First minister's questions: Ghost of Christmas Future

How compendiously festive it all was. Political leaders sincerely wishing each other the compliments of the season. Have a fine Yule. Merry Christmas.

That done, they then proceeded, equally sincerely, to tear lumps out of each other. I, for one, found that entirely reasonable.

They could, of course, have suspended hostilities entirely for the day. Ach, look, forget it, let's just have a mince pie and a glass of wine, mulled or otherwise.

But it would have been entirely bogus and inconsistent with their customary demeanour.

OK, so some of the weekly indignation is itself a little over-hyped. They do not believe their rivals are the earthly embodiment of all evil - or, at least, not entirely.

But they do differ, one from the other, on policy and practice, as today again amply demonstrated.

Labour's Johann Lamont pursued the first minister over the state of the NHS. Not too wonderful, according to the Lamont diagnosis.

She became notably frustrated when the FM offered her a raft of statistics about patient satisfaction and the like, each with an upward tendency.

It scarcely squared, she argued, with the real experience of those who passed through our hospitals and those who worked in them.

Ms Lamont demanded a review.

At which point, I was for some inexplicable reason reminded of a tale about a former Scottish Office Minister who was facing tough questions in the Commons about his response to storms in Glasgow which had unroofed sundry citizens.

Facing demands for an inquiry, the minister apparently replied: "We don't need an inquiry. What we need are slaters."

I expected a similarly pragmatic reply from Alex Salmond - and he duly obliged, noting that the NHS required resources, not inquiries. Resources which, he argued, were being provided, despite the challenging circumstances.

Mr Salmond's demeanour was notably grave and solicitous throughout. He knows that folk tend to dislike bombast and rhetoric - particularly when it concerns the health service.

The focus then shifted to Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives who also opened with festive cheer but advised that this should not be extended to miscreants.

Festive spirit

She praised a plan to give housebreakers an extra long spell in the slammer for practising their craft over the Christmas season.

Indeed, Ms Davidson was sufficiently keen on the notion to suggest that it might be rolled out across the entire year. Remember, felons, your sentence is not just for Christmas but . . .

Mr Salmond was similarly clear on the issue of felony. He's agin it.

Those inclined to make felonious little plans would be caught and sentenced, especially now that there were more police than previously.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Mr Salmond dismissed calls for an inquiry into the state of the NHS

Somehow, he never quite answered Ms Davidson's precise question other than to say that sentencing was a matter for the courts.

And then it was Willie Rennie's turn.

Would the first minister, he inquired, extend the festive spirit to include the UK coalition? Would he admit that the Cameron/Clegg axis had delivered the goods in terms of improving the economy?

Mr Salmond declined this tempting invitation. Instead, he stressed the relative gains experienced in Scotland on employment figures and the like. Mr Rennie voiced displeasure at this answer.

The FM mentioned, not once but twice, that there was a particular welcome improvement in women's employment. An attempt, no doubt, to address the apparent reluctance of women to countenance independence.

Because, over the exchanges, of course, hovered the ghost of Christmas Future. By this time next year we will know the outcome of the referendum. Today was but a staging post.

Merry Christmas. And, from me, a guid New Year.