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The Tale of the Lonesome Pines

Gosh, we are becoming an imperious nation. The mighty Scots Pine has just been declared our national tree. The Scottish Parliament is considering making the Golden Eagle our national bird. We already have the lion rampant. I hate to think what insect we might choose as a national emblem…the praying mantis perhaps. Thank goodness for the humble thistle.

Silver Birch Came well down the list

Silver Birch
Came well down the list

The Scots Pine came top of a consultation exercise carried out by the parliament’s petitions committee, well ahead of the rowan and the holly.The silver birch, my favourite candidate, came well down the list. I can only think this is because of the Scots Pine’s grandeur. They are not unique to Scotland. We don’t have that many of them, we are down to our last 250 million (around 8 per cent of our woodland). We chopped most of them down, remember, when we felled the ancient Caledonian forest.

They are only called Scots Pines because they do not grow naturally in England. But they are native to much of northern Europe, from Spain to Siberia. In Norway they are called the Norway Pine, in Mongolia the Mongolian Pine. Besides, they are not nice-looking trees. They are scraggy below and bushy on top. They don’t turn golden in autumn or light green in spring. They don’t sway in the wind or give shelter to much wildlife. And, like most of us these days, they live too long.

The Golden Eagle too is a worrying statement of national aggrandisement. The Conservative MEP Jackson Carlaw reminded us this week that the eagle was a symbol of the Roman invaders and the Nazis. He suggests we should adopt instead the cheery little Robin. The late Helen Eadie, MSP for Cowdenbeath, once championed the cause of the pigeon, though she called it the “dove of peace.”

Golden Eagle Scotland's favourite wild creature

Golden Eagle
Scotland’s favourite wild creature

The merciless Golden Eagle came top of a poll carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, not just as our favourite national bird, but our favourite animal, beating the red squirrel, the red deer, the otter and the harbour seal. And, again, way down the list came some of my favourites, the puffin, the pine marten and the wildcat.

I’m left wondering if this is the sort of country I want to live in. It’s a question constantly on the lips of the referendumistas these days. And there was plenty for them to obsess about this week. The Governor of the Bank of England (and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland incidentally ) came north to meet the First Minister to discuss his plans for a currency union after independence.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

This cool Canadian, Mark Carney, hinted vaguely that Scotland would have to sacrifice some of its financial sovereignty if a sterling zone was to avoid the problems the euro zone had been experiencing. The pro-union side took that to mean that an independent Scotland would have to accept whatever interest rate, debt level and tax-and-spend plans the Treasury in London might dictate. Mr Salmond read it rather differently – it was the Governor of the Bank of England accepting that independence could happen and that “technical discussions” could get under way about how a sterling zone would work. There would be no question however of an independent Scotland having its tax or spending plans dictated by London.

The Scottish government has meanwhile been making economies of its own this week. It announced that the number of police control rooms are to be cut from 11 to 5 and fire control rooms from 8 to 3. The fire brigade union said it will be “a disaster” for the north of Scotland but the government says it will lead to a more efficient service. The changes will be phased in over the next five years and there will no compulsory redundancies.

Mike Russell Attacked UK immigration rules

Mike Russell
Attacked UK immigration rules

The education secretary Mike Russell also breezed into the independence debate this week with a tirade against the UK immigration rules. He said they were preventing Scottish universities attracting valuable graduate students from India, China etc. He accused the Westminster government of being driven by xenophobia and the fear of UKIP. But an opinion poll in The Scotsman earlier in the week showed that more than half of Scots favour new limits on immigration. And I havn’t heard the Scottish government offering to take in refugees from Syria.

While on opinion polls, it’s perhaps worth recording what looks like a decisive shift in favour of independence. An ICM poll in Scotland on Sunday shows the Yes camp on 37 per cent, up 5 from last autumn. And when the 19 per cent undecided are excluded, the figure rises to 46 per cent. It’s being seen as a vindication of the SNP’s white paper putting the emphasis on child care.

I hope the children of Shetland were safely tucked up in bed on Tuesday night, as the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations saw the streets of Lerwick invaded once again by the Vikings. The Jarl Squad, a fearsome looking bunch of men in beards, threw their flaming torches into the traditional longboat and pushed it out to sea. Apparently in Norse mythology, the eagle was a symbol of strength and I guess the longboats were built of good Norway Pine. So perhaps our choice of national emblems is a sign that we are following our North Sea neighbours and heading for independence.

