Oh yes, it was a year marked by cronyism, corruption, and ignorance. But enough of journalism.
The parliament, on the other hand, did rather well.
Once more, it was a beaconof light and reason besieged by dark forces. Last year, the homophobes; this year, the fox-manglers.
The year ended with 10,000 right-wing English toffs and one crofter (Drunk Harry from Castlemilk Half-Acre) marching on the Mound. They shall not prevail.
For our MSPs are, by and large, a fine body of chaps and birds with a good record of standing up to bullies and sketch writers. OK, your correspondent gently lampoons them. But that’s my job, and lampooning is an essential part of the democratic process.
May I be permitted, therefore, to cock a snook at all the anti-Scottish, colonial types who seek to cite such lampooning in their evil cause? Good. Consider their snooks cocked.
Anyhoo, here are some offerings from the year. Pour yourself an extra large sherry and sit back as we offer you an indigestible selection of fruit cakes. Oh, and do masticate slowly.
SPOOKILY enough, one of the first fellows to come to your sketch-writer’s attention was Jack McConnell. Back in those halcyon days, he was merely the minister of education.
Bathed in a golden glow, Jack recalled his early years as a teacher, which oral history Michael “Statesman” Russell denounced as vacuous.
“A happy New Year to you too,” grinned Jack.
Henry McLeish was First Minister back then and he rose majestic as a hippo on skates to address the controversial notion of leading a “Scottish government ”.
“Can I make it quite clear,” he said, and the nation braced itself for obfuscation,” we have no plans to change the name of the Scottish executive as it stands in the Scotland Act – because we don’t need to. We are a government.” Whoo-hoo.
But John Swinney, leader of the Pictish patriotic forces, protested: “Isn’t it an open question whether Henry McLeish is governing Scotland or London is governing Henry McLeish?” Replied our Hen: “There is that diktat (he meant dictum) that the old ones are the best.”
Just so, and time for us to take a leak before going any further. Tricia Marwick (SNP) does not like this sort of thing.She complained, in her Dundonian drawl, that a ministerial statement had been leaked. “At 7: 30 this morning, there were details on Ceefax.” How sad. I forget what the leak was about. But for all I cared about at 7: 30 am, the details could have been trailed on Gail Porter’s butt.
Annabel Goldie (Con) would not know a butt if it hit in her face. But she knew what a leak looked like, and she didn’t like it, claiming grandly: “The authority of this institution had been impugned.” And somehow “institution” felt like the right word.
George Reid, another deputy presiding orifice, prevented Angus MacKay, finance minister, from making his already leaked statement. Well, all hell broke loose, with hatchet-faced Tom McCabe, the executive’s chief fixer, raining abuse on George’s innocent head. It had been, opined the latter,” a rather unhappy morning”.
The last big debate of the month featured Henry’s magnanimous plan not to charge old people for being incontinent.
It was an important test of the First Minister’s authority. Could Scotland go its own way or must it always level down to English standards? Even the Tories were prodding Henry to go for it.
Unfortunately, poor old Henry, the Tommy Cooper of politics, has onlookers pissing themselves as soon as he stands up.” I am totally committed,” he said, at one point. “You should be,” someone shouted. “At least, I’ve got more hair than you,” he told John Young (Con).
Ah, the cut and blow-dry of debate. Margaret Smith (Lib Dem) concluded: “We are the voice of our country.” Indeed.
And the voice says: “A-wibble, a-wibble.”
HAMSTER Wars, or First Minister’s Questions, saw John Swinney, one of the country’s foremost bespectacled men, ask Henry McLeish, a leading linguist, more about his strategy for senile incontinence.
Explained Henry: “When declare lock, stock and barrel, he can’t believe it.” When David “Shopkeeper” Davidson (Con) complained about Henry’s habit of swivelling around to address his own mob rather than parliament, Henry replied: “I would be happy to waste no time on that question and stare into the eyes of the member opposite.” Hmm.
Tommy Sheridan (Scottish Socialist), regarded by gals as the hunkiest Bolshevik since Gedamov Madeeryin, had his day in the sunbed with a debate on one of Scotland’s most controversial socioeconomic groups. Rich bastards.
