Phoney war over: Let battle commence

THREE thunderous raps of the gavel was all it took for George Reid to launch Scotland's most important election campaign for a generation.

In the VIP gallery, Daphne Reid wiped away tears as she watched her husband, the Presiding Officer, close the Scottish Parliament - at a stroke turning MSPs into simple candidates fighting for their political careers.

"Go forth now from this place and into the election battle," Mr Reid commanded.

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"Return to your regions and constituencies and prepare the next chapter in Scotland's story. I now close the second session of the Scottish Parliament."

There was a clear sense of nervous excitement in the air as the no-longer MSPs streamed out of the chamber and away from the parliament, but the smiles on Labour faces appeared strained and forced, particularly in comparison with their SNP rivals.

The sense of momentum and impending success along the SNP corridor was almost palpable and party leaders know their biggest job now is to warn against complacency and dampen expectations.

As soon as parliament rose, the SNP contingent headed as a team to a hotel down the road in the Grassmarket to join their leader, Alex Salmond, ready to rally his candidates at his party's official campaign launch.

Buoyed by a succession of polls showing a clear lead over Labour, Mr Salmond made it clear he believes he is but a short step away from becoming Scotland's first SNP First Minister.

With a mist-covered Edinburgh Castle forming an impressive backdrop behind him, he urged his candidates not to be complacent. But he was so confident, he then went on to predict, not just defeat for Labour but a virtual annihilation of his opponents at the polls. "I have no doubt that, if the Labour Party keep running the campaign they are running - negative and London-based - they will go down, not just to defeat but to absolute calamity in this election," he said. "If we keep doing what we are doing, if we keep working hard and keep earning the trust of the people of Scotland, in 35 days time, we can look forward to a new dawn for Scotland."

Mr Salmond insisted the process of independence was already happening in Scotland and could not be halted by the "unionist parties".

"I think we are in the process of independence right now," he said." "It is a process that has been going on for a generation."

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Mr McConnell chose to forego a glitzy campaign launch, instead taking to the road with his "education express" battle bus and heading to Loanhead in Midlothian, to the muddy building site that will soon be the joint school campus of Loanhead and St Margaret's Primary School.

In a stark contrast to the SNP's packed news conference, Mr McConnell and Rhona Brankin, the deputy communities minister, stood in white hard hats on a building site with only one reporter and a handful of photographers present.

Labour's only concession to anything new appeared to be the bizarre jackets won by Mr McConnell and Ms Brankin, one bearing the word "Building" and the other "Scotland" on the backs. The aim was to highlight Labour's agenda "to build up Scotland, not break up Britain", but Mr McConnell found himself having to talk about the SNP's poll lead over Labour.

"The polls are a wake-up call to Scotland. They are a call to the people of Scotland to realise how serious is the threat of the SNP - and how important it is they come out and vote and back Labour to build up Scotland for another four years," he said.

Labour officials said they had no plans for an official "campaign launch", but they would not rule it out, again giving the impression that the Labour campaign is several paces behind the SNP at every turn.

Aware that the campaign does not start officially until next week, Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tories' leader, decided against any sort of election stunt yesterday, preferring to stay in her office, clearing the final pieces of constituency work from her desk and preparing for next week.

Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, was the first of the main leaders to throw himself into actual campaigning on the ground.

He left the parliament and headed north, meeting activists in Aberdeen Central, a key Lib Dem target seat, to start canvassing and knocking on doors.

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At the parliament itself, green plastic crates and cardboard boxes were piled high in every office, filled with files and papers by researchers and secretaries uncertain as to whether their bosses would be back - and whether they themselves would have a job to return to in May.

All MSPs have to vacate both their offices and the parliament. They are cut off from the institutions and staff who serve them as elected representatives and as ministers for the duration of the campaign. This means ministers will have to cope without their chauffeur-driven Vauxhalls and ranks of civil service press officers answering difficult questions on their behalf.

And those now ex-MSPs who want to return - at least 13 are retiring voluntarily but several more will be made redundant by the voters - will have to spend the next five weeks without the safe cocoon of the parliament.

