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Jeremy Purvis

<em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

Picture: Walter Baxter

As is always the case, this election will be won and lost in just a few key battleground areas. The swing seats hold the key to the final result, and The Caledonian Mercury will be looking at several of them over the next week. Here are the first five –

Almond Valley
Almond Valley is the sort of seat Labour needs to win if it is to regain power at Holyrood. This used to be Livingston, and it was won in 2007 by the SNP’s Angela Constance with a majority of 870.

Boundary changes have made things even tighter since then – and, according to one assessment, this is now the most marginal constituency in the country, with the SNP holding a notional majority of just four votes.

Ms Constance believes the last four years have consolidated her position and that incumbency will give her the edge over Labour stalwart Lawrence Fitzpatrick.

But, having lost some areas that she knew well – such as Broxburn and Uphall – and gained others with a Labour tradition – such as Fauldhouse and Longridge – the result here is anything but clear.

Also standing: Emma Sykes (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Hardie (Conservative), Neil McIvor (National Front).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Edinburgh Eastern
This battle between two political heavyweights encapsulates the fight for the Scottish government. A high-profile Nationalist is up against a less well-known but solid Labour candidate, and what happens in this seat should give a good indication of what is going to happen across Scotland.

The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill won here in 2007, but boundary changes have since given Labour a notional majority of 545. The Labour candidate is the Reverend Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister and former Labour leader on Edinburgh city council.

Mr MacAskill believes his personal vote – built up over the past four years – will see him through, and he is doing all he can to link Mr Aitken with the unpopular trams debacle.

Also standing: Martin Veart (Liberal Democrat), Cameron Buchanan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Glasgow Southside
Somehow, the old name of Glasgow Govan carried more romance and appeal than the renamed constituency. Maybe it was the by-elections of 1973 and 1988 – both won by the SNP – but, whatever it is, this is a much-changed seat.

Boundary changes have stripped it of much of Govan including the shipyards, and have brought in Govanhill, the Gorbals and Toryglen.

But a Tory glen it isn’t. This is a straight fight between the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (who won Govan by 744 votes in 2007) and Labour’s Stephen Curran, a local councillor.

There have been claims of dirty tricks, with SNP sources muttering about claims that Mr Curran’s people have been telling voters they don’t need to worry about Ms Sturgeon being returned to parliament, because she is standing on the regional list and they can get both Mr Curran and Ms Sturgeon to parliament if they back Mr Curran on the constituency vote.

This claim has been denied by Labour, but it underlines how tense and how important this seat is.

Ms Sturgeon is under pressure in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland, but she will be hoping that the national swing to the SNP from Labour will be enough to see her returned again.

Also standing: Kenneth Elder (Liberal Democrat), David Meikle (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

North East Fife
Normally, the notional 4,500 majority which Iain Smith holds in this rural Fife seat would make this an easy hold for the Liberal Democrats – but these are not normal times.

The battering which the Lib Dems have taken in the polls because of their Westminster coalition deal with the Tories – and their subsequent decisions in government – have made this seat vulnerable to both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems are throwing resources at North East Fife in an attempt to head off the opposition attacks, and Mr Smith is finding on the doorstep that he has yet to build up the sort of personal vote that the local Lib Dem MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, has cultivated.

Sir Menzies would have no trouble holding this seat, but Mr Smith is facing a much harder fight. His majority will be cut – there appears to be no doubt about that – but the three-way battle may play into his hands, with neither the SNP (whose candidate is Rod Campbell) nor the Tories (Miles Briggs) likely to garner enough Lib Dem votes on their own to unseat him.

Also standing: Colin Davidson (Labour), Mike Scott-Hayward (UKIP).

Prediction: Lib Dem hold.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
The battle for this big Borders seat is between two of Holyrood’s best-known and longest-serving MSPs: Jeremy Purvis for the Liberal Democrats and Christine Grahame of the SNP.

The two have fought each other so many times before that this has the feel of a personal grudge match about it.

Mr Purvis is the sitting MSP, but boundary changes have given the SNP a notional advantage – and, according to one assessment of local government voting patterns, may now have Ms Grahame in front by 1,200 votes.

Mr Purvis faces the added problem of general disillusionment with the Lib Dem coalition in London, and he has been doing his best to emphasise his work in the constituency and move discussions away from English tuition fees and Nick Clegg.

He faces an uphill battle, though, particularly against someone such as Ms Grahame who is very well known here.

Also standing: Ian Miller (Labour), Peter Duncan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP gain from Lib Dems.

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

libdem1Commenting as it’s reported that 78% of delegates at the Scottish Police Federation Annual Conference vote to oppose the creation of a single national police force, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said:

“This landslide police vote has sounded the death knell for the planned single police force. No new Scottish Government can impose a single police force against the wishes of rank and file police officers.

