First minister's questions: New year - same format?

New year, same format, fairly familiar questions. But there appeared to this observer to be one or two gentle changes to procedure during the weekly interrogation of the First Minister.

OK, one. The exchanges seemed somehow shorter and crisper, no doubt in response to the admonition from Tricia Marwick, the Presiding Officer, to the effect that she preferred brief queries to Gladstonian oratory.

(William Ewart G. took more than four hours to deliver his first budget as chancellor. Those were the days. Somehow, I cannot see the master of Midlothian adapting well to the Twitter era. )

There was one other innovation - but that was a one off. Opposition leaders table open questions - which enables them to ask anything they choose, within reason, for their supplementaries.

Ruth Davidson, she of the Tories, posed her customary preliminary. When would the first minister next meet the Prime Minister?

Alex Salmond was ready for it. Not, he suggested, any time soon in Scotland, given the Prime Minister's confession that he was too posh and unpopular to play a leading role in the referendum campaign or debate with Salmond, A.

But Ms Davidson was ready with a rebuttal. The PM's remarks in the Commons, she said, had been delivered tongue in cheek. They had shown a sense of "humour and self-deprecation" which she suggested the FM might care to emulate.

By coincidence, the MP who had drawn this admission from the PM, Labour's Ian Davidson, was in Holyrood today on Scottish affairs committee business.

There was no intervention by Willie Rennie today. His Liberal Democrat ranks being so depleted, he isn't entitled to a shottie every week. This was his down day.

But that didn't stop Alex Salmond from citing Mr Rennie on the grounds that the Lib Dem leader had praised the childcare announcement delivered earlier this week alongside the new cash for universal free school meals in primaries 1-3.

Willie Rennie has been assiduously pursuing the issue of support for the earliest years - not least during his "on" days at FMQs. Given that, he had said that it would be churlish not to praise the FM for responding.

Mr Salmond seemed to feel that the label Churl of the Week should attach instead to his Labour rival, Johann Lamont, for her stance in the earlier debate.

(She had challenged the Scottish Government's priorities, arguing that the school meals move was misplaced, given the competition for resources.)

'Fair picture'

Ms Lamont, however, was understandably keener to focus upon her own inquiries. She had sought further financial detail to accompany the independence offer.

The Labour leader noted that the Scottish government's White Paper repeated a previously made claim that, over a thirty year period, Scotland could have gained substantially had she been able to match the growth rate of comparable small European countries.

The 30-year period in question was from 1977-07. That, according to Ms Lamont, did not encompass the latest figures. Those covered the period from 1982 to 2012.

The difference? Under the figures used by ministers, the average growth catch-up was 3.8%, or £902 per head.

'Unique event'

Under the figures disclosed to Ms Lamont by parliamentary researchers, the average growth switch was a five point drop, or £1,185 less per head.

Again, according to Labour, the comparison is more damaging still if a median, rather than average, calculation is made.

They say the SG figures give comparable weight to tiny Luxembourg and sizeable Sweden. Using a median removes that.

In response, the SG says that the dates were chosen deliberately to give a fair picture of a long term trend, as had been explained at the time.

To encompass the period after 2008-09 brought into play the "unique event" of the banking crash and its consequences which risked distorting the figures.

Labour says that starting in 1977 means that the early years of Mrs Thatcher's government - with its impact on Scottish growth - are included, magnifying the apparent later potential gains.

UPDATE AT 16:09: And there's more. Labour says the SG explanation amounts to trying to "airbrush" the banking crisis out of the calculation.

The SG says that thirty year GDP figures up to 2012 show comparable small countries outperforming Scotland in the UK: 2.5% versus 2.3%.