You say, they do
Today’s session of questions to the first minister provided a wide range of topics. Not all of them in Wendy Alexander’s opening attack.
It isn’t easy, opposition. Your ministerial adversary has the last word, often carefully scripted by one of their army of advisers. You say things, they do things. They have the power.
Cast your mind back to the first two devolved parliaments. Neither Alex Salmond nor John Swinney were, as I recall, consistently successful in destabilising successive first ministers (or their occasional LibDem stand-in, Jim Wallace.)
I remember Jack McConnell conceding, with delightful frankness, that he was “havering” and so would resume his seat.
I remember Mr McLeish suggesting that his opponents should pay heed to a word beginning with "H" and ending in "Y". To general glee, the late, great Margaret Ewing shouted “Henry!”.
I remember, of course, the said Henry being brought down by the dogged pursuit of David McLetchie - or, rather, by the failure of the FM to close down the issue of his Westminster constituency allowances.
Perhaps my memory is failing. Perhaps my senses are still jangling from the sheer euphoria of United’s cup triumph against the might that is Clyde.
But I confess I don’t recall many moments when the SNP leader, in opposition, utterly discomfited the FM.
So it’s tough. It’s hard. Still and all, that was not a good showing by Labour’s Wendy Alexander in the chamber today.
For one thing, she lacked focus. She opened with an appetiser: the fate of sportscotland. She moved without pausing onto the topic of youth courts.
Then she segued into the subject of police numbers and pensions.
Any one of those topics, rigorously pursued, might have provided a challenge to the first minister. (Although, see caveats above.) Raising all three prompted the conclusion that the Labour leader was unsure in her attack strategy.
Secondly, she was outshone by Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen, each of whom has now developed a familiar formula.
Ms Goldie opens with a droll funny - then builds to a staged conclusion. Today it was that the “block-headed parochial dogma” of the SNP over nuclear power could jeopardise Scotland’s energy supply.
Nicol Stephen is Mr Angry. Each week, he is outraged and indignant over something or other.
This week, he was furious at the sacking of Dougie Donnelly and Julia Bracewell from Scotland’s national sports agencies.
Who, he roared, would the public trust? Dougie Donnelly or Stewart Maxwell?
One, I need hardly add, is a national broadcasting treasure. The other is the sports minister who was obliged to apologise to MSPs for mishandling his announcement re the future of sportscotland.
It was, of course, all contrived. But, on the day, it was curiously effective. It was, at the very minimum, a sustained and memorable attack.
Now, Labour MSPs constantly grumble that the first minister dodges questions. Some have even begun to mutter that the presiding officer should intervene, neglecting the doctrine that the chair is responsible for order, not content.
Yes, Alex Salmond deploys rhetorical devices. Wit, satire, lengthy lists, awkward quotes thrown back in the face. It’s called politics.
Labour needs to contrive to counter the first minister, not complain about him. Although, I say again, it’s tough.