SNP MSPs en masse, 7 May 2011

SNP MSPs en masse, 7 May 2011

By James Browne

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond met his new parliamentary colleagues today – some of them for the first time.

“I’d like to say I knew everybody in the new group,” Mr Salmond said, “but I signed an autograph for one a moment ago and I thought they were a member of the public.”

Mr Salmond held a photocall with all the other 68 SNP MSPs on the grass ouside the Holyrood parliament, before the first parliamentary group meeting which was designed to set out the priorities for the SNP in government.

Mr Salmond talked through various issues with the prime minister, David Cameron, on the telephone and hopes to secure coalition backing for an extension to the powers of the Scottish parliament through the Scotland Bill as his first and most immediate priority.

msps03

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snp1In a major new campaign initiative, First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday launched the Scottish Futures Fund – a £250 million fund, paid for by savings secured by the SNP Government from the Forth Replacement Crossing project.

The Scottish Government had included in its budget planning £1.87 billion of spending on the Forth Replacement Crossing between now and 2016, but thanks to negotiation and procurement, and the work of the Scottish Futures Trust, the cost of the bridge has been reduced to £1.54 billion.

If re-elected, an SNP Government intends to invest savings from the Forth Replacement in a £250 million Scottish Futures Fund initiative. The Futures Fund will support five key projects of £50 million each in order to strengthen Scotland’s society and economy and prepare the nation for the challenges of the future. The five futures projects will be:

• Young Scots Fund
• Next Generation Digital Fund
• Sure Start Fund
• Warm Homes Fund
• Future Transport Fund

Publishing the Scottish Futures Fund initiative – and setting out the Sure Start Fund – Mr Salmond said:

“The new Forth Crossing is our bridge to better times. The largest construction project in Scotland’s history, it will support 3,000 jobs and ensure connectivity between north and south.

“The bridge will also help deliver a Scotland that is fairer, stronger and greener. Thanks to skillful negotiation and procurement, and the work of the Scottish Futures Trust, the SNP government has achieved substantial savings on the cost of the crossing. We intend to invest these savings in a £250 million Scottish Futures Fund.”

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Mr Salmond also welcomed news that Alexander Dennis Limited – the Falkirk-based bus manufacturer – is to build over 160 vehicles for FirstGroup which means that in recent weeks the company has secured orders for over 500 buses, worth in the region of £100 million.

Visiting the company yesterday, the First Minister said:

“This is great news for Falkirk and Scotland. The success of Alexander Dennis shows what can be achieved with a positive and confident attitude about the future.

“The jobs they have secured show that will mean increased investment which can mean the strengthening of Falkirk’s and Scotland’s economic position. It is companies like Alexander Dennis which can help Scotland’s economic recovery. Protecting and delivering jobs as the Scottish economy recovered is a key part of the SNP’s economic strategy and this contract does just that.

“The work force at Alexander Dennis are very dedicated and I have no doubt they will be delighted at this announcement.”

The SNP has also yesterday signed up to NUS Scotland’s Reclaim Your Voice campaign, committing to:

1. Improve student support
2. Protect graduate numbers and college places
3. Rule out tuition fees.

The campaign is calling on every candidate standing for election to go beyond election promises to make cast-iron commitments to students.

Commenting after he signed up to the commitments Education Secretary and SNP Candidate for Argyll & Bute, Michael Russell, said:

“At this election, I am proud to stand on the SNP’s record of restoring free education in Scotland and proud to sign the NUS pledge to keep it that way.”

Alex Salmond <em>Picture: Harris Morgan</em>

Alex Salmond Picture: Harris Morgan

Alex Salmond launched the SNP’s Scottish election campaign today with a warning that his party would need 40 per cent of the vote to beat Labour.

The SNP leader said that the expected collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote and the probable inability of the Tories to make gains would mean that the threshold for victory will be even steeper than usual.

The Nationalists won the 2007 election on 33 per cent of the vote and Mr Salmond warned his activists that a similar figure would not be enough this time.

He said: “We will need 40 per cent to win this election.”

