Hugh Reilly: Holyrood ill-served by petty politics

The faux outrage following Alex Salmond’s comments about Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia is embarrassing, writes Hugh Reilly

Alex Salmond has come under fire over comments about Vladimir Putin. Picture: Getty

Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. While pictures of a Rambo-esque bare-chested Alex Salmond gripping an AK-47 have yet to surface, the head of the Holyrood Politburo has admitted admiration of “certain aspects” of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. (If such photos ever do appear, doubtless Johann Lamont will demand to know both the cost of the rifle and the rather fetching chest-waxing).

In an interview for GQ magazine conducted by Alastair Campbell – the unquestionably trustworthy former Labour strategy director – Salmond opined that Putin receives a bad press in the West, but “carries support in Russia”.

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Predictably, his realpolitik words sparked off a spontaneous Mexican wave of knee-jerking in Scottish Parliament opposition MSPs. Despite being acutely aware that the First Minister’s critique of “Mad Vlad”© had taken place before the reintegration of Crimea into the Russian federation, Scottish Labour’s external affairs spokeswoman, Patricia Ferguson, said his comments about the Russian president “are insensitive and ill-judged, given the precarious situation in Ukraine”.

One can but assume that, as a child, Ms Ferguson truanted the day her primary one class was taught the concept of a timeline. However, Fergie’s bluster did not stop there. She fulminated that “for Scotland’s First Minister to admit his admiration for someone with such a controversial record on human rights and democracy does not reflect well on our country”.

I’ve searched the internet for Ms Ferguson’s criticism of the decision by her erstwhile leader, Tony Blair, to go tenting with that nice man Muammar al-Gadaffi. On Google, Yahoo and even the normally very reliable Ask Jeeves (now rebranded as the tad anodyne, I’ve found nothing. This highly principled woman hit the mute button when Blair, along with George W Bush, initiated a war of aggression against Iraq.

To be fair, Ferguson’s utterances – which at first glance had seemed asinine, and even more so on second and third readings – appeared to understate the magnitude of any perceived foreign policy gaffe made by Salmond when compared to the hyperbole employed by Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw. A man whose appellation eerily resembles that of a legal firm cobbled together by two lawyers who couldn’t think of a better name after five days of head-scratching deserves to be taken seriously.

“Putin is keen on suppressing the media and political opposition, so it’s no wonder Alex Salmond admires him,” he thundered.

Yes, the dank dungeons of the Scottish Prison Service are overflowing with journos desperately smuggling out letters written in their own blood hidden in the intestines of rats they have trained for this specific purpose. And as a true-blue Tory, I’m sure that Mr Carlaw bursts with pride that his beloved Mrs Thatcher aided the murderous Khmer Rouge in its attempt to remove the Vietnamese army that had liberated the once killing fields of Cambodia.

Frankly, the faux-outrage is embarrassing. Just weeks ago, the Better Together campaign hoped that Putin would declare his hand against separation, given the Russian leader’s brutal suppression of the Chechen independence craze.

The “Just Say Naw” side prayed of Putin taking to the United Nations podium and paraphrasing the beseeching words of David Bowie: “Scotland, stay with the UK.” Had he done so, Labour et al would have praised his peerless statesmanship and forgiven any completely understandable human rights torts that may have occurred on his watch.

Let’s be clear: Putin is not a candidate for Heaven’s VIP room. He is a Cold War warrior who sees it as his destiny to restore Russia’s lost superpower status. Perversely, the policies of the western world brought him to political power. Mikhail Gorbachev, feted by the western media, almost bankrupted the economy. His successor, the king of vodka-fuelled karaoke, Boris Yeltsin, was deemed to be a top bloke by Europe and the United States when he privatised state-owned enterprises. His free enterprise Russia gave us new words and phrases such as oligarchs and economic genocide. Creating a smaller, richer elite greatly pleased the tiny, opulent elites governing the western hemisphere.

Humiliated at home and abroad, no wonder the Russian people turned to someone who promised to restore dignity and living standards to the many. While it sticks in the collective craw of many western commentators and politicians, Putin is a popular leader. Critics point to civil liberty issues such as attacks on homosexuals. At the risk of appearing unhelpful, assaults on the gay community precede Putin’s accession to power. Much of the blame for the gay-bashing culture in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe lies with religion.

In 1993, Russian religious leaders opposed the law decriminalising homosexuality – in 1999, they were further upset when being gay was declassified as a mental illness.

With regard to the supposed curtailment of freedom of expression epitomised by the state’s treatment of Pussy Riot, the punk heroines of liberal western classes, if a UK version of this anarchistic group took over St Giles’ Cathedral and stripped off, would MSPs rejoice or demand their imprisonment? You know the answer.

Salmond’s words were nuanced. “Well, obviously, I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions,” he clearly stated. Sadly, most of our political representatives don’t do nuance. Salmond should have learned that from the fall-out from his view that Nato’s bombing of Serbia – an act of war not sanctioned by the UN Security Council – was “unpardonable folly”. Killing innocent Serbian civilians to save the lives of Kosovan civilians did seem odd to many. Nevertheless, according to Labour, Salmond’s comments placed him in the dock as a supporter of the fascist regime of former Yugoslavia.

Appointing a politics czar to end the petty partisanship that continues to erode the integrity of the Scottish Parliament would get my admiration.