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Look into my eyes . . .

Brian Taylor | 13:24 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

There was a fair touch of the business that is show on offer at Holyrood today.

Any second, one expected Alex Salmond to essay a soft-shoe shuffle, bedecked by a top hat.

Now, Mr Salmond has something of a reputation as a performer. Awed viewers still recall his excellent impersonation of the Rev I.M. Jolly for BBC Children in Need.

And he can seldom resist the temptation to add a little mischievous humour to his speeches.

But today it was Opposition leaders who ventured into the footlights. Firstly, Iain Gray complained that Skills Development Scotland was apparently spending £20,000 to hire the hypnotist Paul McKenna to enthuse unemployed Scots youngsters.

Mr Gray had a core point - that the cash would be better spent on literacy training.

But his satirical efforts to suggest that Mr Salmond was the illusionist, while diverting, were perhaps just a mite laboured.

Black ink

Only a mite, though. And it was perhaps a little cruel of the first minister to suggest that his opponent's delivery was more soporific than any hypnotist.

Annabel Goldie employed a visual gag to aid her performance. She brandished a document released under Freedom of Information - which was all but obliterated in black ink.

This is known in the trade as "redaction". (Translation: cutting out the good bits.)

It was a nifty piece of biz, with good timing. But the first minister appeared to think that it was a device to disguise the lack of substance in her complaint.

This was that Scottish government money had gone to STV as part-sponsorship of programmes on Scottish life, including an initiative linked to the Homecoming drive.

In his best mock-serious voice, Mr Salmond solemnly listed the shows which had benefited in this way. Such as "Make me Happier."

An endeavour, he said, which he pursued personally on a daily basis.

Scottish interests

The suggestion appeared to be that this was SNP propaganda at public expense.

Mr Salmond replied that the list of sponsored programmes had been fronted by or involved such noted Nationalists as Alastair Campbell, Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy.

Ministers had played no part at all in determining programme content.

TV Sponsorship, he said, was aimed at promoting Scottish interests where that was thought relevant.

The previous Labour/LibDem administrations, he said, had spent twice as much on the same objective.

Still, in response to inquiries, Ofcom is having a look. Which may or may not provide a sequel.

Tavish Scott of the LibDems was concerned at the costs which could confront those taking the show on the road - or rather the hotels which accommodate them.

Good answer

He listed the hotels occupied by the Scottish Cabinet during its 2009 summer tour of Scotland, enthralling the citizenry. (Not sure if the merchandise is still available but, if it is, snap it up.)

Mr Scott pointed out that those hotels and many others were about to face hugely increased bills because of a rates revaluation.

It was a good question and Mr Salmond gave a good answer. However, the good answer was not in response to the good question.

Mr Scott had asked, precisely, about hotels. Mr Salmond replied by stating the benefits brought to firms, particularly of the small variety, by the Scottish government's efforts to curb business rates.

The FM noted further that he was not responsible in any way for the revaluation which was conducted by an independent assessor.

True, of course, absolutely true - but scarcely a comfort to those hotels facing a hike in costs.

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