Mr Salmond portrayed the contest as a straight fight between the SNP and Labour to win over the collapsing Lib Dem vote with the first party to hit the 40 per cent mark the likely winner.

He said: “This time we have to campaign with the objective of securing 40 per cent of the vote. The recent polls show us within touching distance of that objective.

“Polls show us four per cent higher in the vote now than when we were elected, and the contest as we go into the campaign is neck and neck.”

Speaking to a launch meeting of activists and candidates in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond insisted that the SNP had “nothing to fear” from the campaign.

He stressed that he loved elections and campaigns but he still tried to portray his party as the underdogs, arguing that this was an election which the party could win, rather than suggesting that it was an election the party would win.

Mr Salmond declared: “There is no question that this is a time of great pressure for many, many people in Scotland but it is also a time of political opportunity.”

The SNP leader added: “We will work hard over the next 43 days to win re-election from the people of Scotland, confident in the knowledge that we have the team, the record and the vision to take this nation forward.

“What is going to make the difference is the confidence we have, our belief in what we’ve done, in what we still have to do and in our future. That will make the difference, that will take this government to re-election and this nation to independence.”

Gray: Salmond ‘deceiving’ voters
Launching his party’s campaign in Edinburgh East, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: “It’s only day one of the election campaign and already Alex Salmond has been desperately trying to deceive voters.

“The facts speak for themselves and people won’t be fooled by his attempt to spin a web of deceit.

“Scotland deserves a better government. For the past four years the SNP has broken over a hundred promises and wasted too much time pushing for independence.

“Labour will focus on what really matters like jobs and growing the economy. That’s the message I’ll be taking to voters over the next 48 hours as I continue my tour of battleground seats.”

Iain GrayWhat do you do if, through your own polling, you find something which might prove uncomfortable for your opponent? If you are Alex Salmond and your opponent is Iain Gray, you sit on it.

Why? Because the SNP leader has decided that any publicity, however much it might embarrass the Scottish Labour leader in the short term, would raise his profile and that‘s not what he wants to do.

As is the case with every major party these days, the SNP conducts opinion polling of its own. The questions are often more specific than in major, public opinion polls because the party concerned wants to discover public attitudes to particular issues and politicians.

The SNP polled across Scotland on the relative public profiles of Mr Salmond and his Labour opponent, Mr Gray.

The results were startling. They surprised even the more experienced members of the SNP campaign team. They showed that almost everyone knew who Mr Salmond was but, for Mr Gray, public recognition was embarrassingly low.

What to do with results? There was a move by some in the SNP to make the results public, to embarrass Mr Gray by showing just how anonymous he is in Scotland.

This short-term political hit was dismissed by Mr Salmond who decided, after some of the newspapers had been sounded out about the idea, that the results would not be released.

He didn’t do it to save his opponent from a political bashing, nor because he wanted to conduct the debate on a higher intellectual plane. He did it because he didn’t want to be responsible for even the smallest breath of publicity going the way of his Labour opponent.

It is better to keep Mr Gray out of the papers, the SNP leader reasoned, then put him in the papers – even in an embarrassing way.
And this is the way the SNP is going to operate until polling day in May. Don’t mention Mr Gray unless you have to and never give him a platform to build his profile. SNP managers know that, in Mr Salmond, they have the most recognisable politician in Scotland and, in a tight race, that could be one of the deciding factors.

It is true that Mr Gray is in a difficult position. He is the first Scottish Labour leader to go into an election since devolution without the status and recognition that office brings.

Donald Dewar was Scottish Secretary when he fought the election in 1999. Jack McConnell was First Minister when he fought the elections of 2003 and 2007.

Mr Salmond was not the incumbent when he won in 2007 but he had been in front-line politics for 20 years or more so was well known to the voters.

Mr Gray doesn’t have that advantage but, more than that, he is fighting someone in Mr Salmond who boasts 90 per cent or more public recognition (according to a straw poll in The Scottish Daily Mail today).

It is always difficult, fighting an incumbent in office but more so when that person is very well known and you are not. But Labour don’t – as yet – seem to have done anything to try to change this imbalance. Mr Gray’s speech at last year’s Scottish Labour conference was the first real attempt to get across the personal, the passionate and the committed sides to his character.
However, no-one really watched that speech outside the Scottish political village, where everyone knows who he is anyway. The task for Labour is to try to raise Mr Gray’s profile with ordinary voters because they haven’t done much good at that so far.

