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Street talk

Brian Taylor | 14:34 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

So now we know. You cannot call your political opponent a "numpty". Nor indeed a "sap".

This election is shaping up to be no fun at all.

To be precise, these were the rulings delivered by Holyrood Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson with regard to Scottish parliamentary exchanges.

Things may be rather more lax during the campaign itself.

So what prompted this torrent of street talk?

MSPs were arguing over the scope of the real terms increase or decrease in Scotland's departmental expenditure limit, as modified by the acceleration of capital expenditure.

I know, I know, doesn't sound like the sort of issue to provoke sound and fury, let alone abuse. But they are sensitive plants, our politicians - or, at least, they are when an election is looming.

'Total fantasy'

The "numpty" insult was hurled at the First Minister Alex Salmond. It came from the Labour front bench, in the neighbourhood of Andy Kerr.

Up with this the PO will not put. Rising magisterially, he demanded a retraction which was swiftly given.

So was the first minister emollient in return? He was not. He called Labour's Iain Gray a "sap" for repeating Budget job-creating claimsm, delivered by the Scotland Office, which, Mr Salmond reckoned, were "total fantasy".

Challenged by a growling PO, Mr Salmond withdrew. He called Mr Gray a "placeman" instead. Much better, I'm sure you'll agree.

The exchanges with the other leaders were comparably sharp. Annabel Goldie for the Tories noted that the Scottish Government's marketing budget appeared to be weighted towards spending in March.

Assuming her most concerned visage, she suggested this was SNP propaganda at the public expense.

Offering reassurance, Mr Salmond insisted it was "vital public information" largely connected with telling the public how to cope with the aftermath of the Big Freeze.

Hasty apology

Tavish Scott for the Lib Dems pursued his complaint about excessive public sector pay.

Mr Salmond said he was doing what he could within the constraint of contracts written by the previous administration (co-proprietor, T. Scott.)

The first minister then went too far. He accused his Lib Dem rival of being a known lawyer. Put right, he hastily apologised and withdrew his remark.

Politicians have faced these problems in the past. Unable to call an opponent a liar in the Commons, Winston Churchill resorted to accusing his counterpart of a "terminological inexactitude".

But, in any case, the best insults are understated. Thus Macmillan saying of his Labour rival: "If Harold Wilson went to school without any boots, it was merely because he was too big for them."

Or - my personal favourite - Ghandi, asked what he thought of Western civilisation.

Quietly, the Mahatma replied that he believed it would be a very good idea.


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