Prof Kelly said: “I am sad that the First Minister has called into question my professional integrity.

“I act for the most maligned in our society and in so doing fully expect that such a role is disliked and at times misunderstood by others.

“However, for a politician to attack me for the work that I do – and to mistake so seriously my motivation – cannot be left unremarked upon.”

He added: “With regret, I have had to take legal advice and following upon that, given the nature of attacks upon me, I have decided to formalise my opinion.”

With legal figures, senior nationalists like former MP Jim Sillars and the entire opposition in the parliament ranged against him, Mr Salmond came under intense pressure this morning to apologise, to withdraw the remarks he made about both Lord Hope and Prof Kelly and defuse the row.

With no public comment by the First Minister before he appeared in the chamber at midday, no-one knew how he would react to the inevitable demands for an apology.

Labour leader Iain Gray was the first to ask Mr Salmond to apologise.

“These crass personal attacks demean the office to which he was elected. He should retract them now,” Mr Gray said.

And the Labour leader added: “The First Minister attacked a lawyer for representing people because they are ‘vile’. His justice secretary threatened to cut off funding from a court because he did not like their judgements. I do not like some of their judgements too.

“But vile people having rights is the price we pay for us all having those rights. Vile people being properly defended is the price we pay for our right to be defended too. We make the laws but the independence of the judiciary is the price we pay for the for the freedom to do that. “

Mr Salmond refused. He said: “I think we all have a right to fair comment.”

And he added: “As well as a right to free speech, we have a duty as parliamentarians to articulate public concerns.”

Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie then said: “The First Minister’s interview with Holyrood magazine amounted to an extraordinary rant, characterised by bile, intemperance, provocative personal insults and a sneering disregard for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

“No-one denies there is a serious issue about how the Supreme Court engages with Scots law in determining human rights issues. It is right that the mechanisms be looked at.

“But the First Minister’s blustering, bellicose outburst has totally obscured the real issue, made a laughing stock of Alex Salmond and most seriously of all, has diminished the office of First Minister.”

And she added: “The First Minister said just over a month ago that he did not have a monopoly on wisdom – that is self-evident. Unfortunately, as he has just demonstrated, he can claim to have a monopoly on bombast, arrogance and conceit.”

Miss Goldie then asked: “Will you apologise?”

To which the First Minister replied: “No.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, also used his questions to the First Minister to ask for a retraction from the First Minister.

“The answer is the same as I gave to Miss Goldie,” the First Minister replied.