A Daily Mail reporter asked voters outside Mr Gray’s constituency office in East Lothian whether they knew who he was and only eight out of twenty recognised his picture – while 19 out of 20 recognised Mr Salmond. If he can’t score better than that in the heart of his own constituency, then he really is in trouble.

SNP strategists know this which is why this campaign, for them, will be all about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists know this as well, which is why their campaign will be about everything except Mr Salmond.
As a result, we are set for a strange personality campaign which will be all about Mr Salmond from one side but not about Mr Gray and all about Mr Gray from the other side and not about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists believe that their man will benefit from the leaders’ debates, and they may be right. These events tend to favour the challenger, not the incumbent, because it puts both on an equal footing – at least for the duration of the debate.

Mr Gray will be able to raise his profile during those debates but will have to hope that he also is seen as combative and competent enough to score a draw with Mr Salmond in the content of the debates as well.

If he isn’t, then no amount of publicity or profile raising will off-set the boost Mr Salmond will get from winning the debate itself.
It has been a good week for the SNP. First, the £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, then a poll in The Times yesterday giving the Nationalists a lead over Labour which would see them back in charge of the Scottish Government.

As a result, the election race is wide open. If they haven’t realised it already, Labour strategists should know by now that they are in a real fight to win the election in May. They also know that Labour in general and Mr Gray in particular have to start fighting if they are not to lose their second contest in a row to the SNP.

Alex Salmond. <em>Picture: Harris Morgan</em>

Alex Salmond. Picture: Harris Morgan

By Alex Salmond

In his New Year Message, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, called for economic independence and the power for Scotland to determine its own destiny. Mr Salmond delivered the message from Edinburgh, where thousands of revellers will be taking part in the capital’s world famous Hogmanay celebrations this evening.

“New Year is a time of ringing out the old and bringing in the new.

“The old year saw extraordinary weather conditions, the worst for a hundred years, but it also saw extraordinary community spirit which carried Scotland through the worst winter weather in living memory. The efforts of thousands of individuals to help their fellow human beings was an inspiration to me and made me proud to be First Minister of Scotland.

“There are many other things we can be proud of in Scotland today.

“I am proud of the fact that this year, a record 87 percent of our youngsters are moving into education, jobs or training. That’s a record Scotland can be proud of.

“I am delighted and proud that we as a Government are helping families by freezing the Council Tax for the fourth successive year and by abolishing prescription charges. These are tough times, and every help for families is absolutely necessary.

“We, as a country, are having to withstand an onslaught of extraordinary cutbacks led by Westminster and we, as a country, are having to defend our public services against that onslaught.

“But Scotland has lots of potential and therefore lots of opportunities. Leading that is the extraordinary resource opportunity in Scotland. Not only the oil and gas which, at some stage, we’ll get control of the revenues for Scotland, but also the new renewables revolution.

“This coming year, Scotland will generate a third of our electricity from renewable energy. But the story is not going to stop there. In the future we will generate up to ten times the electricity that we need in the waters around Scotland. We will sell electricity across Europe and become the green powerhouse of the continent, and in the process generate tens of thousands of jobs for Scotland.

“Our water industry in Scotland also has enormous potential. We have taken it for granted for a generation and more. But now Scottish Water – in the public sector, in the people’s hands – is emerging as a powerful company, doing a range of things, not just domestically, but internationally as well. Building a hydro economy is an important ambition for the resources of Scotland.

“But the real resource of this country is its people. And it’s the people that matter in 2011, because 2011 is going to be a year of decision for Scotland. We know what the future holds if we stay in our present circumstances with the big economic decisions dictated by London.

“We would face a generation and more of continued cutbacks in our public services. Even if we withstand that and campaign against it, there will be threat after threat.

“But there is an alternative, there is another option, and that’s why there is a decision to be made.

“That option is to gain economic independence and control which will enable us to mobilise these great resources of Scotland, apply them to the human resources of the people of Scotland, and generate growth and wealth in our own economy.

“That’s the decision we will have in 2011. We can either have a better future for our country, or we can have a generation of fighting against London control.