“Having spoken to officers in Aviemore at the conference and across the whole of the country during this election campaign, I’m not at all surprised at this landslide vote against a single force.

“I told delegates that I wanted to keep politics out of policing and keep our police local.

“Labour, the SNP and the Tories all want to centralise our police. But Chief Constables warn that a single force could cost 3,000 officers their jobs. The Chief Constable of a single force would never be out of the Justice Secretary’s office. That’s no way to run our police.

“Only the Liberal Democrats will keep policing local. We are listening to officers. The others should too.”

Want to discuss other issues? Join in the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Liberal Democrat proposals for the creation of new Regional Development Banks could play a vital role in ensuring Highland business can grow and create jobs, according to Danny Alexander, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

Speaking during a visit to Harry Gow’s bakery in Inverness with local Liberal Democrat candidates Christine Jardine and Alan MacRae, Mr Alexander said that he was deeply concerned that many companies are still failing to get the help they need to create vital jobs.

Scottish Liberal Democrats proposals for new Regional Development Banks would provide more accessible and personalised support for 1,000 businesses.

The new institutions would work with colleges, universities and local authorities to deliver business lending, skills, training and tourism functions shaped around the needs of the area.

Mr Alexander said:

“At a time when money is tight it is vital that government does everything possible to create the conditions to allow businesses to grow and generate the jobs that we need to keep Highland communities alive. It is deeply concerning that so many viable companies are still not getting the financial support they need from their banks.

“This is something that Labour failed to address when they were in power at Westminster and I see no evidence to suggest that the SNP would make any difference at Holyrood. For four years, Alex Salmond has failed to provide small businesses with respite from rate increases and has refused to consider proposals for transitional relief. The SNP are again talking big on support for business but why should local firms trust them now?”

Commenting as GDP figures are published which show the Scottish economy contracted by 0.4 per cent between October and December last year, Liberal Democrat Finance spokesperson Jeremy Purvis said:

“For the SNP to try and claim these are somehow positive figures for Scotland is insulting to the Scottish businesses who continue to struggle.

“We desperately need more direct support for businesses through our Regional Development bank proposals. This form of grotesque gloating from the SNP is pathetically out of touch.”

Mr Purvis also commented on the CPPR analysis of the parties’ manifestos, saying:

“Our proposal for Scottish Water has been vindicated. This justifies our view that if we are to invest in the future for jobs, early years, sustainability and science, then we have to identify where the money is coming from. We stated that clearly in our manifesto and I am pleased this has been independently verified by the CPPR.

“What has to be deeply worrying for the SNP is the utter demolition of their wild claims about resources being freed from the Forth Crossing. In essence the CPPR have said that the SNP claimed ‘savings’ are from a project that is yet to be built, from a budget that wasn’t set and figures that were never published. And in a further embarrassment for the SNP, the CPPR states clearly that if there any savings at all then they would be available to any party taking office after 5 May anyway.”

libdem1Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott addressed the Scottish Police Federation’s annual conference, explaining why Liberal Democrats were the only party committed to keeping policing local.

Commenting, Mr Scott said:

“The Scottish Liberal Democrats oppose the creation of a single Scottish police force. This proposal is wrong for Scotland.

“Our single chief constable wouldn’t be out in the country helping communities. He or she would be in Edinburgh, standing on the other side of the First Minister’s desk and taking their orders from the top down.

“So we say no to one chief constable answerable to one First Minister. We say no to the direct injection of politics into policing.

“Now, there may – just – be some people here who served during the 1980s miners’ strike. There have been other disputes and protests as well.

“You will know how difficult the police found their position then. Too often accused by the strikers of being the agents of the Thatcher Government.

“Now imagine how difficult your job would have been with a single police force; to keep the peace and keep the confidence of the community. The public would have seen the Scottish Chief Constable on a fixed-term contract, capable of renewal at the discretion of the Minister, taking orders from the Government. That’s what could have happened then.

“In tough situations of conflict, who is going to believe that you are acting on anything else but the orders of the Government? That is why a single police force puts politics first, why we believe it will make your job more difficult. And why it is wrong for Scotland.

“Political interference in policing is wrong.”

Want to discuss other issues? Join in the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Elsewhere, commenting as the Green Party launch their manifesto, Liberal Democrat Finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis said:

“People on low and middle incomes will pay more under the Greens.

“The Green Party have admitted their plans for Land Value Tax will hit students, single people and pensioners.

“Their income tax increase will be paid by pensioners and the low paid.”

libdem1Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott joined local candidates Jim Tolson and Willie Rennie to help insulate a new build home today in Fife. Under Liberal Democrat plans, £250 million of new money will be spent on improving the energy efficiency of thousands of homes around Scotland, including private sector rented accommodation and hard to treat properties.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats say this will cut energy bills and create jobs.