Accusing Labour of insulting these fine folk by suggesting they would flee the country if his service tax were implemented, Tommy protested: “The patriotism of the rich is under attack here. Some of you are suggesting that Brian Souter, that patriotic Scot, would up sticks and leave.” On Valentine’s Day, Flash Jack, who could bluff his way into a nunnery with a fag hanging from his lips and a six-pack of Bud under his arm, was strutting his funky stuff.
In a ministerial statement called A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century, he almost acknowledged that our much vaunted education system was crap, producing more shaven-headed yobs and illiterate footballers than any other European nation.
At some stage, too, it producedHenry, who ended the month by tropping over his wirds again.
Declaring there was a word for Bruce Crawford (SNP), he said: “It begins with H and ends in Y.” “Henry!” shouted Margaret Ewing (SNP).
“Good point,” said Henry, crestfallen.
As usual, the place erupted in laughter.
He had meant “hypocrisy” but it was too late. Poor Henry. He meant well. At least, we think that’s what he meant.
FOOT-and-mouth saw the chamber sombre, united, even constructive. With a voice as deep as the pits of the dead, Captain Mainwaring (Ross Finnie), the only man who can swagger in a seated position, announced compensation measures.
Henry explained perspicaciously: “Let us be clear, we have a minister for the environment, Ross Finnie, and a deputy minister, Rhona Brankin”. Someone (SNP) shouted: “We’re done for!” “Looking ahead,” added Henry,” we want to see rural affairs in the context of the countryside.” Well, it’s a start.
Brian Wilson, the minister for something in England, accused Celtic people of not being delighted enough at the United Kingdom. He seemed to forget this was a local parliament for local people.
Sam Galbraith, the always improbable environment minister, decided it was not for him and handed in his dinner pail, leaving his oratorical abuses a mere wisp of memory in the parliament’s gothic rafters. Once, his testy rhetoric descended to the use of the word “bollocks”, which was a bit below the belt.
Phil Gallie (Con), thank goodness, showed no sign of retiring. He makes the parliament a gay place indeed. This month saw him talking about “group homosexual behaviour”,which he said he would like to try. In a court of law under the Death To Deviants (Scotland) Act 1652.
WENDY Alexander, the cuddly-looking but potentially deadly enterprise minister, gave it GBH of the ear hole about Motorola, an American mobile phone company that had legged it pronto, leaving its workforce listening to taped muzak and the promise: “Someone will help you shortly.” Rural fuel prices stoked the engines of outrage. Sandra White (SNP), to eloquence what JF Kennedy was to chastity, averred: “The rural areas have been crucified but so also has the urban areas also.
High fuel prices is a disgrace.” And sausages, no doubt, is the boys.
THE long arm of the law plucked short bottomed Phil Gallie (Con) to his feet, from which position he told the lieges there’d been a lot of crime in the 1980s.
Yes, agreed Comrade Tommy, specifying: “Jonathan Aitken, Dame Shirley Porter, Matrix Churchill.” Henry, meanwhile, had a stupid shot at the economy: “Under the Conservatives,” quoth he,” we saw a reduction in the number of small businesses. We remain committed to that as a priority.” When the general election was announced, the Tories got off to a flying start by unveiling a new billboard, which turned out to be an advert for Tesco.
Henry made the most of it, holding up a Tesco loyalty card and honking: “At least Tesco delivers. Somebody said tome: ‘What is the difference between Tory MPs and Tesco supermarkets?’ Answer: ‘At least you can find Tesco supermarkets’.” How we laughed.
Politely. David McL etchie retorted: “The next time I am in Tesco I will buy you a pound of mince.” Next minute, pie-faced William Hague arrived to chew the fat , announcing in Jimmy Clitheroe tones: “It’s time for common sense.” Common sense, of course, is what taxi drivers talk, and generally results in dissidents swinging from lampposts and football pitches being turned into outdoor detention centres.
William reminded us Westminster still decided most Scottish issues and complained about the Barnett Formula (money for Scotland multiplied by English whingeing equals the break-up of the United Kingdom).
Tony Blair, meanwhile, moseyed into Inverness to check The Biggest Hole in the Highlands, now the site for a mall. In a bizarre experiment, the PM was wired up so the press in a nearby cattle-pen could hear through loudspeakers what he was saying. This yielded nothing more controversial than a curious fascination with cranes, psychologically explained by a dreadful childhood incident with Meccano at Fettes.