“It’s a decision I look forward to, it’s a decision I am confident about, because when all is said and done, the people will make the right choice for Scotland.

“Have a Guid New Year.”

Photo by: Raymond Larose

Photo by: Raymond Larose

Crank up that DeLorean, Doc, as we go Back to the Futures Trust – part 47.

Most of us are past caring, but “Scottish” Labour leader Elmer Fudd, under the stage-name Iain Gray, remains obsessed.

At First Minister’s Queries in Parliament yesterday, he complained of the Scottish Futures Trust: “It has actually raised no money, built no bridges, no hospitals and no schools.” But, still, at least it was supposed to end the need for expensive consultants. Could the First Minister of All Scotia tell us how it was doing on that?

Ecksworth Salmond, the FMAS under advisement, said the trust was involved in billions of pounds of capital projects and had saved the country hundreds of millions that Comrade Fudd would have squandered under his beloved Private Finance Initiative.

Fair enough, said Fudd – well, not quite – but he added: “If the Scottish Futures Trust is so efficient and so cheap, why has it spent £872,000 on consultants last year?”

Good question, one supposes. Of course, the consultants could be doing valuable work, but that is unheard of, and most folk tend towards the definition of a consultant as someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time.

Comrade F wasn’t finished there. He turned next to Skills Development Scotland, which “regular viewers” knew liked to spend money on stage hypnotists and rebranding. Er, wasn’t that last point untrue, as it turned out? Never mind. Facts, good story and all that. “Would the First Eck like to hazard a guess how much this organisation has spent on external consultancy fees?”

Eck went back to the Futures Trust, which was supporting projects worth £7.3 billion. He listed some of these, before adding: “So ‘regular viewers’ around Scotland might know what’s at risk from the Labour Party’s absurd proposal to abolish the Scottish Futures Trust.”

As for the SDS, it had delivered 20,000 apprenticeships, one third more than achieved by Labour in office.

Elmer retorted: “Presiding orifice, here’s a tip for the First Eck: he has to give the answer to question one after question one, not find it after question two and give it anyway.” Right. Well, glad we cleared that one up.

“Of course,” he added, “I welcome the 20,000 apprenticeships.” [Loud Nat cheering]. But, said Fudd, we could have had another 1,500 apprenticeships for the £2.3 million SDS spent on consultants. He added: “Just for the record, can the First Minister tell us how much Scotttish Enterprise spent on consultants last year?”

Eck said that, if Comrade Fudd welcomed the 20,000 apprenticeships so much, why had he voted against the budget that provided them?

Fudd said, this time, Eck had answered a question he hadn’t even asked, and averred – correctly, I suspect – that Eck didn’t know the answer. “I will tell him: it’s £21 million.” Merr millions. Asked Elmer: “Is the First Minister driving this gravy train or is he just a passenger?”

Eck dodged across the tracks, only to find “Scottish” Tory leader Annabel Goldie shunting this observation into his path: “Presiding orifice, the First Eck is a passionate advocate for the independence and autonomy of the governance of Scotland.” She said this as if it were a bad thing. The “governance of Scotland” – sounds like the subject of a colonial memo.

Annabel wanted to know why, given such passionate advocacy, Eck was so opposed to independence and autonomy for schools. Eh? What a daft question. For a start, it’s so easily turned around: if you’re so passionate about independence for schools, why are you so opposed to it for your country?

Eck said his administration was looking at all sorts of loony ideas and had ruled nothing out. He added: “I have never quite understood the attachment of the Conservative Party to what has been described as the Swedish model in education. If you look at the comparative performance of Sweden and Scotland, it is roughtly similar.”

Eh? Then how come Sweden isn’t a production line for moronic neds like Scotland is? Eck revealed that education secretary Michael Russell was “more attracted to the Finnish model” – yes, that’s what I’d heard.

He added: “If you’re looking for an international comparison, then you should look to the model that is most impressive, as opposed to looking at one that might be considered somewhat mediocre.” Er, isn’t that the “mediocre” performer that’s doing just as well as Scotland? Whoops!

Annabel replied coquettishly: “Well, I realise I’m no competion for Swedish models.” Och Annabel, always so modest. She said that, while Michael was open to ideas, Eck was the one with his “feet stuck in the mud, head buried in the sand” – hell’s bells, what kind of terrain was this? Portobello when the tide was out and the sewage in? She added that, among all these somersaulting metaphors, Eck had “Mike Russell on a leash”.