Commenting, Mr Scott said:

“People all over Scotland are facing an impossible choice between heating their homes and providing their families with the basics they need. The plan we have launched today will help lift people out of fuel poverty, cut their heating bills and provide some help in tough times.

“Scotland and the UK have been at the forefront of international emission reduction efforts but it is clear that we can and must do more. Investing in home insulation will reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint, cut family heating bills and generate thousands of green jobs across the country.

Commenting on new employment figures published today, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said:

“Politicians don’t create jobs, but we can create the conditions for businesses to thrive and take on new people. These figures are good news after a tough winter but they are a reminder that the new Scottish Government needs to create the conditions for growth.

“That is why Liberal Democrats will bring in Regional Development banks that will lend to businesses let down by greedy banks. It is why we will bring in massive investment in home insulation bringing down heating costs while creating work. And it is why we want a super fast broadband revolution to get Scotland connected.

“Last night I heard from small businesses that they could take on more people if government gets out of the way. That’s why Liberal Democrats will cut red tape by a quarter and why I will make sure that no new regulations affect small Scottish businesses in the next Parliament. That will help create new jobs.”

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Commenting on Alex Salmond’s remarks today on small businesses, Liberal Democrat Finance spokesperson Jeremy Purvis said:

“I have spoken to local businesses today in Melrose and Peebles who are still furious that the SNP did not put transitional rates relief in place. This means they saw a massive increase in their rates bills. They think what Alex Salmond has said is rich.

“It is simply no good for the SNP to ignore the damage that has been done to many struggling businesses. Our commitment to introducing statutory transitional rates relief is gaining considerable support in the business community.”

libdem1
With yesterday’s big news from the Scottish Liberal Democrat camp being the launch of their 2011 manifesto, other news from the Lib Dem camp took on a distinctly aquatic theme.

Commenting on the launch of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation’s (SFF) manifesto which has called for the phasing out of fish discards and a better representation of the industry, Liberal Democrat Fisheries spokesperson Liam McArthur said:

“In these challenging times for the industry, the manifesto put forward by the SFF is pragmatic and achievable. A Liberal Democrat Scottish Government would look to work closely and constructively with the industry to deliver the objectives set out in the SFF’s manifesto.”

Meanwhile, in response to SNP claims that the Liberal Democrats are seeking to privatise Scottish Water, the Liberal Democrat manifesto author Jeremy Purvis said that the Nats’ claims don’t hold water.

“Section 8.4 of the Treasury rule is quite clear that the Treasury has an interest in the transfer of assets that they originally paid for.” Mr Purvis said.

“That is exactly why, under our plan, the money lent to Scottish Water by the Treasury is repaid to them and the money lent to Scottish Water by the Scottish Government is repaid to them.

“Rule 8.4 is there to stop the Government privatising something and then trying to keep all of the money. We are not proposing either of those things.

“Instead of a drip, drip, drip attack on our ideas for future investment in Scotland, the SNP also needs to explain why it is throwing the advice of its two biggest budget advisers down the drain. The Scottish Futures Trust and the Independent Budget Review have both published reports recommending our sensible plan.”

John Swinney

John Swinney

After weeks of speculation, we now have the detail of the Scottish Government’s financial plans. It was a question of facing up to the inevitable. Finance Secretary, John Swinney, told the Parliament that he had to cope with a cut imposed by the UK government of more than £1bn. So he’s planning to cut spending and introduce a public sector pay freeze, at least for some.

Civil servants earning less than £21,000 will get a minimum annual increase of £250. Those earning more will receive no increase next year at all. And this won’t just apply to Scottish government staff. Those working in government agencies and non-departmental public bodies will have affected as well. This should also set a “framework” for other public sector workers, such as those in the NHS, teachers, police and firefighters.

Mr Swinney explained his decision by pointing out that public sector pay accounted for more than 50% of his budget. Restricting it and stopping the payment of large bonuses would save jobs, telling MSPs that “Our pay restraint policy will support thousands of jobs in local economies across Scotland.”

The Government’s spending plans and draft budget will set a 3% “efficiency savings” target across public services. But the finance secretary offered a carrot to Scotland’s local authorities, agreeing to limit the cuts on local authority spending to 2.6% if they agreed to continue the council tax freeze for a fourth year. The Councils’ umbrella body, CoSLA, has already accepted this.

As part of the deal, the councils will have to keep the current number of police officer – boosted by 1,000 since the SNP came into power in 2007. This commitment has been welcomed by the Scottish Police Federation, although it said the 2.6% cut in police budgets would “create challenges”.

On the NHS, Mr Swinney told the Parliament that spending would be protected. However, he said the Service had to cut the number of senior managers by 25% over the next four years. The plan to abolish prescription charges completely next year will still go ahead.

