The SNP is a bit like a Russian doll. Every time you strip away a layer, you find another (usually more sinister) one underneath it.
At First Minister’s Questions, Ruth Davidson tried to test the Nationalists’ unity on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian spy who defected and who Theresa May says was targeted for assassination by Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Scottish Tory queried whether Nicola Sturgeon supported the sanctions announced by the Prime Minister.
Sturgeon, sounding resolute and statesmanlike, ‘agreed wholeheartedly that the Salisbury poisoning is a gravely serious issue’. Based on the evidence, she told MSPs, ‘I believe that the conclusion that Russia was responsible is a reasonable one’. Moreover, she wanted a ‘firm response’ and was all for May’s measures.
There followed a curious noise from the benches behind her: Muted murmuring and half-hearted desk-slapping.
The First Minister has been strikingly mature in her public statements since the Salisbury outrage. She is well aware that the Russian state would have no compunction about launching a similar mission in Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Some in her party take a different line: the Kremlin one. When Ruth Davidson condemned Russian propaganda channel RT, the Nationalist ranks finally found their voice. One comrade, who had started on the Stoli a bit early, shouted ‘BBC’. Auntie is hardly perfect but Songs of Praise has cut way back on the hymns to Treasury deficit targets.
The more outlandish Nationalists believe the BBC is part of a Unionist conspiracy to suppress independence. Russia Today, they reckon, is much more balanced. And it is: It invites on people who think the CIA did 9/11 and those who say it was Mossad.
Elsewhere, Richard Leonard produced payslips showing workers on a Scottish Government funded infrastructure project were charged to access their wages. The First Minister, who likes to claim the mantle of social justice, waffled her way through an answer and her backbench heavies heckled the Scottish Labour leader. (He should have asked his question in Russian.)
Leonard had struck a nerve. His performances at FMQs are patchy but he’s strongest when he needles Sturgeon on the gap between her radical rhetoric and technocratic record. Stalin believed in socialism in one country; Nicola Sturgeon can’t even manage it in one government.
Annie Wells wanted to ask a question but had lost her voice. In most MSPs this would be a sweet mercy. (I love hearing about ethical crofting and sustainable quilting as much as the next person but there is a limit.) Wells, however, always deserves an ear.
The Tory MSP is a feisty wee terrier — a gallus working-class Weegie who speaks her mind with good humour and an earthy mien. This star of the 2016 intake has a promising future but yesterday she needed some help to speak at all. Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs came to the rescue, like a giant human Strepsil, and took up Wells’ question for her.
Claudia Beamish, decked out in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign lanyard, enquired what progress had been made on land ownership changes. She wants greater transparency on who holds what parts of Scotland, which is at least less militant than the Palestinian approach to land reform.
Sturgeon gave the Labour MSP one of her Netflix responses. This is when the First Minister is asked about a subject she honestly couldn’t care less about, has to pretend to be absolutely riveted, but is really mentally scrolling through the TV listings to decide which Nordic noir to catch up on that evening.
Land reform is a peculiar fixation for a certain strain of Scottish opinion. You can tell these people by their charity shop chic and their tendency to bring up the Highland Clearances in casual conversation.
If giving them some far-flung hills and glens where they can grow their organic kale and pronounce country ‘kintra’ will keep them happy, it’s a price worth paying.