Michael and Ecksworth laughed raucously, and Annabel added: “Perhaps that should be Jack Russell.”

Eck congratulated Annabel “on embracing the obvious model analogy, which I was gallantly and chivalrously trying not to lead her into”. As for canine analogies, he said that “to describe Mike Russell in the terms she suggested is rather underestimating his abilities”. True enough. I’ve seen him master a strategy document while peeing on a lamppost at the same time.

Eck added: “I would rather have a Scottish terrier like Mr Russell than the lapdogs on the Tory benches.” Oh, woof-woof!

“Scottish” Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott complained that a quango called NHS Education for Scotland had sent eight people to a conference in Miami. He held up a poster depicting a palm tree on a sunny beach.

Hmm. Sounded like a fair point. But it’s not as if Eck sent them personally. And it might have been a worthwhile conference. Would it have made any difference if it were in rainy Berlin or grey Prague? Aren’t hotel prices etc cheaper in Miami than, say, Scandinavia?

Eck said the conference was about medical competence and training, and riffed about how all the highly paid bods in the NHS were on contracts put in place by the Lib Dems when in coalition with Labour.

Tavish retorted petulantly: “That’s his standard answer to everything I ever say in this chamber.”

Eck: “Aw, shut up.”

No, what he really said was: “If Mr Scott doesn’t like the answers to the question then he shouldn’t open up the examination of the deplorable record of the Liberal Democrats in government in the past in Scotland and, of course, the extraordinary record of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in London.”

Yup, it’s a conundrum for the young Liberal lad. If he has a petard about his person, he might as well just hoist himself up on it.

Alex Salmond. <em>Picture: Harris Morgan</em>

Alex Salmond. Picture: Harris Morgan

Alex Salmond emerged as the narrow winner of the live Scotland election debate this morning – partly because he was the most assured and experienced performer and partly because of a concerted assault on Jim Murphy by the three other party spokesmen which left the Scottish Secretary struggling on a range of issues.

Mr Salmond’s confident performance was expected at the televised Sky debate from The Hub in Edinburgh but both David Mundell, the Conservative spokesman, and Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat did much better than anticipated.

Mr Mundell came out with the best put-down of the debate. Mr Salmond had just revealed that he was on a ‘b’ list for the Pope’s visit, along with Wayne Rooney, the England footballer.

“Wayne Rooney probably has as many substantive policies for Scotland as Alex Salmond,” was Mr Mundell’s quick retort, bringing laughter from the audience at the First Minister’s expense.

Mr Carmichael was the only one to show real passion, when he got worked up over the war in Iraq, berating Mr Murphy for the Labour government’s failure to show “even the decency of counting” the number of Iraqi dead.

This reflected a key theme of the debate. Mr Murphy found himself pushed into a corner trying to defend the actions of the Labour Government over the past 13 years.

Many of the examples were difficult ones for Mr Murphy to answer, including the Iraq War, the expenses scandal, today’s spoof memos from the Foreign Office over the Pope’s visit, the recession and the imbalance of the constitution.

It was almost as if Mr Mundell and Mr Carmichael had learned from last week’s STV debate when they allowed the Scottish Secretary to clear a run. This time they pounced on every opportunity to tear into him.

Mr Mundell used the effective argument several time that Labour had had 13 years to fix the problems and was now asking for even more time.

Mr Carmichael delivered a particularly good hit early on when, on the issue of immigration, he said he had been appalled by the Prime Minister’s phrase “British jobs for British workers”.

This brought a cheer from the audience and Mr Murphy had to try to dodge the question, making a half-hearted joke about his family’s immigrant past but he could do nothing to answer the point itself.

Mr Salmond appeared the more statesmanlike of the three simply by not getting involved in the shouting matches against Mr Murphy and really started to perform well on the economy.

He used the platform to launch an appeal for independence and listing a whole series of things he would cut. He was cheered as he decried Trident, the House of Lords, ID cards and the Scotland Office – all of which he said he would cut.

Mr Salmond was solid on Iraq, Afghanistan and youth unemployment and even managed to get through the tricky issue of the so-called “Arc of Prosperity” (Ireland, Iceland and Norway) which Mr Mundell condemned as the “Arc of Insolvency”.