There will be losers. Housing, education and tourism budgets will all be cut. Housing will see a cut of 19.3% in the next year. Scotland’s colleges and universities will also see their funding drop by 12%. But Mr Swinney insisted that university places would be maintained, without the introduction of tuition fees in Scotland.

Mr Swinney promised to maintain spending on capital projects by moving £100m from this year’s budget. He added that the plans for constructing a replacement for the Forth Road Bridge were “still on track”.

In reaction to this announcement, Scottish Labour’s finance spokesman, Andy Kerr, accused the finance secretary of putting party political interest before that of the country by bringing forward a one-year rather than a three-year budget, adding “He is not running a country – he is running an election campaign.

“It is outrageous that our local authorities, health service, our universities, further education colleges, police and fire services are being denied the ability to plan effectively. They are all demanding clarity so that they too can set budgets, deliver services and reassure staff, but they cannot because of the SNP.”

For the Scottish Conservatives, finance spokesman, Derek Brownlee, agreed that Scotland needed a “longer-term budget” while welcoming the freeze in public sector pay and council tax. The Tories also thought it “”entirely fair that the roads budget should shoulder its share of savings, not least because of the costs involved in the new Forth crossing.”

However, transport spokesman, Jackson Carlaw, warned that “It would however be regrettable if the reduction in the budget for the maintenance and improvement of our motorways and trunk roads led to greater long-term costs as a result of the roads infrastructure being allowed to deteriorate below an acceptable standard.”

Jeremy Purvis, for the Scottish Lib Dems, also said that the draft budget was “too short term. On the day when unemployment is going up in Scotland but down in the rest of the UK, the SNP are wrong to cut support for enterprise, colleges and tourism, but not to cut high pay, bonuses and waste. This is a dangerous way for every school, hospital and college to try and plan ahead,” he added. “They can’t take sensible decisions if they don’t have the future plans.”

Reaction outside the Parliament was swift. Jonathan Fair, Chief Executive of home building industry body Homes for Scotland, described the budget settlement as “difficult” but added: “we are encouraged at the continuing importance the Scottish Government is placing on housing investment.

“In particular, we welcome the intent to expand the National Housing Trust initiative to maximise the delivery of new affordable homes and build on the successful developer New Supply Shared Equity pilot scheme. However, we remain keen to see the detail and understand the precise implications.”

There was more concern from those involved in the creation of affordable housing. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said that housing investment is still taking an undue share of cuts. It pointed out that the number of new affordable homes built in Scotland next year was set to drop when the country needed 10,000 a year to meet demand.

Its Chief Executive Mary Taylor acknowledged that “This was a difficult budget for the Scottish Government. We are pleased it has not demolished the funds for new housing by 63% as the UK Government has done in England. However the 30%-plus cut in the affordable housing budget means the supply of much-needed new housing in Scotland can only fall.”

At the Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI), there was a mixed response. In the view of Chief Executive, Dr Lesley Sawers, “The Scottish Government has had to make tough choices and SCDI welcomes the priority which it has given to infrastructure investment, which is vital for the future growth and sustainability of Scotland’s economy.

“However, given that the Scottish Government’s priority is increasing sustainable economic growth, SCDI is disappointed that the cuts affecting Scotland’s enterprise, education and tourism sectors are, once again, significantly larger than other departments. Investment in skills is an essential element of a successful economy and the substantial reductions in funding reinforce the need for a new approach which sustains the competitiveness of Scotland’s universities and colleges and offers opportunities for young people.”

At the CBI, assistant director, David Lonsdale thought it “very encouraging” that Ministers had “sought to protect investment in transport infrastructure as much as possible, with welcome announcements on completing the M8 and Aberdeen bypass.” He also welcomed plans on broadband investment, the freezing of council tax, and the decision not to use the “tartan tax”.

“However we are deeply concerned about the plans to levy higher business rates on larger retailer.  Supermarkets have been one of the few bright spots in the economy over recent years and levying extra rates will hit their investment plans, at a time when they have already been clobbered by the refusal to reintroduce transitional relieve.”

The Federation of Small Business added its voice to those agreeing that the Finance Secretary had faced some “difficult choices”. Policy Convenor, Andy Willox, noted that “On the day that the number of Scots unemployed increases once again, our collective priority needs to be job creation and sustainability. Small businesses have a track record of creating jobs – we need more emphasis and support placed on these businesses – no matter their sector or location.”

He also had this warning. “Many of the most difficult decisions will be made in our town halls and city chambers across Scotland. These local debates need to focus on what can be done to grow and sustain employment – private and public. Hammering soft targets such as economic development, planning, local infrastructure and waste charges would be the easy but wrong thing to do in these circumstances.”

