Sarwar gets the band back together

FIRST OUTING: Anas Sarwar makes his FMQs debut.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, March 4, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

Yehhhp! Yehhhp!’ These guttural squawks are familiar to regular observers of First Minister’s Questions as John Swinney’s way of endorsing his boss’s every point. To the outsider, it may sound like a West Highland terrier has taken up a career in politics, though few canines echo their master’s voice with quite such howling obsequiousness.

Nicola Sturgeon needed all the help she could get. Ruth Davidson cornered her on the government’s failure to heed legal advice that the Alex Salmond case would likely be lost in the Court of Session.

‘Will she tell us why the government tried for so long to defend what her own legal counsel called “the indefensible”,’ Davidson needled.

Sturgeon maintained that, until very late on, the advice had been more equivocal on the prospects for victory. Besides, she had given her evidence to the committee and would now focus on Covid-19.

‘I will leave Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives to play the political games that they seem to prioritise over everything else,’ she lashed out.

‘I have never forgotten the women at the heart of the inquiry, who were failed,’ Davidson came back.

‘I do not think that Ruth Davidson ever remembered the women at the heart of this,’ Sturgeon spat.

Then, a new voice chimed in: ‘The exchanges that we have just heard represent the worst of our politics.’

Anas Sarwar, recently installed Scottish Labour leader, told the First Minister: ‘Each day, every one of us comes into the chamber and sits in front of that mace, which is inscribed with the ideals of the parliament: wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity.’

These principles, he charged, had been ‘undermined when the government failed the women… undermined by the government’s refusal to hand over all documentation to the committee… and undermined by the government ignoring two votes by this parliament calling for all the legal advice to be published.’

Sturgeon’s eyes made their standard trip ceilingwards, but Sarwar was undeterred.

‘The government keeps telling us that it has nothing to hide but when the parliament twice demanded that the legal advice be published, it refused. When the advice was finally released, it was partial and came just hours before the First Minister’s committee appearance.

‘Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity. First Minister, why did it take the threat of a no-confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister for your government to act?’

Watching a Scottish Labour leader talk like this — with passion, pluck and principle — was like going to a reunion gig for a band that had once smashed out hit after hit before losing its way and splitting up with enough acrimony to fill an entire issue of the NME.

You had told yourself not to get your hopes up, that they could never recapture the glory days, then, two songs in, found your head bobbing and your foot tapping as though nothing had changed.

I have some reservations about the new material. Stick your head too far above the fray and you risk looking aloof to it all. Even so, Sarwar’s set was music to the ears after three years of silence.

Sarwar, having taken the high road, made it difficult for the First Minister to respond from her permanent redoubt on the low road.

‘I answered questions that were put to me and put the case of the government,’ Sturgeon essayed, weakly.

Bob Doris, one of the most active MSPs, seldom appears in the Holyrood Sketch. His contributions are typically about folk handed the short straw in life, plights more damnable than sketchable.

The SNP MSP makes it today on account of his son. Speaking from home via video, Doris asked the First Minister about ‘vaccine hesitancy’ among some ethnic minorities.

Midway through a sober response, she emitted a sudden titter and did a double-take at the screen above the Presiding Officer. What we in the cheap seats online were not privy to, but was beamed into the chamber, was Doris’s lad ‘Zoombombing’ his father.

‘Before I finish,’ Sturgeon added, ‘let me say hello to Cameron, who appeared briefly on the screen behind Bob Doris.’


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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