Mr Salmond hit back by using the example of Norway, moving it on to his favourite topic of oil and gas, and pointing out that Norway had done very well because it has used its oil and gas reserves.

Mr Carmichael was again more effective than expected on this issue, warning that an independent Scotland would have failed to cope with the collapse of its two biggest banks.

“We would have had two massive central banks with a small nation attached,” he said.

Mr Murphy did score one hard-hitting point on Mr Salmond when he demanded to know why the SNP leader had not voted for the national minimum wage in the Commons.

Mr Salmond argued that MPs never took part in every vote, which is true, but didn’t get him off the hook, particularly when Mr Murphy said that the votes had been through the night and accused Mr Salmond of sneaking off to his bed.

“Alex, you slept for Scotland. When it came to supporting the national minimum wage you were fast asleep in your bed,” he declared.

But it was Mr Salmond’s ability to rise above the spats involving the others which gave him the slight edge over the others. The argument on fuel prices was a good case in point, with Mr Salmond showing he could put across the intricacies of the fuel-price escalator well.

He also managed to turn it back on to oil, asking “Why, when we are one of the biggest producers in the world do we have some of the highest prices in the world? It is a rip off.”

The final question on the erosion of civil liberties summed up the difficulties that Mr Murphy faced throughout and the way his opponents exploited them.

All the parties – except Labour – opposed ID cards and the extension of the DNA database to catch criminals.

Mr Salmond appeared in control of the subject, using examples from the Scottish Parliament to pin Mr Murphy back. Mr Mundell and Mr Carmichael were better than expected, using their positions in opposition to question the actions of the Labour Government.

Indeed, Mr Carmichael was particularly effective – as expected given this was a question about civil liberties – when he said: “When we erode these freedoms we do the terrorists’ job for them.”

Against all these attacks, Mr Murphy had to defend the Labour Government’s moves on the ID cards and the extension of the DNA database, which he did as competently as he could but it was difficult given that all the other three were taking the other view.

Mr Murphy used his final speech to insist it was still a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories.

“It is Gordon Brown or David Cameron for Prime Minister,” he said, raising the spectre of a Britain back in the 1980s if the Tories won.

Mr Murphy didn’t manage to find the right camera to talk into at the end, a mistake none of his opponents made, which made him look a little distant to the audience at home.

Mr Mundell used a similar argument on the choice at the election, saying: “This election is about the future. This is a British General Election, this is about deciding who will be our British Government in London. It is about whether we have five more years of the same with Labour or change which only the Conservatives can deliver.”

Mr Carmichael also used the argument about change but said it was the Liberal Democrats who could deliver it.

“Lend us your vote and together that is what we can deliver,” he said, with the message that voters were not given but loaned to parties.

Mr Salmond was the best at speaking to the audience at home in this final appeal and he used his closing remarks to focus on the economy and his party’s determination to resist public sector cuts, an argument he believes has real resonance in Scotland.

Alex Salmond. <em>Picture: Harris Morgan</em>

Alex Salmond. Picture: Harris Morgan

Alex Salmond emerged as the narrow winner of the live Scotland election debate this morning – partly because he was the most assured and experienced performer and partly because of a concerted assault on Jim Murphy by the three other party spokesmen which left the Scottish Secretary struggling on a range of issues.

Mr Salmond’s confident performance was expected at the televised Sky debate from The Hub in Edinburgh but both David Mundell, the Conservative spokesman, and Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat did much better than anticipated.

Mr Mundell came out with the best put-down of the debate. Mr Salmond had just revealed that he was on a ‘b’ list for the Pope’s visit, along with Wayne Rooney, the England footballer.

“Wayne Rooney probably has as many substantive policies for Scotland as Alex Salmond,” was Mr Mundell’s quick retort, bringing laughter from the audience at the First Minister’s expense.

Mr Carmichael was the only one to show real passion, when he got worked up over the war in Iraq, berating Mr Murphy for the Labour government’s failure to show “even the decency of counting” the number of Iraqi dead.

This reflected a key theme of the debate. Mr Murphy found himself pushed into a corner trying to defend the actions of the Labour Government over the past 13 years.