John Swinney

John Swinney

John Swinney will be told this week to introduce a raft of savings including an end to free prescriptions and a public sector recruitment freeze if he wants to get his budget passed.

Scotland’s finance minister will meet opposition parties on Wednesday this week for a crunch meeting which he hopes will pave the way for agreement on the Scottish Government’s budget for next year.

Mr Swinney needs the support of at least one other major party to get his budget passed and this week’s meeting represents the first stage of the intense political horse-trading between the parties over the budget which will go on until January.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will use the meeting to demand that Mr Swinney tell them where he is going to find the money to meet next year’s swingeing budget cuts. But the Tories – who have supported the SNP’s budgets in the past three years – will go to the meeting with concrete proposals for saving money.

They want Mr Swinney to agree to the following:

  • A public sector recruitment freeze. This would mean a blanket ban on public sector recruitment for a set period of one or two years with the only exceptions being for specialist front-line services.
  • An end to free prescriptions. The Scottish Government has been phasing out prescription charges for the past three years but the Tories believe this is a waste of money because it benefits many people who could afford to pay for prescriptions.
  • Pay restraint in the public sector. The Tories want to see the same sort of pay restraint for the public sector that has been introduced by the coalition government in London. That would mean no pay rises for anybody earning more than £21,000.
  • The mutualisation of Scottish Water. This would mean the part-privatisation of this state-run utility, turning it into a not-for-profit company and saving the taxpayer £3 billion over the next few years.
  • The Tories have demanded and secured key concessions from the SNP administration for the past three years, including 1,000 extra police officers, more money for drug rehabilitation and accelerated business rates relief.

This year they want to see money saved, rather than money spent, in return for their support.

With both the other main parties taking a hostile approach to talks, the Tories may yet again represent Mr Swinney’s best hope of getting his budget passed.

Indeed, all the Tory demands represent savings Mr Swinney could agree to – with the exception of the mutualisation of Scottish Water. But there is even a chance of a compromise on that with a change to the structure of the utility but not outright mutualisation.

Derek Brownlee, the Tory finance spokesman, said: “”We are being constructive and we would like to get to a consensus with other parties but, at the end of the day, our bottom line is that the budget must be credible and sustainable. The government has to face up to reality and that means taking difficult decisions like those on Scottish Water and prescription charges.”

Tis round of horsetrading will be more intense and difficult than in previous years. Ministers expect the Scottish block grant from London to be cut by £3.7 billion over the next four years.

Mr Swinney has to find the cuts somewhere but he has yet to reveal where the axe is going to fall.

Some of the Conservative suggestions mirror those made by the Independent Budget Review group which reported earlier this summer and recommended a series of radical changes, including the ending of some free universal benefits and the mutualisation of Scottish Water.

Mr Swinney has yet to give his response to the review group’s report and, in a prepared statement, he would only say: “We need a consensus across parliament, and in wider civic Scotland, for next year’s Budget. The Independent Budget Review has already made a significant contribution to informing public debate and focusing minds on the challenges we all have to deal with.”

But Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis MSP said: “Time is running out for the SNP.

“Hardly a week goes by without them publishing more critiques of the Westminster Government but they shroud their own approaches to reducing the budget in secrecy.

“Even the most clear case of cutting out bonuses for the highest paid in the NHS in Scotland they hide behind a UK review of distinction awards, rather than making decisions in Scotland.

“It’s not acceptable for the SNP to act simply like a commentariat and allow others to make the kind of decisions they, as a Government, should be publishing.”

And Labour finance spokesman Andy Kerr said: “John Swinney knows how much money he has available to him, give or take a very small fraction of next year’s budget.

“As the Finance minister in what is a minority government he has a responsibility to bring forward his budget so it can be scrutinised not just by the Scottish Parliament but wider civic Scotland.

“Our experience so far of John Swinney’s so-called inclusive approach, along with other parties has not been altogether useful. He has consistently failed to share information which is required to make a sensible contribution.”

A damaging and previously hidden effect of the recession has emerged in new figures showing that some Scottish colleges are turning away four times as many applicants as they did a year ago.

Not only are there record numbers of young unemployed in Scotland but those without a job are finding it increasingly difficult to get college places too.

Because there are fewer jobs and fewer apprentice places, more and more young people are trying to get to colleges to secure the qualifications needed to get employment, with the result that there is now serious over demand for those places.

For instance, Carnegie College in Dunfermline, turned away 904 applicants in 2009: up from 120 in 2008 – an increase of 653 per cent.

At Kilmarnock College, the number of failed applicants rose by nearly 500 per cent in the course of the last year while in Oatridge College near Edinburgh – where no applicant had ever been declined before last year – 300 were turned away.

The situation is similar across Scotland, leading to calls from the Liberal Democrats – who compiled the figures – for government action.

