POLITICS is a tough old game, and a degree of rough and tumble is to be expected between political foes. But from those holding the highest offices in the land, we expect at least a degree of restraint and perspective.
That was plainly lacking in the House of Commons yesterday when David Cameron used an otherwise innocuous question about the role of trade unions to launch an extraordinary attack on a former union official at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant and oil refinery.
Mr Cameron clearly had former Unite official Stevie Deans in his sights when he criticised a “rogue trade unionist” who “nearly brought the Scottish petrochemical industry to its knees”.
There are two main reasons why the Prime Minister’s comments leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. The first is the conveniently partial and revisionist view it offers of the Grangemouth dispute.
Mr Deans’ conduct at Grangemouth was questionable on a number of grounds, not least his apparent inability to recognise when his union had completely lost its bargaining power. But to hold him solely and individually responsible for the near-loss of the plant fails to recognise the role played in the dispute by the operator Ineos.
Management at Grangemouth ramped up the confrontation with the unions to an extent that shocked independent observers and veterans of industrial relations. Their macho style created a crisis out of what should have been a negotiation. The prime minister appears not to know this or – for reasons of his own – chooses to ignore it.
The second reason to be concerned at the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday is the way he seemed prepared to take the Grangemouth saga – which was almost an economic disaster for Scotland – and use it as bait in a trap set for Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Of course, everyone understands the need for the leader of the Conservative party to make life difficult for the leader of the Labour party. And there can be no doubt that Mr Miliband is under pressure to re-open the party’s investigation into the Falkirk candidate selection row, in which Mr Deans is said to have played a significant role.
The unearthing of hundreds of e-mails that had not been seen by the original party inquiry raises genuine questions about whether it needs to be revisited. Mr Miliband has, after all, pledged to reform Labour’s relationship with the union movement.
But the near-demise of Grangemouth was a historic near-miss for Scotland. It was the closest of shaves. It does not deserve to be treated as a lowly pawn in Mr Cameron’s ongoing chess game with Mr Miliband.
The Prime Minister therefore does himself no favours by indulging in such a personal attack on a former trade union official just to score some petty party political points.
Caution urged on feel-good factor
THIS country has been in the economic doldrums for so long, with prospects so unrelentingly bleak, that we are perhaps in danger of mistaking every glimmer of light for the coming of a new dawn.
So we would do well to listen to the warning issued by the respected economic analysts at the Fraser of Allander Institute, which is part of the University of Strathclyde.
Their latest report sounds a cautionary note, lest anyone gets carried away by some of the encouraging economic data published of late. Fraser of Allander puts this down to a new-found consumer confidence in the High Street, despite the fact that for the most part these consumers are still mired in household debt of historic proportions.
A true and sustained recovery, says the Institute, will only be possible when it is driven by increased exports, and also by increased investment. That is the only solid base on which to build hopes of meaningful growth in the medium and long term.
Of course, it would be unnecessarily churlish and pessimistic not to take some comfort from increased consumer confidence. We have spent a long time waiting for it to happen, and it is encouraging to see that people feel confident enough about their own personal prospects to push the boat out a little.
But such confidence is an infamously fickle animal, and the recent feel-good splurge may not last through the cold of winter.
For ministers in the UK and Scottish governments, the primary challenge remains the creation of the kind of climate in which businesses can find it easy to invest for the future and to have the confidence to grasp those export opportunities.