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The Iron Laddie?

Brian Taylor | 12:27 UK time, Friday, 22 August 2008

It's not often, in truth, that elected politicians resort to contacting phone-in programmes on the wireless.

They have so many other avenues: formal interviews, parliamentary speeches, the peripatetic soapbox.

Plus it's generally felt that the phone-in is an opportunity for the public to ventilate their concern/anger/delight at whatever is being done to them or in their name.

So it was a little surprising to hear the First Minister Alex Salmond call into Morning Extra on BBC Radio Scotland.

By no means unwelcome, not entirely unprecedented, just a little out of the ordinary run of things.

And what had prompted this? Mr Salmond was seeking to clarify remarks he had made in an interview with Iain Dale for Total Politics.

Mr Dale, an avowed and thoughtful Conservative, had been seeking to explore the SNP's attitude towards the Tories. His theory was that the previous hatred had dissipated.

Mr Salmond acknowledged that he had tried to bring the SNP "into the mainstream of Scotland", developing a competitive economic agenda, cutting red tape.

However, he argued that the SNP retained a strong social conscience - in line, he argued, with Scottish predilections and in contradistinction, he claimed, to the position espoused by Margaret Thatcher.

Then, citing that issue of social conscience, he added: "One of the reasons Scotland didn't take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. We didn't mind the economic side so much. But we didn't like the social side at all."

Cue rival outrage. Labour suggested that Mr Salmond should "hang his head in shame".

Thatcherite economics, they argued, had closed Scotland's shipyards and pits, destroying jobs.

Mr Salmond's reply? This was "total tosh". He hadn't praised Thatcherite economics.

Rather he had suggested that her social policies were more hateful still. He had gone on, he stressed, to suggest that Lady Thatcher's supporters wrongly claimed the legacy of Adam Smith, neglecting the moral dimension of Kirkcaldy's finest.

I suspect, however, that if Mr Salmond were entirely confident in what he had said in the interview, he would not have taken the time and trouble to call Morning Extra. He would have let the words stand alone.

Given a second chance, I doubt that he would have said: "We didn't mind the economic side so much."

Does all this matter? To borrow the first minister's comparative device, not so much as contemporary debate over current issues such as economic growth, housing, education and health care.

Still, one might reasonably expect Labour in future to quote, selectively, from Mr Salmond's comments.

One might expect Mr Salmond to retort, as he did today, that he will not be copying Gordon Brown.

He will not be inviting Lady Thatcher to visit Bute House any time soon.


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