Lib Dem finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis said: “Too many people have been hit twice. They can’t get a job and now they can’t get a college place.

“What government can do is give them the opportunity to gain skills and experience that will help them get the most from economic recovery when it comes. Scotland as a whole will benefit from having more people ready and active for the workplace.”

But whether the Scottish Government can actually help in the short term is debateable.

The Scottish Government budget is extremely tight. The budget for the 2010-11 financial year is on the verge of being passed by parliament so there is no way this could be altered so radically to inject the funds necessary funds into further education to provide all the places the colleges need.

And even if the budget was altered and money diverted to Scotland’s colleges, there is a time lag on any such policy shift which would mean that the new places would take two years, and maybe more, to create.

Given that no-one knows what demand for the places is going to be like in two years time and it might have declined back to last year’s level, it would be unwise, as well as difficult, for the Scottish Government to do that.

So what this reveals is a real problem but one without an immediate solution.

The Lib Dems are right. There is a serious problem here. It is one which has been almost hidden in the focus on unemployment figures. Young people are being hit with a double whammy.

But, given all that, it is also difficult to see a solution: at least in the short term. The Lib Dems can appeal to the Scottish Government for help but, deep down, even they know it is not really going to happen.

They do deserve credit for digging into this issue. That, though, is almost certainly all they will get.

King Cnut: Adopting a vigorous debating style

King Cnut: Adopting a vigorous debating style

There was controversy over the tootsies of King Cnut in the Scottish Parliament yesterday. But that wasn’t the oddest thing. The oddest thing was the consensus.

True, the subject under advisement was the need to tackle illiteracy. But, even so, the hardliners on the Labour and SNP benches usually couldn’t attend a church social without attempting to brain each other.

Labour had called the debate on a report it had commissioned about illiteracy. You can imagine how many times that report was run through the spell-checker.

Deliberately, I missed the opening remarks by Des McNulty (Lab), as I find his dullness too much first thing in the morning. But I caught some of Michael Russell, the education secretary, whose presence had a curiously absent aspect. His mind was maybe elsewhere, as that morning’s Herald had reported another serious development in his spat with a blogger.

Still, I heard waspish Elizabeth Smith (Con) praise “rigorous spelling tests” in Clackmannanshire. Frankly, if you can spell Clackmannanshire without looking up how many n’s (and where), that should guarantee top marks.

“Unbelievably,” said Elizabeth, “some people argue that we don’t need tests at all.” I know. Imagine if there were tests to be an MSP. Instead of 129, we’d only have about seven, She also criticised the trend to let pupils give bullet-point answers, rather than encouraging them to be more expansive. Trust a politician to call for more waffle.

Bitter Rhona Brankin (Lab) said one million adults in Scotland were now functionally illiterate. Yes, and most of them seem to be leaving comments on websites.

Thuggish Kenny Gibson (SNP) commended a scheme in which, upon the sound of a school bell, “everyone from the janitor to the head” had to drop what they were doing and start reading a book. You can imagine that going down well with the jannie. Picture him sitting there with a steaming mug of tea “reading” the latest edition of Humungous Hooters behind his coffee-table edition of Hamlet.

Karen Whitefield (Lab), who sounds like she’ll be four next birthday, made the usual parochial noises praising a school in her constituency – it’s either instinctive parochialism or calculated vote-grubbing – while Christina McKelvie (SNP) expressed delight at Labour’s unusually constructive approach to the debate. She even hoped the Tories might join “the collective effort”. I don’t think collectivism is really their thing, Christina.

Aileen Campbell (SNP) noted the modern, somewhat sick-making habit of substituting the word “challenges” for “problems”, adding: “There is no doubt that illiteracy is a problem.” Thankfully, no one problemed her on that.

The education secretary got back up on his hind legs to comment on a jokey comment someone had made earlier about crime writer Ian Rankin being self-interested in getting people to read. “As an author myself, I am also self-interested,” said Mike. Ooh, hark at him. “Aym ai writer, don’t you know, ken?”

A Lib Dem heckled him, and Mike noted: “I didn’t hear the sedentary intervention by Jamie Stone, but I always regard that as an advantage.” See? He’s like Oscar bleedin’ Wilde, our Michael.

Mr Spock look-alike Ken McIntosh (Lab) praised the consensus, before putting a Vulcan neck-pinch on the Tories for their “grammar school” image and obsession with testing.

Funnily enough, Labour leader Elmer Fudd opted to raise the same subject of illiteracy at First Minister’s Questions and, despite the usual undertow of impending mayhem, the consensus continued, making matters tepid for all who love a rammy.

Fudd asked First Minister Eck Salmond if he would support a “zero tolerance” approach. Controversially, Eck said “Yes”, then added: “I’m glad that Mr Fudd welcomes the constructive approach of the education secretary.”

