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Ken McIntosh

Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. Picture: Anne Burgess

Tories usually look on Sweden with an expression of horror. Intelligent, progressive and humane, the Nordic nation stands for everything they detest. At least, that’s situation normal. However, abnormal developments are afoot, as the Swedes start to lose the plot and tinker with their “too good to be true” state.

This has attracted the attention of our impish Conservatives, ever eager to impose wrong and unnatural things on Scotia.

During an education debate in Holyrood yesterday, waspish Elizabeth Smith (Con) announced: “I hear on the grapevine that it is very difficult this weekend to get a flight to Scandinavia.” She seemed to be suggesting that most of the seats had been booked by Scottish ministers and Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott.

They were a bit late, she averred. Former Tory leader David “Taxi!” McLetchie had made the same flight years ago, and had learned all there was to know.

And what was that? Well, according to Elizabeth, the Swedes had improved their education system by giving parents the choice – ah, the “c” word; already I smell an “r” word – of different education providers. “They have got it right,” she hollered triumphantly. They were driving up standards rather than being content with the lowest common denominator. What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator? Never did me any harm.

It wasn’t just Sweden, she said. The Netherlands and Canada were also at it and they, like Sweden, are traditionally not very Tory-style countries (the conservatives in them are usually somewhere to the left of our Labour Party; mind you, isn’t everybody?).

Said Elizabeth: “I fully acknowledge that in Sweden it took eight years to convince a sceptical public that the new freedoms in the state sector would work.” She claimed that even socialists in these countries backed the system now. One fears that, in the matter of choice, they have no choice.

My view is that Sweden has started to lose its nerve in recent years. Traditionally light years ahead of the murky Europeans, it was nagged relentessly by followers of the so-called Anglo-Saxon, dog-eat-dog model of life to drop their progressive palaver and get real. One of the first casualties was the postal service, now privatised to a level of ludicrous inefficiency.

Now they were mucking up their schools, much to the Tories’ delight.

Elizabeth hollered: “Doing nothing is not an option.” Oh, don’t say that, gal. It’s only when politicians do something that all the trouble begins. Better to say: don’t just do something, sit there.

Education secretary Michael Russell acknowledged that he was going to Sweden, and indeed Finland, this weekend, to ask teachers there about strengths and weaknesses in their systems.

The aforementioned McLetchie rose and said: “Are schools in Finland and Sweden not closed at the weekend?” Mike let the laughter linger and acted as if he’d been caught out, before explaining that, while he was flying forth on Sunday afternoon, he’d be visiting the schools on Monday and Tuesday.

I like to think he’ll be going out on the piss on the Sunday night but I expect he’ll just sit in his room and keep telling himself: “I must not spend the taxpayers’ money.”

He rejected an accusation that he and Mr Spock look-alike Ken McIntosh (Lab) were having “a socialist love affair”. I’m not quite sure what that is. Do you have to queue for your conjugal rights? Are there forms to fill in? A tax on every snog? Whatever the case, Michael insisted there was nothing “x-rated” going on between him and the Vulcan.

However, he stunned the mob with this telling confession: “I was at a rather odd school.” You would never have guessed. Marr College, he said, was a grant-aided comprehensive. He said it admitted every child in Troon, but nobody from outside it, which sounded rather sinister. What had they to fear?

All this fearfully entertaining fare came to an end when top dullard Des McNulty (Lab) rose to drone. I wondered why the security guards were locking the doors and scurrying away. Even the pigeons on the roof flew off. He said he admired Sweden – it is, to be fair, a boring country – but was not impressed with the educational reforms.

In maths, he said, it had suffered the biggest drop in standards after Bulgaria. Maths. Bulgaria. Des. I was losing the will to live. I don’t mind Des being boring, but he’s double-boring because he keeps repeating his own words. At last, thankfully, he said: “I am at the end end of my time time.” Yeah, ta-ta, ta-ta. Don’t hurry hurry back back.

Bubbly Margaret Smith (Lib Dem) is always a breath of fresh air. She breenged in with a quotation from that Aristotle, to wit: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This was rather reminiscent of the definition of a gentleman: someone who can play the accordion, but chooses not to.

Margaret went on: “We have heard a lot about Swedish models.” Oh, talk to me about it. Really, don’t go there. In my experience, they just use you and break your heart.

Adenoidal Bill Aitken (Con) rose to declaim: “Presiding orifice, to paraphrase what they say in Yorkshire: when something is broke you do fix it.” I see. And your point, baldie? “All is not well in Scottish education.” Well, cripes, we know that. No one produces more neds and thickies than us. Even Bill referred to “childrens” at one point. I kids you not.

He said that he, “a boy from a poor area”, had gone to a grant-aided school that was so successful it was shut down by socialist Glaswegians. They didn’t want to hear about … aw, shurrup.

Christina McKelvie (SNP), declaring herself a fan of Swedish pop music, invited Elizabeth to “Take a Chance on Me” and embrace other Swedish models, such as progressive taxation. It was “Money, Money, Money” which funded their education system, and she was sure John “Super Trouper” Swinney would love to pump millions into Scottish education. I’m getting an image of the accountant-style finance secretary dancing and snapping his fingers. Most distressing.

Karen Whitefield (Lab), who speaks like a four-year-old, described Sweden as “the country for which the Tories want us all to look”. Aw, isn’t it sweet to hear them struggling with the language? By next year, when Karen starts attending school, I’m sure she’ll be chorusing with the rest of us: “Du gamla, Du fria, Du fjällhöga nord/Du tysta, Du glädjerika sköna!” That’s from the Swedish national anthem. It’s a song I know well. It means: “Du-doobie, du-doobie, doobie-doobie-du.”

There is nothing the threat of losing one’s seat to focus the mind hence the unusual amount of scrabbling around for support among Labour MSPs in the west of Scotland.

The boundary commission has decided there should be changes for the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2011. As a result, some constituencies are losing wards to other seats, some are going altogether and others are merging.

Ken McIntosh, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire has always stood up proudly for his constituents. He has defended them to the hilt. That is until now when the boundary changes threaten to strip him of his natural constituency.

The Caledonian Mercury has been passed a letter which Mr McIntosh is sending out to Labour supporters in the new constituency of South Renfrewshire, which contains about 40 per cent of Mr McIntosh’s old constituency of East Renfrewshire, which is disappearing.

Mr McIntosh appeals to Labour activists there to support him in the selection contest for the seat. That’s great but it may not go down too well with his parliamentary colleague Hugh Henry, the current MSP for Paisley South.

Paisley South is also disappearing and Mr Henry too has about 40 per cent of a territorial interest in the new East Renfrewshire constituency. Mr Henry could go for the new seat of Paisley, but that has, apparently been earmarked for Paisley North MSP Wendy Alexander.

As a result Mr Henry is understood to be also looking greedily at the South Renfrewshire nomination but he will have to be quick if he is going to match the speed of Mr McIntosh who has set the early pace in this race. This is going to be a straight fight between two long-standing parliamentary colleagues so it could get very nasty.

So, the game of Scottish Labour musical chairs looks like this: Ken McIntosh is trying to move from East Renfrewshire to South Renfrewshire, Hugh Henry is also trying to get the South Renfrewshire nomination, moving on from his current place in Paisley South. Wendy Alexander is trying to move from Paisley North to Paisley and Trish Godman from Renfrewshire West to North Renfrewshire.

Got it?

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t. The only thing to remember is that with Scottish Labour politics in west and central Scotland nothing is ever easy.

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.