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Back in the chamber

Brian Taylor | 13:22 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

Excellent exchanges at First Minister's questions on the topic of spending.

However, they did appear to be taking place in a parallel galaxy - one where politicians are free to promise to protect services.

It all started with the First Minister working an exceptionally fast one on Labour's Iain Gray.

Mr Gray assumed the particularly dark visage which is seldom far from his features when confronting Mr Salmond.

His voice rising to a crescendo, he demanded - would the FM save frontline services like hospitals and schools, yes or no?

Not sure what he expected. Perhaps stumbling blether. Perhaps prolonged evasion. Perhaps a Rochdale-style apology.

He got neither. Mr Salmond replied: "Yes." And promptly sat down.

To be fair, Mr Gray rallied splendidly. What species of affirmative was that, he inquired. Did it tally with the promises previously made by the FM such as smaller class sizes and cash help for first-time home buyers? (NB: These are a) pending at best; and b) shelved.)

No, said Mr Salmond, his affirmative matched the 65 out of 94 SNP manifesto commitments delivered thus far.

Which he began to list, moving through scrapped bridge tolls to bobbies on the beat.
Which is where the disjunction from reality enters.

If Mr Gray is accusing the First Minister of "cuts", which he is, does he acknowledge the primary source of Scottish funding - the UK Treasury?

Would he remind us which party has had custody of the Exchequer for the past decade and more?

On the other hand, if the First Minister is stressing the voluminous extent of the cuts planned by rival parties, which he is, how does that fully square with his offer to shelter Scotland from the impact?

The answers generally offered? One, the SNP has squandered such resources as it has available and has not made good use of the block grant.

Two, Scotland can counter the worst of the impact by, among other things, releasing frozen funds and pursuing a growth strategy.

But if the Institute for Fiscal Studies is saying that the UK cuts will be far more extensive than currently conceded - with Scotland due to bear a proportionate share, via formula - then should not the political discourse focus on that, rather than competing promises to "protect" certain services?

Might not discourse in Scotland more productively pursue the avenue indicated by the Scottish Government's own independent review of spending which is that there needs to be a fundamental rethink of the purpose of public funding with nothing regarded as sacrosanct?

As to the other contributions, Annabel Goldie for the Tories inquired re: Mr Salmond's previous statement that he would not have considered the Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton for compassionate release.

This, the ultimate of all hypothetical questions, might have discomfited Mr Salmond. But he deftly deflected it by requesting Miss Goldie to reflect on the first principle applying to such matters, inviting her to confirm its content.

She duly sidestepped this, only for the FM to remind her that it concerned the prospect that a convict might pose a further risk to the public.

For the Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott inquired concerning Mr Salmond's views on splitting up the banks following questions I posed to the FM last night on the telly.

No guile on this occasion. Mr Salmond offered the argument that matters were a little more complex than headlines might suggest.

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