Sombre hung the mood at Holyrood as MSPs filed in for the weekly ding-dong.
Hushed whispers swirled around the backbenches; awkward glances were fleetingly exchanged.
The tension held fast then snapped quickly when Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh announced: ‘Members will be aware of reports in the media this morning that the former first minister Alex Salmond has been arrested.’
The case was now active and out-of-bounds for MSPs preparing to quiz Nicola Sturgeon. But Mr Macintosh’s words alone marked an unprecedented moment in the history of devolution. Mr Salmond denies any criminality.
Duly warned, the opposition trained its cannons on the cryptococcus scandal at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. Two patients, one a child, died after contracting an infection linked to the bacteria.
Jackson Carlaw went in softly-softly. After all, people were dead. He’s a Tory, not a monster.
Half his question was taken up hailing the facility and the staff but eventually he got round to asking whether promised reforms were on the way.
Yes, they were.
Then came the dread words: ‘I thank Jackson Carlaw for the tenor of his question.’
It was going to be one of those sessions. When the First Minister thanks an opposition leader for the tenor of their question it means they erred on the side of mercy. Not that she would have welcomed his constructive approach. She’s a street fighter. She needs rivals to land a blow so she can rip their throats out.
Richard Leonard was less deferential, revealing that cleaners at the Queen Liz in Glasgow still had not received a briefing on infection. The First Minister cringed in her seat. ‘I’ll ask the Health Secretary to look into that,’ she assured the Labour leader. Now it was Jeane Freeman’s turn to squirm.
Leonard ramped up his attack – as much as a man with all the menace of a rich tea biscuit can mount an attack. He intoned his way through a list of scandals to hit the former Southern General. Did the First Minister think this was good enough?
Sturgeon’s ire rose and the rest of her came up a second later. ‘I say in all sincerity to Richard Leonard that I think that he is better than that last statement.’
‘You’re better than that’ is the inverse of tone-praising. It’s a schoolmarm’s tut at a wounding broadside. Leonard had scored a rare victory over a woman normally unable to conceal her contempt for him.
It fell to Willie Rennie to serve up what little entertainment was to be had. He forwent his weekly update on the People’s Vote, the campaign to overturn the vote of the people. Instead he had a go at the SNP for being too tough on crime. It’s a view, I suppose.
The Nationalists want to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12, while the Lib Dems want to take it up to 14. Or, failing that, 13 plus a year’s worth of gift cards for Fortnite.
The Scottish Lib Dem leader squeaked: ‘I support action that works to change the behaviour of young people who get into trouble. I don’t support 13-year-olds being branded as criminals for the rest of their lives for mistakes that they make in childhood.’
He took a justified swipe at the First Minister for virtue-signalling on human rights, saying: ‘Nicola Sturgeon claimed Scotland would be a world leader on human rights but the First Minister should know that we cannot lead the world from the back of the pack.’
Still, it was a bit much when he warned that she risked standing ‘isolated in the world on human rights’. I doubt her sentencing policy keeps the Security Council up at night. It’s just Scots it has that effect on.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.