Each of the combatants at yesterday's First Minister's Question Time knew it might be their last, and they scrapped accordingly.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's Holyrood leader, used the opportunity to rehearse three key planks of the SNP campaign - Trident submarines, crime and council tax.

The SNP thinks it can exploit Labour weaknesses on all three, but Mr McConnell hit back and said independence was "the policy that dare not be named" by the SNP.

Miss Goldie accused Mr McConnell of not doing enough to support the Union.

But he said he would highlight the Union's benefits in the campaign.

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MSPs on all sides cheered their leaders at every turn, almost oblivious to what was being said, eager to get out and begin their own battles.

The 13 going, going, gone...

THIRTEEN MSPs bade farewell to their think pods for the last time yesterday. No Holyrood politicians are guaranteed a seat after the election on 3 May. But this clutch of back-benchers and well-known faces have decided to step aside for personal, political or private reasons.


Donald Gorrie, Lib Dem MSP for Central Scotland, quit as an MP after just one term to stand for Holyrood. He led the early campaign against sectarianism in Scotland and has been an advocate for physical education in school. However he has often clashed with Labour as part of the coalition.


John Home Robertson, Labour MSP for East Lothian, was an MP whose forbears opposed the Act of Union. He chaired the Holyrood progress group, responsible for the controversial Scottish Parliament building . His expenses have recently been scrutinised after he rented a flat from his son.


Phil Gallie, a Tory MSP for South of Scotland, has been a colourful character in the chamber where he used headphones and often heckled other MSPs. He was the party spokesman on constitutional affairs and has spoken out against Europe. But he has hinted he may seek nomination for the European Parliament.


Kate Maclean, Labour MSP for Dundee West, headed the equal opportunities committee in the parliament. The former leader of Dundee City Council, said she will remain "100 per cent" Labour and continue campaigning.


Dennis Canavan, Independent MSP for Falkirk, is leaving to spend more time with his family after 33 years in politics. A former Labour MP, he is a popular MSP but is standing down due to a series of tragedies. Earlier this month, his son died in Australia.


Maureen Macmillan, a Labour MSP for Highlands and Islands, was co-founder of Ross-shire Women's Aid and her interests in parliament have been women's issues and the justice system. Her husband, Michael, a lawyer and councillor, is standing in the region for Labour this time around.


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Susan Deacon, the Labour MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, was a rising star under Donald Dewar and tipped for the leadership. She pioneered free care for the elderly as health minister while courting controversy over sex education. However she has remained on the backbenches under Jack McConnell.


Jim Wallace, the Lib Dem MSP for Orkney, was Deputy First Minister for six years and made considerable gains for his party while leader. However, he has been criticised over concessions made in coalition. He said he was standing down while on a "high" and mayresume his legal career.


Bruce McFee, SNP MSP for West of Scotland, is leaving after just one term. The former leader of the SNP group on Renfrewshire council has been involved in local campaigns to save Ferguson's shipyard in Port Glasgow and to retain the name of Paisley University. He sat on the justice 1 and procedures committees.


Brian Monteith, Independent MSP Mid-Scotland and Fife, quit the Tory party in 2005 amid a leak scandal. He was forced to resign after criticising his party leadership to a newspaper. He plans to continue political involvement via writing and to seek work in marketing and public relations.


Lord James Douglas Hamilton, a Tory MSP for the Lothians, gave up his title as 11th Earl of Selkirk to remain an MP and later became an MSP. At Holyrood, he was education spokesman for his party. He will now sit in the House of Lords, taking a particular interest in UK legislation as it affects Scotland.


Janis Hughes, Labour MSP for Rutherglen, is a former nurse with a keen interest in health policy after 19 years in the health service. In parliament she rose to deputy convener of the health committee. An active member of Unison, she was also active in the battle to save jobs at Hoover in Cambuslang.


George Reid, SNP MSP for Ochil, was Presiding Officer since 2003 and made his mark on the parliament.