After a visit to Aberdeen and the Balmoral Group, supplier of sewerage pods to the nation, he met “the people” at a school hall, where an entirely random cross-section of citizens mysteriously gave him a standing ovation before he even spoke. The following question-and-answer session was quite rigorous, though, with folk asking for many things (better pensions, higher wages, a pain-free health service) and Tony telling them not to get their hopes up.
Back in the cuddly parliament, meanwhile, Allan Wilson, minister for culture and fitba’, was ululating improbably about “Architecture and the Built Environment”.
Although he has the word “dense” written across his forehead in neon, here was Allan quoting John Ruskin, rather like a chimp smoking a pipe and pronouncing: “I say, I think I’m an existentialist.” Mr Russell praised Allan’s fascinating thesis, and asked who had written it.
Back in the real world – or, at least, Prestonpans – John “Two Jabs” Prescott shimmied in, shortly after two rounds with a mullet-headed oaf from the Fox-Manglers Alliance.
The media massed, hoping for more left-hooks, but only got Prezza bear-hugging Anne Picking, the local Labour candidate, who promised in her election leaflet “tough action against the yob culture”.
And here she was embracing it.
Robin Cook, meanwhile, was interrupted in Stirlingshire, during a peroration on the Azerbaijan situation, to answer controversial claims that he’d visited a therapist to exchange his voice for a less squeaky model. Robin whinnied this was “silly beyond belief”, and claimed: “I had bronchitis and that tends to give you a very deep, husky voice.” Somewhere in the background a glass shattered.
The Lib Dems arrived in Edinburgh in their big yellow bus with its catchy slogan “Seats 56 passengers”. Charlie Kennedy had been buzzing about the country like a bumble bee on Red Bull, which prompted someone to ask if he was not spreading himself a bit thin. “Me personally, no,” he said, as his paunch expanded and filled the room.
Tony Blair returned to Scotland for a lecture in Gorgie, where he said it was up to us whether we joined the euro. Thanks, mate. Unfortunately, in Scotland, most people hope any referendum paper will have a box marked “Not really bothered”.
A heckler shouted: “Why don’t you understand the Barnett formula?” It was, of course, a trick question. No one understands the Barnett formula. Even if you ask Mr Barnett himself, he feigns ignorance, saying: “What formula?” William Hague popped up in Glasgow or, at least, in Newton Mearns, an affluent East Renfrewshire suburb, to oversee personally the unveiling of MORE RAB, another billboard. Standing in the pouring rain, under a Keep the Pound brolly, he refused to discuss his controversial baldness but warned a yawning nation: “People of Britain, beware! Your country is being taken away from you!” Yeah, yeah. Dig the bald guy getting all excited.
SIR Malcolm Rifkind stood stick-legged on a platform, waving his insect head about, and declaring: “A great battlefield needs great generals.” And, lo, into Perth marched Yorkshire’s answer to Julius bleedin’ Caesar. “I am appealing to people this evening: lend us your vote,” begged William. Afterwards, as his crumbling audience waited to pat him on the pate, someone said: “He’s gone down the back passage.” Yes, it rather looked as if he had.
At last, election day dawned bright and bored. In Scotland, some eyes were on Sir Malcolm. Would the last remaining hope of Torydom survive? Nope.
It was Pliny the bleedin’ Elder (Lib Dem, Pompeii South) who observed: “Always something new out of Africa.” And, lo, something new from yon very continent turned up at the cuddly parliament.
Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, hallowed the halls of our fledgling democracy, adding another brick to the devolutionary edifice. Dame Gardenia Steel asked him to mark the “absence of wigs” in the chamber, causing Robert “Combover” Brown (Lib Dem) to shift uncomfortably in his seat.
A week later, another world leader, Bertie Ahern, the Irish teashop, turned up for his biscuits. Winnie Ewing (SNP) was furious that some eejit had erected a Union Flag in the chamber. But Bertie didn’t seem bothered, and went on to speak of everything we had in common: shaven-headed yobs, drug problems, the texture of our feckin’ languages.
The nation, meanwhile was gripped unpleasantly by the ongong debate about the cost of the new parliament.
Mike “Statesman” Russell called facetiously for “a consultant in feng shui”. The mystical theme was continued by a bird from the Scottish Inter Faith Council who took the opportunity during Wednesday’s regular Time To Repent to advise members to take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly let it go while saying the word “calm”. Sister Isabel Smyth told the mob she could sense excitement in the air, fuelling fears she had turned up at the wrong gig. But, no, she wanted them to wind down for its two-month summer break. Didn’t we all?
