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On ice

Brian Taylor | 16:46 UK time, Thursday, 7 January 2010

"St Agnes Eve, ah bitter chill it was."

Thus does Keats open his prolonged poem on the remarkable, romantic ritual associated with the January festival.

But it was a seasonal chill of more contemporary origins - the current "blast o' Janwar' win'", if you like - which exercised our elected tribunes at Holyrood.

All three opposition leaders pursued Alex Salmond on the topic of what his government was doing to help Scots sustain themselves against the freeze.

Had he personally dug anyone out of a snow drift? Just how much grit had he scattered on icy pavements? Wasn't it about time he sorted out this weather?

I jest, of course.

But it's always slightly tricky when politics collides with naturally occurring catastrophe.

There is an anecdotal story told about political reaction to the disastrous Glasgow storm of 1968, when roofs were torn from houses.

Pratical action

As opposition politicians demanded statements from the Government, one minister was apparently heard to aver: "Statements? We don't need statements. We need slaters."

In comparable fashion, Mr Salmond suggested to his questioners that government, both local and central, was alert to the need for practical action, rather than rhetoric.

To be fair, Labour's Iain Gray was pursuing that same lightly-gritted path.

He was suggesting that Ministers had been complacent, that there should be more advice offered to the struggling public.

In particular, he seized upon comments made by Finance Secretary John Swinney on "Good Morning Scotland" on Monday.

I have listened (again) to that particular interview. (Wonderful thing, the iPlayer.)

While Mr Swinney might perhaps have phrased his comments a little more judiciously, I don't think it was quite the bloomer suggested by Mr Gray.

Next breath

The minister said that, in a number of the communities he had been out and about in, there had been "perfectly adequate walking conditions".

Cue instant anger from those listeners whose pedestrian facilities are less than perfect.

However, Mr Swinney went on in the next breath to stress that there are parts of Scotland where there are problems.

Annabel Goldie was up next - only to suffer a succession of skilled rebuttals from the FM.

Firstly, she urged ministers to deploy convicts on community sentences to clear the roads.

Mr Salmond duly explained where that was happening already - while noting that, if the Tories had their way, such individuals would be banged up in the centrally heated Bar-L, munching their way through three meals a day.

Ouch! In vain did Miss G. protest that she supported community sentences where real work was involved.

Clear-up effort

But it got worse. Where, she demanded, was the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill?

His absence from the chamber, she implied, was a slight.

Mr Salmond replied, ever so gently, that his ministerial colleague was in Fife.

Inspecting the deployment of community sentence workers in the clear-up effort. Ouch, twice.

By contrast, Tavish Scott took a more consensual line. Perhaps his Shetland upbringing has inured him to the fact that ferocious weather tends to come along from time to time.

More probably, he had calculated that there is little to be gained by sounding in any respect partisan while folk are struggling with the fundamentals of living.

Either way, the exchanges between Mr Scott and Mr Salmond were polite and solemn.

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