Elmer came back with a curious suggestion that the Government should come out of the concordat with local authorities so that it could get things done. But the First Eck said gently that this idea was mince. And that was that.

As so often, it was up to the Tories to introduce a note of disagreement but, alas, Annabel Goldie – democratic duchess, spinster to the nation, doyen of the doilie set – cocked things up for the second week in a row. After trotting out the usual soundbite about “Labour’s recession”, the Tory leader asked Eck if he would cut the costs of parliament.

Before Eck could answer, the presiding orifice intervened, saying: “That’s not the responsibility of the First Minister.”

Annabel: “To clarify, First Minister, the Scottish Government, of course, allocates budget for the running of this parliament.”

Mr Orifice: “That is actually incorrect, Miss Goldie. The Scottish Government does not allocate the budget.”

Annabel (bowing): “I apologise for the confusion, presiding orifice.” Oh dear. And her a lawyer, tae, someone who should have total command of such boring cack.

She then went on to accuse Eck of being in denial about the need to make cuts, adding: “He is the King Cnut of Scottish politics, presumably hoping his wee tartan tootsies won’t get wet.”

Oh Lordie, now it was Eck’s turn to correct Annabel: “Actually, it was King Canute who was arguing the opposite case.”

As any fule kno, King C was trying to prove to his advisers that he couldn’t’ control the tides. Eck observed: “Obviously, my knowledge of English history is somewhat stronger than Annabel’s.”

Oh, the shame for Annabel: to be deemed historically illiterate about her beloved England – by a Scots Nat.

Further sketchings
In last week’s Sketchings, I alluded to that wee wumman who always sits behind Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott, her face aglow with besotted admiration. Well, this week, for the first time ever, she wasn’t there. She was replaced by two guys, including Jeremy “Skullsplitter” Purvis. What was more peculiar this week was that Jeremy and Tavish both wore matching pink ties. It all seemed so very Lib Dem somehow.

Corned beef hash: No more for Goldie. <em>Picture: <a href=Oh, glorious new year! Twa thoosand and ten, ken? A new decade even. What an exciting time for Scottish democracy. Who knows where we will be ten years’ hence? All right, probably not very far, but join in here and help me build the mood.

Oh yes, so exciting. And the MSPs were back from their break. They must have been dying to have a go. So many issues to raise. So much going on in the world. So what did they talk about? Grit. And slush. And the state of the pavements. In other words: cooncil fare.

Elmer Fudd started it. Many Nationalists believe Alex Salmond is a god, but Labour leader Elmer seems to believe it too. He thinks the First Minister is responsible for the weather. Maybe that’s not quite fair. Mr Fudd is entitled to raise questions about what the Government is doing to cope with conditions. But Fudd has form on pettiness, and that’s how this came across.

With that peculiar starry twinkle he gets in his left eye, Elmer said the Scottish people expected the Government to do its bit. What it had not expected was to hear John Swinney, the finance secretary (with fiscal responsibility for folk gettin‘ aboot), saying on national radio that the nation’s pavements were perfectly walkable.

Wow, controversial or what?

Of course, it depends where you are. You can hardly inch forward in fake furry wellies up my suburban street but, down town, you can pirouette and do the can-can if you fancy. Still, there was no doubt that, in general, the pavements were bad.

Eck slid forward into the spotlight and fumed (he was in one of his fuming moods) that Big John had been doing more than his galootish counterpart in London. He said the Scottish minister for transport (not sure who he meant here: Mr S, the finance secretary with transport in his fiscal remit or – presumably – Stewart Stevenson, the, er, minister for transport) had been working on Christmas Day, while his counterpart in that London had been on a skiing holiday.

Fudd persisted, saying walking conditions were impossible for the elderly, and criticising information available on websites and whanot. The First Eck listed from the Government site all the weather helpline numbers, health advice, help for old older people, and all the stuff that Fudd had been greeting aboot.

As for salt and grit, they’d been “husbanding” that for future provision (I wish they’d husband some of it down our street). Rubbing salt in the wound, Eck said Labour cooncil leaders understood that, even if Fudd did not.
Fudd said the news section of the Government’s website had only two new items: one urging elderly people to get outdoors in 2010 – ha, a good ironic point by the Labour leader – the other reminding citizens to feed the garden birds.

Eck had printed off the website to forestall Fudd’s “misinformation” and duly brandished it aboot. It was, he said, similar to the UK Labour government’s website. And, again, he went through all the information available, adding for good measure that the last entry on the Scotland Office website was for 24 December. The Scotland Office, for those of you reading from abroad, is the colonial office run by Labour from London.