Many of the examples were difficult ones for Mr Murphy to answer, including the Iraq War, the expenses scandal, today’s spoof memos from the Foreign Office over the Pope’s visit, the recession and the imbalance of the constitution.

It was almost as if Mr Mundell and Mr Carmichael had learned from last week’s STV debate when they allowed the Scottish Secretary to clear a run. This time they pounced on every opportunity to tear into him.

Mr Mundell used the effective argument several time that Labour had had 13 years to fix the problems and was now asking for even more time.

Mr Carmichael delivered a particularly good hit early on when, on the issue of immigration, he said he had been appalled by the Prime Minister’s phrase “British jobs for British workers”.

This brought a cheer from the audience and Mr Murphy had to try to dodge the question, making a half-hearted joke about his family’s immigrant past but he could do nothing to answer the point itself.

Mr Salmond appeared the more statesmanlike of the three simply by not getting involved in the shouting matches against Mr Murphy and really started to perform well on the economy.

He used the platform to launch an appeal for independence and listing a whole series of things he would cut. He was cheered as he decried Trident, the House of Lords, ID cards and the Scotland Office – all of which he said he would cut.

Mr Salmond was solid on Iraq, Afghanistan and youth unemployment and even managed to get through the tricky issue of the so-called “Arc of Prosperity” (Ireland, Iceland and Norway) which Mr Mundell condemned as the “Arc of Insolvency”.

Mr Salmond hit back by using the example of Norway, moving it on to his favourite topic of oil and gas, and pointing out that Norway had done very well because it has used its oil and gas reserves.

Mr Carmichael was again more effective than expected on this issue, warning that an independent Scotland would have failed to cope with the collapse of its two biggest banks.

“We would have had two massive central banks with a small nation attached,” he said.

Mr Murphy did score one hard-hitting point on Mr Salmond when he demanded to know why the SNP leader had not voted for the national minimum wage in the Commons.

Mr Salmond argued that MPs never took part in every vote, which is true, but didn’t get him off the hook, particularly when Mr Murphy said that the votes had been through the night and accused Mr Salmond of sneaking off to his bed.

“Alex, you slept for Scotland. When it came to supporting the national minimum wage you were fast asleep in your bed,” he declared.

But it was Mr Salmond’s ability to rise above the spats involving the others which gave him the slight edge over the others. The argument on fuel prices was a good case in point, with Mr Salmond showing he could put across the intricacies of the fuel-price escalator well.

He also managed to turn it back on to oil, asking “Why, when we are one of the biggest producers in the world do we have some of the highest prices in the world? It is a rip off.”

The final question on the erosion of civil liberties summed up the difficulties that Mr Murphy faced throughout and the way his opponents exploited them.

All the parties – except Labour – opposed ID cards and the extension of the DNA database to catch criminals.

Mr Salmond appeared in control of the subject, using examples from the Scottish Parliament to pin Mr Murphy back. Mr Mundell and Mr Carmichael were better than expected, using their positions in opposition to question the actions of the Labour Government.

Indeed, Mr Carmichael was particularly effective – as expected given this was a question about civil liberties – when he said: “When we erode these freedoms we do the terrorists’ job for them.”

Against all these attacks, Mr Murphy had to defend the Labour Government’s moves on the ID cards and the extension of the DNA database, which he did as competently as he could but it was difficult given that all the other three were taking the other view.

Mr Murphy used his final speech to insist it was still a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories.

“It is Gordon Brown or David Cameron for Prime Minister,” he said, raising the spectre of a Britain back in the 1980s if the Tories won.

Mr Murphy didn’t manage to find the right camera to talk into at the end, a mistake none of his opponents made, which made him look a little distant to the audience at home.

Mr Mundell used a similar argument on the choice at the election, saying: “This election is about the future. This is a British General Election, this is about deciding who will be our British Government in London. It is about whether we have five more years of the same with Labour or change which only the Conservatives can deliver.”

Mr Carmichael also used the argument about change but said it was the Liberal Democrats who could deliver it.

“Lend us your vote and together that is what we can deliver,” he said, with the message that voters were not given but loaned to parties.

Mr Salmond was the best at speaking to the audience at home in this final appeal and he used his closing remarks to focus on the economy and his party’s determination to resist public sector cuts, an argument he believes has real resonance in Scotland.