When the presiding officer called on John Mason, two dozen notebooks flipped open in the press gallery.
The Nationalist MSP is an odd wee polecat — you sometimes wonder if he joined the SNP for a bet — but he makes cracking copy. Like when he wanted creationism taught in schools or the time he urged police action against fans wearing pro-independence badges to football matches.
Mason hasn’t been heard from in a few weeks, after suggesting the IRA murderers of three Scottish soldiers in 1971 might be considered “freedom fighters”. Alas, he spoiled our fun by asking a sensible and worthwhile question about cancer detection. Notebooks duly slammed shut.
No, the entertainment at yesterday’s First Minister’s Questions came courtesy of Maurice Golden. He’s a Conservative MSP and is integral to the party in the sense that 31 seats is more than 30. And, in fairness, he started well by quizzing Nicola Sturgeon on her great Brexit blowout, the £136,000 of taxpayers’ money she splashed on intervening in the Article 50 legal case. Ms Sturgeon knew she didn’t stand a chance at the Supreme Court but she hadn’t been on telly in a while and had no more top-level negotiations with Germany’s assistant minister for meetings. Yes, £136,000 is pretty steep for a media appearance but it beats trying to close the attainment gap.
It would have been an awkward moment for Ms Sturgeon if Mr Golden had stopped there. Instead he launched into a peroration that took in the quiz show Jeopardy!, the British Transport Police, taxation, wasteful spending, and independence. The point, such as there was, was difficult to discern. The louder Mr Golden’s voice grew, the less coherent he became. The Tories used to boast seasoned fulminators like ‘Frankly’ Bill Aitken (who would preface every new spilling of spleen with the candid adverb) and the late, keenly missed Phil Gallie and Alex Johnstone.
Mr Golden’s oration was more like a spotty teenage Thatcherite giving a Tory youth conference his best Enoch Powell on the menace of swearing before the watershed. Mr Golden’s Rivers of Blah speech left his colleagues cringing. Ruth Davidson had a pure beamer. Jackson Carlaw’s head was in his hands. John Lamont intensely studied an imaginary fly on the far wall.
The First Minister pounced: ‘We always know when Ruth Davidson is completely embarrassed by one of her backbenchers… I sympathise with her, because I would have been embarrassed by that question as well, if it had been asked by one of my backbenchers.’
Sturgeon soon had to dodge a banana skin flung down by one of her own backbenchers. NatBot 58 (South Scotland’s Emma Harper) asked about the BBC’s announcement of a new TV channel for Scotland. This is shaky ground for the SNP. They’ve been campaigning for a Scottish Six since Brian Taylor was a lad. Their aim was more resources for news in Scotland, they insisted, not driving UK news off Scottish TVs. On Wednesday, Beeb bosses called their bluff, giving Scotland its own channel and the resources to produce a Scottish 9pm news programme — but Scotland would continue to get the Six O’Clock News from London. The Nats are apoplectic but can’t say why because, in truth, the Scottish Six was all about boosting support for separation.
The First Minister’s reply was neither here nor there, and calculatedly so. If she was too critical about the Beeb, her deranged followers would have been sporting pitchforks outside Pacific Quay by teatime. Too friendly and she might have provoked a murmur of dissent from those behind her, or at least those that weren’t away being interviewed on Russia Today.
Ms Sturgeon hailed the prospect of 80 new journalists in Scotland. No doubt her MPs will make them very welcome.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.