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Damaged, with no room to manoeuvre.
'On such occasions Alex Salmond is a bit like Harry Flashman from
Tom Brown's Schooldays, though without the charm'
Holyrood Sketch, The Times
Filed 15 May 08
This article was originally published in The Times on May 8, 2008.
It is reproduced here with the kind permission of
its author and of the newspaper
She got by. But that was about as much as you could say for Wendy Alexander after she had faced an ordeal by mockery at the hands of baying MSPs and a bullying First Minister. Parliament on such occasions is not a pretty place to be.
A glance at the Labour backbenchers behind her as she rose to put her first question said it all. They clapped her feverishly, but their looks spelt worry. The women mostly wore red, the colour of defiance - or of blood. You sensed it was all going to end badly.
On such occasions Alex Salmond is a bit like Harry Flashman from Tom Brown's Schooldays, though without the charm. Cruel, arrogant and derisive, he was out to humiliate his opponent. From his very first answer, he treated her as a figure of fun. “To coin a phrase, bring it on,” he grinned, picking up on the phrase that had landed her in trouble, and become the running joke of the week.
There was no answering smile from Ms Alexander. Her face pale with concentration, she ground out the question she must have been practising all morning: “The First Minister has been a Nationalist all his political life. I'm giving him the opportunity to resolve the issue. Why won't he take it?”
On any other occasion that might have been a reasonable opening. But when you have been subjected to as dreadful a set of headlines as greeted Ms Alexander yesterday morning, replete with the familiar clichés of political disaster - meltdown, chaos and disarray - almost anything you say is an invitation to mockery.
Mr Salmond was at his most condescending. He acknowledged the “progress” that Ms Alexander had made along the road towards the SNP's goal of a referendum on independence, then added: “She now accepts the right of this Parliament to decide the future in terms of a constitutional referendum put to the people of Scotland.” He could not resist adding: “Given the progress that Wendy Alexander has made in the last few days, who knows what side she'll be campaigning on?”
There is a kind of inevitability about the Salmond brand of sarcasm. As there is about the Nationalist guffaws that greeted Ms Alexander's discomfort. Every attempt she made to claw back the ground she had lost was met with derision from the SNP benches. She told the First Minister that this was “too serious a matter to jest with” and everybody laughed. She said that the judgment of history would be against him, and they whooped in disbelief. She said, fatally, “I'm not the problem,” and they chorused back: “Oh yes, you are.”
The difficulty she faces is not just that she is seen to be politically damaged but that her room for manoeuvre is so desperately limited. She cannot force the SNP to do anything it does not want to do, she has no support from the other two parties, and Mr Salmond can simply point out that he is sticking to his manifesto pledge on a future referendum, while she has apparently broken hers.
So, a bad day for Ms Alexander. But perhaps not quite as bad as it might have been. In the end the doggedness with which she pursued her argument won her some respect. She is in an awful hole. But at least she is climbing, not digging.