Alex Salmond declares: 'Let my people go'

The first minister, we are reliably assured, does not regard himself as divine. The issue arose after Alex Salmond had quoted elliptically from the Bible.

Mr Salmond had been exhorted by a backbench colleague to offer a little advice to the prime minister. What would he wish to say to David Cameron?

The answer? "Let my people go."

Providing commentary to an astonished nation, I recalled that this was a quotation from Exodus. (That year in St Mary's College wasn't entirely wasted.)

Subsequent research indicated that the passage is to be found in Exodus 9:1.

Others, it seems, were also indulging in a little exegesis of their own.

Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats, probably frustrated that it was not his week to ask a question in the chamber of the FM, had been scanning his Bible. Or, more probably, an engine of the search variety.

The full Exodus quotation, he asserted, was: "Then the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.'"

What, Mr Rennie asked with appropriate mock dismay, was this? Was the first minister comparing himself to the Deity? Was he demanding worship from his flock?

Well, a little hero worship never goes awry - and Mr Salmond, like most political leaders, is seldom averse. However, the answer, we are informed, is "no". (Plus other translations offer "serve" rather than "worship".)

Anyway, the FM was not quoting directly from the Bible.

Rather, he had in mind the African American spiritual song "Go down Moses" which contains the line "let my people go" and is generally taken as an evocation of the merits of liberty.

In particular, he was thinking of the version recorded by Paul Robeson - of whom he is a great admirer.

Indeed, he chose a Robeson song as one of his "Desert Island Discs" when he was metaphorically threatened with abandonment on that mythical wireless-generated shore.

'Act of mercy'

It was, apparently, "light hearted end of term banter." Mr Salmond was not, repeat not, suggesting that the Scots were enslaved or in exile.

However, it was but one intriguing exchange in a bizarre session of questions to the first minister.

Labour's Johann Lamont opened, rather successfully, with a notably comic touch.

She depicted the FM as King Midas in Reverse. (In keeping with the tone of the day, we should probably suggest that she was referring to the ditty by the popular beat combo, The Hollies, and not quoting directly from classical legend.)

Any big name who met the FM, she suggested, ended up in trouble. Perhaps it was "an act of mercy" that he had steered clear of greeting the Dalai Lama.

Mr Salmond declined to enter a comedy double act: Tibet's spiritual leader should not be used for political division, he averred.

She then sought to blame Mr Salmond for pretty well everything - including the inability of Edinburgh's pandas to mate and produce issue.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The first minister refused to take the rap over the failure of the Edinburgh zoo pandas to mate

Wryly, the FM rose to his feet and noted that he was used to taking the rap for most things - but that it was going a little far to blame him for panda infertility in the capital.

From this, Ms Lamont attempted once more to suggest that Mr Salmond was backing away from independence by refusing to rule out a second question on Devo Max in the referendum.

You can see where she is going with this: a long, slow attempt to sow discontent and disquiet in the SNP backbenches by suggesting that they are being led down a blind alley or betrayed.

As with Nicola Sturgeon last week, Mr Salmond declined to play.

He was, he said, a Scottish Nationalist who believes in an independent Scotland. Did Ms Lamont and her cohorts still believe in Socialism?

Sadly, Ms Lamont had exhausted her quota of questions by then and was unable to respond.

Bible reading

More of the same from Ruth Davidson who said that Dennis Canavan, who is the new chair of the Yes Scotland advisory board, was in favour of a single question.

Mr Salmond replied that it was right to take account of all views, including civic Scotland.

More generally, he invited his interlocutors to note a few figures: the lowest recorded crime since 1975; record satisfaction with the NHS under devolution; increased rates of PE in schools; and substantial trust in the Scottish Government to act in Scotland's interests.

With that, off they went. Ms Lamont to write a few more gags: "Hello, my name's Johann - I'm here all week."

Mr Rennie to read his Bible. And Mr Salmond to scan his record collection.