The rest of them may as well have gone for an early lunch.
John Swinney was standing in at First Minister’s Questions yesterday and having the time of his life.
Nicola Sturgeon was in London for Her Majesty’s unveiling of a memorial to the fallen of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. (She still managed to pop up in a BBC documentary last night, giving her latest test for calling indyref2. She can’t help herself; she’s got separatist Tourette’s.)
The deputy first minister is not burdened by an Eva Perón complex; he doesn’t imagine himself up on a balcony, smiling benevolently at the masses below, trilling ‘Don’t cry for me Glasgow Southside’. Mr Swinney doesn’t care if no one wants a selfie with him. He’s an old-fashioned bruiser. He looks like a bank manager and operates like a contract killer.
In short, FMQs was made for him. His unfettered ruthlessness makes him a near-impossible foe to best. Ruth Davidson booted the shins off him over the Nats’ oil projections, after their top economic adviser admitted the wildly inflated figures were the basis of the case for separation.
Mr Swinney blustered through, producing a newspaper clipping in which David Cameron — remember him? — had issued his own overblown pronouncements about North Sea revenue. (The SNP loves quoting newspaper headlines as a trump card against opponents; when opponents do the same, the Nats point out that the Press are perfidious stenographers for the lizard people.)
Mr Swinney had already won but he wanted to rub Miss Davidson’s nose in a new poll showing Scotland split 50/50 on independence. With a flourish, he declared: ‘That is the people of Scotland being exposed to the hard-right politics of the Tory party, seeing the mess that it is getting us into about Europe and deciding that it is time for this country to choose its own future.’
Kezia Dugdale was very disappointed in Mr Swinney and wanted to know why none of his oil revenue sums added up.
Aha! A shark-like grin. He had her.
‘Is it not revealing that at the first available opportunity Labour and the Tories have come together again?’ Mr Swinney hammed it up, throwing his hands heavenward in mock wonderment. ‘It is like they have never had a moment apart. I would have thought that, after the calamity that Kezia Dugdale led the Labour Party into in the 2016 election, she might have learned to have nothing to do with that lot over there.’
The Scottish Labour leader couldn’t come back from that and so griped about the Nats pushing ‘false hope’ during the referendum. False hope. These are people who would set up house in a bog and survive on passing squirrels if it meant Scotland was independent. Making dodgy promises of a few extra quid in the pockets of desperate folk in Baillieston and the Raploch is unlikely to keep them awake at night.
This was all good, clean knockabout fun. No such luck when Patrick Harvie got up to pose one of his 14-clause queries. At first, you try to concentrate, willing him on to the question mark, but even the most attentive observer soon finds their eye wandering around the chamber. Miss Dugdale was checking her phone. Humza Yousaf’s beard is coming along nicely; quite dashing, actually. Little Ross Greer (Scottish Greens Junior League, West of Scotland) just looked happy to be there. He’s always careful to stay close to Mr Harvie; a different school visits parliament every week and he doesn’t want to get bundled onto a bus back to Ecclefechan Academy by a harassed modern studies teacher.
Eventually, Mr Harvie got to the end of his peroration. Mr Swinney managed a response, which is commendable since no one in the chamber seemed to have a clue what the Green leader was on about. But he means well and, God love them, that’s all you can really ask of the Greens.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.