JULY TO AUGUST
KISS me quick, and pass the sunburn soother.
EVEN before we got back to the chamber, there was a furore. Tolls on the Erskine Bridge were suspended after Sarah Boyack, transport minister, or one of her civil servants, forgot to renew the licence for collecting tolls, which are necessary to cover the cost of collecting tolls. In the interest of science, your correspondent crossed the bridge 12 times, thereby saving 7.20.
The Tories, meanwhile, had their own bridge to cross, hoping to find a new leader on the other side. In Perth, they gathered to hear the rival claims of curdmudgeonly Ken Clarke and decent but dull Iain Duncan Smith.
Iain claimed voters had told the Tories: “No thank you.” Call me pedantic, but what they actually said was: “F*** off.” Ken, meanwhile, promised: “I am certainly not going to impose hard-line, right-wing English politics in Scotland.” I should think not. That’s Labour’s job.
Back in the fluffy parliament, the best tablecloth was oot to swear in a new member.
Murdo Fraser (Con) was said to be to the right of Phil Gallie, so I was surprised to see him out of uniform. After smearing his forehead with the woad and slapping each cheek with the Bannockburn haddock, Henry announced a load of bills, mainly stuff about getting married and stravaiging over the hills.
David McLetchie mocked Henry’s alliterative sloganising about compassion, competitiveness, and some other cobblers.
Said David: “There are other c words which describe this executive far better.” Hmm. Characters? On 13 September, two days after the Twin Towers terrorist attack in New York, parliament paid its respects. Henry quoted George Orwell: “No bomb that ever bursts can shatter the crystal spirit.” John Swinney said democratic values would prevail. David said the continued assertion of civilised values would be our most fitting memorial.
The sombre note continued next day with a debate about smacking children.
Nobody’s heart was in it. Iain Gray, deputy justice minister, said hundreds of children had been consulted. They said: “Please don’t hit us.” A week later, a troupe of clowns and freaks arrived to cheer us up.
Yup, the fox-manglers had come to town, insisting cruelty was the new kindness, and presenting the second serious threat to our nice wee parliament, after the Section 28 homophobes.
Michael “Statesman” Russell said a meeting of the sinister Countryside Alliance he’d attended had been like a rally of the League of Empire Loyalists from The Thirty-Nine Steps. As Murray Tosh (Con) repeatedly tried intervening in a speech by Alex Neil (SNP), the latter declared: “It’s like bein’ at hame: ye cannae get a wurd in edgeways.” The month ended with parliament becoming a word-worrying Tower of Babble.
Irene Oldfather (Lab) started it, during a debate on foreign-style languages, when she lapsed into fluent French, declaring, according to my translation: “These biscuits have no pedals. Allow me distinctly to twist (tweak?) your moist eyebrows hastily.” The French of Jamie McGrigor (Con) was equally execrable. He appeared to indicate his pants were full of prawns.
Ian Jenkins (Lib Dem) had a frank confession: “I have had a French mistress as a partner for 30 years.” Now we knew why he always looks so jolly.
LABOUR’S Brighton conference was a high security affair, with the hall turned into a fortress. Welcome to the future. Some things never change, though. Tom Sawyer’s chairmanship was as amusing as ever, particularly when calling speakers from the floor: “I want that man with the stick after you up there, with the glasses. And then we will be taking the woman with the big lollipop.” Tony Blair’s speech was perfectly pitched. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, with no time to faff about or joke. He was matter-of-fact. And he was annoyed. Tony is no Kissinger.
When children die at the hands of terrorists, he feels it deeply.
He recalled meeting families of British victims in New York: “It was in many ways a very British occasion. Tea and biscuits. It was raining outside. Around the edge of the room, strangers making small talk, trying to be normal in an abnormal situation.” Back on the Mound, Colin Boyd, Lord Advocate of this parish, introduced two reports into the Chhokar case, in which the prosecution botched the trial of those accused of murdering a young Asian man. Colin apologised profusely. To avoid institutional racism, it was announced that employees were being sent on courses. Most of us manage by simply deciding not to be racist but, hey, a lack of justice has to be seen to be done.
