Burning effigies: Alex Salmond is one of the wise guise

alex salmond effigy Image copyright AFP

Effigy update. It appears that one of the grotesque models of Alex Salmond, fashioned by the burghers of Lewes in East Sussex, has been destroyed by fireworks. At time of writing, the fate of the other is unknown.

Mr Salmond can scarcely believe his luck. He relishes being the focus of attention, believing (with Robert Burns) that "the mair they talk, I'm kent the better."

Further, this transient controversy affords him the opportunity to blend satire, mock indignation and mild reproof in a deft and potent combination. His droll response was, frankly, masterly.

I must confess I have always felt faintly queasy over the custom of burning a Guy on a bonfire, in memory of Fawkes of that ilk. Struck me as unnecessarily grim - or indeed Grimm.

Generally preferred the distinct Scottish tradition of Guising - with which it is sometimes, wrongly, confused. In the great and noble city of Dundee, the traditional Hallowe'en cry when traipsing round houses, disguised and seeking goodies, was: "Need'n' ony guisers?"

'Truly woeful'

For those requiring translation, this childlike plea means: "Are you in want of guisers? Would you welcome a brief song or ode (according to taste) in return for money or sweets or, if we must, fruit?"

In particularly plaintive mode, one might expand this by adding "Mrs" or "Mr" at the end of the inquiry. Rejection required the instant display of a sad face.

Much the same countenance, in fact, as worn by the First Minister at Holyrood when Labour's Jackie Baillie marked his homework and found it "truly woeful".

Looking just a little hurt - like a scorned guiser - he shook his head slowly before rallying to rebut Ms Baillie.

She had, in truth, helped him a mite by saying that she dealt in "real people not statistics" - having just pursued the First Minister over a wide range of statistics.

Image copyright PA

Otherwise, Ms Baillie's performance was conspicuously well marshalled. She was constructing an argument which suggested that Scotland's youth were being let down by the education system at school, college and university.

It was, she said, no use the FM pleading that "a big boy did it and ran away." (Ms Baillie is plainly posh. The demotic "done" is generally inserted in that sentence.)

But Mr Salmond responded effectively, listing the "huge successes" of Scottish education, not excluding the preservation of free tuition in universities. A voice could be heard, slightly off mic, saying "yes" and "absolutely". The Education Secretary, it seems, agreed with his boss.

Ruth Davidson for the Tories also pursued the education theme, guided by a slim volume of essays recently advanced by her party. There was, she diagnosed, a "tendency to self-congratulation in Scottish education."

This being a phenomenon which is entirely unknown in politics, Ms Davidson felt it should be tackled. Why, she said, should the provision of school education remain "wedded" to local authorities? Why not try free schools, as in Sweden?

Serious questions

Mr Salmond preferred to contrast Scottish provision with the situation prevailing south of the Border. The education system in England, he said, was "disintegrating", with an evident negative impact on performance. Scotland would not follow suit.

Serious questions, all. But from these to a still graver topic: that of child abuse. Alison McInnes, for the Liberal Democrats, said that complacency must be expunged in Scotland. That theme, again, of self-congratulation.

Ms McInnes noted that the indications from South Yorkshire were that significant weaknesses had been detected in the system for responding to the first reports of abuse. Scotland, she suggested, could not presume that it was immune from a comparable problem.

Mr Salmond replied that there was "no complacency whatsoever" in Scotland. He disclosed to MSPs that there had been a full examination of the issue in Cabinet this week - and that there would be a statement to Parliament next week, setting out suggested initiatives. The chamber sat in silent, still contemplation.