The First Eck, injecting real contempt into his voice, advised Elmer next time to “come to the chamber with something constructive to say”. Frankly, Fudd was left on his butt by all this and, interestingly, the Labour benches were not as hysterical as usual. Periodically, I think someone must tell them to put a sock in it, though they were perhaps just sedated with too much festive pud.

God knows what Annabel had been on. Hash maybe. Because that’s what the Tory leader made of things. And when I say hash, of course, I’m referring to the corned beef variety. Ms Goldie – democratic duchess, official spinster to the nation, all-round good egg – wanted to know which minister was in overall charge, a good point, given their confusingly crossed portfolios.

Eck said: “I’m in charge.” Glad we cleared that one up. He added that crims on community service – a concept the Tories dislike – were out clearing the pavements. “If the Conservative Party had their way then, instead of these community service people working the length and breadth of Scotland, they’d be safely tucked up in prisons with three square meals a day and central heating.”

When Annabel asked why Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, was not in the chamber, even she knew immediately from Eck’s glee (I swear his wee fat legs did a dance under the table) that she’d made a gaffe. Quoth Eck: “Kenny MacAskill is in the kingdom of Fife, visiting and seeing for himself a community service order team clearing the streets.”

Thus 2010, so far, was proving itself to be a new year loosely based on the old year. Eck was so commanding it was embarrassing. You can’t draw party political conclusions from this, because he’s head and shoulders above anyone in his own ranks, too, except perhaps Mike Russell. But, really, this isn’t good for democracy.

It’s possible that he’s heading for a fall, which he will have if he lets all this turn his head. He’s on a roll already, but it’s easy to roll into a hole. Indeed, his ain cakehole might do for him. Eck has a penchant for political gambles, and over-optimistic flyers, such as his weakness for predicting the imminence of independence, most notably in rhyme.

Remember Scotland free by 2003? We might also have had: A nation once more by 2004. Scotland alive by 2005. Out of a fix by 2006. In nationalist heaven by 2007. It’s on a plate by 2008. Scotland fine by 2009. And now? If not 2010, when?

Further sketchings

About Fudd. When I first dubbed him Elmer Fudd, Labour leader Iain Gray was furious. I saw him having a fag (for American readers, just to make clear, this means having a cigarette) at one of the parliament’s staff entrances and went up to have a natter with him.

I’d had a beer with him before, as part of a big group going to a footer cup final – we support the same team – and in his pre-leader years he’d always been happy to say hello. The vast majority of MSPs, of all parties, usually are, and I certainly have fond memories of the former Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell – a genuinenly good bloke – who always liked a laugh, even though I mocked his cornflakes packet-shaped head mercilessly, and accused him often of talking bilge. Why, even Wendy “Hotlips” Alexander – Iain’s predecessor – still gives me a smile and a nod.

So I was a bit surprised when Iain started doing his nut. To be honest, I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying, apart from something about him representing Scotland more than I did. Then he beetled off back to his lair.

To be fair, the Fudd comparison is unflattering, but it is not a physical one. In terms of physical appearance, Iain has something of a Buzz Lightyear jawline, though it seems to be getting wider every week. D’you know the thing I mean? This peculiarly modern development of the face, reaching its apotheosis in racing driver David Coulthard, who surely must have trouble getting through doorways with his. Iain’s is getting like that.

But Buzz is far too heroic a moniker for Iain, and so I will continute to dub him Fudd. How did it come about? Quite simple. It was originally applied because his weekly, unsuccessful attempts to snare Eck Salmond, the First Minister, reminded me of cartoon character Elmer Fudd trying to catch Bugs Bunny. The name itself is beautiful in terms of comedy and, particularly reduced to its surname, bristles with brusque impertinence, as well as containing a certain thudding finality. Reason enough for it to remain, methinks.

Many viewers watching First Minister’s Questions on television must wonder: who is the besotted-looking burd sitting behind Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott? You get the feeling that, if Tavish’s bottom were to blow a raspberry, she would tape-record it and listen endlessly to it later.

Well, she is Alison McInnes, and she’s a member for North East Scotland. Beyond that, I know little of her, and am far too busy to do any research. However, gals (even guys) like that are worth their weight in gold televisually to any leader. Old-fashioned potentates could not ask for better, in terms of adulation.

Interesting to see a couple of beards sprouting, perhaps as protection against the cold. Ignoring the heavy growth on one or two female members, we note the new whiskeriness of Stewart Maxwell (SNP) and Jeremy Purvis (Lib Dem). Jeremy has flirted with facial fuzz before, but I cannot remember him going for the full monty like this. Interestingly, his leader, the aforementioned Tavish, was as clean-shaven as a baby, when normally his cheeks would be clad with fur at this time of year, as he prepares to take part In Up Helly Aa, the Viking festival in his Shetland constituency. Perhaps he is sending Jeremy. Jeremy Skullsplitter. Has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?