THERE being a war on, someone decided our peaceable and gently bumbling parliament better have a look at it. The issue maketh the parliament and, suddenly, it sounded grown-up. Typically, there seemed more dissent than in Westminster.
Comrade Sheridan claimed both Labour and Tories had backed the Taleban in the past, against Russia. David McLetchie would not be shifted from his priorities, though. With innocents dying, children starving and mothers crying, he issued a heartfelt plea for Scottish business rates to be cut.
A ticking bomb, meanwhile, was sitting under Henry’s butt. Officegate was a breeze artificially fanned into a storm. But it did for Henry in the end, even though there was little more to it than an administrative cock-up over sub-letting a constituency office.
In parliament, Henry’s probity was probed. The First Minister hardly helped matters by refusing to explain why he’d paid back 9,000 from his own purse. His best case lay in saying it had all been a boo-boo, in which case he could credibly claim: “Look, I make hundreds of mistakes every day. I can’t keep track of all of them.” Under the spotlight, Henry fiddled with everything he could get his hands on: his tie, his lapels, his expenses. Sorry, cheap joke. He accused David McLetchie of “personal assassination in the sense of the character”.
Then, fingering his holster, he added: “Pick the time. I will not run away.” This had the desired effect. Everyone burst out laughing, and Henry sat down with his stetson full of metaphorical arrows.
Next day, he stunned us all by resigning.
Everyone had turned up expecting nothing more than Messrs McLetchie and Swinney to carpet-bomb Henry bin Letting.
But there was to be no bombing by these particular Allied Carpets. Instead, Henry stood up and handed in his devolutionary dinner pail. A gate, of the clichd scandal variety, had swung open and Henry walked through it with bowed head. Poor sod. Everyone doubted he benefited personally, but no one gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Few gave Jack McConnell the benefit of the doubt either when he, Henry’s putative replacement, was rumbled over an affair. Rumours had abounded for ages about the scientific relationship between Jack’s trousers and gravity. But one measly affair was all that came out. No cross dressing donkeys, no whips, chains or escort girls coated in yoghurt.
This much he told us in a press conference, one of the most pleasant social events of the season. Dr Jack promised there was no Mr Hyde and that, from now on, even on full moons, he would staple the waistband of his trousers to his shirt.
Nevertheless, the incident gave London and its Quisling allies another opportunity to boot Scotland up the bahooky.
While Labour threw runes to see he would next lead the country, Old Dependable – Jim Wallace – stood in as FM, surprising us with his announcement of a long-standing infatuation with proportional representation. Phwoar, Jim and his additional member.
Before long, though, he had to shift up the bed again and let Jack take control of the First Ministerial duvet. In a moving speech (folk moved rapidly to the exits), Jack waxed lyrical about his childhood in a cave in Arran and threatened to create “a modern, confident Scotland”.
Swiftly,he sacked a bunch of ministers, thanking them for their “excellent service”.
In their place, he appointed well qualified cronies, to form what Mr McLetchie called “a ministry of all the toadies”.
Jack’s first setback came when one of these would-be amphibians, Cathy Peattie, was rejected for the post of deputy speaker. Ousted ministers, rebel coalition Lib Dems, and mischievous Nats chose lovable Murray Tosh (Con) instead.
It was a severe setback. Jack was supposed to be our JFK, creating a court of Bamalot where the watchword was: “Think not what you can do for your crony, think what your crony can do for you.”
AT last, things quietened down. The most contentious issue was private health care.
Formerly known as bribery, paying money to skip the queue is now the normal right of middle-class people. And no wonder, the time you wait for an operation nowadays.
Roseanna Cunningham (SNP) said things were so desperate that folk in her Perth constituency were coming to her.
Risky business. Roseanna might be fine for a quick syringe of the ears, but you wouldn’twant her near your piles with her pliers. Sterilised or otherwise.
The last day of term saw a boisterous performance from demob-happy Lloyd Quinan (SNP), ace heckler, who noted loudly, as David compared Jack to Pol Pot: “Yes, it’s the season of goodwill.” And so it has proved. In 2002, Holyrood will continue to outshine that pompous brothel south of the Border. It will stand up to the rustic bully boys and the urban yah-boo nobodies representing them in the press. It will lead us onto a bright and honey-coated future. Well, come on. If we all cross our fingers, it might just happen.