First Ministers Questions (FMQs) is the weekly event held in the Scottish parliament that sees the leader of each of the opposition groups question the First Minister on any subject they care to bring up.
Last Thursday’s FMQs saw Labour’s group leader Iain Gray use some fairly insulting language about the Irish economy. Mr Gray described Ireland’s economy as being “on the brink of collapse” and “teetering” on the edge.
This subjective interpretation by Iain Gray of a cash injection of €9 billion by the Irish government into two of the country’s banks was enough for several Scottish journalists to grab the golden opportunity to remind their fellow countrymen and women just how ‘inept’ Scottish people (and Irish people!!) are and how Ireland’s ‘plight’ was proof that we simply couldn’t be trusted to make decisions on our own.
The Daily Record ran the headline:
Labour leader Iain Gray blasts Alex Salmond over ‘daft, deluded & dangerous’ drive for independence.
“ALEX SALMOND’S drive for independence was branded “downright dangerous” yesterday after Ireland agreed a £30bn bank bailout.”
The Celtic Tiger is in danger of becoming extinct
“There were angry exchanges at Holyrood yesterday over the implications for Scotland of the meltdown in the Irish economy.”
The Telegraph’s Alan Cochrane ran with a piece headed:
Ireland’s economic woes poke a hole in Alex Salmond’s ‘arc of prosperity’
“The Scottish Labour leader may well have wanted to emphasise, yet again, that Alex Salmond’s long love affair with all things Irish would have turned incredibly sour if an independent Scotland had had to cope with the collapse of its two big banks”
The Scotsman declined the opportunity to laud Iain Gray opting instead to focus on the First Minister’s error in recalling the surname of the leader of Edinburgh Council:
Salmond left floundering over city leader’s name.
BBC Radio Scotland at tea time described Iain Gray as having launched a “withering attack” on the First Minister. The BBC item also included a bad piece of ham acting on the part of the reporter when describing the moment the First Minister forgot the surname of the Edinburgh councillor.
That was about the gist of it from the Scottish media; Gray’s withering attack, Salmond was ‘deluded’ and the First Minister’s ‘spectacular surname gaffe’. Game set and match to Iain Gray apparently as Scottish news moved on to other matters. But just what did Iain Gray actually say that deserved such headlines, was it a ‘withering attack’, was the biggest blunder in the chamber Alex Salmond’s memory lapse and is it ‘deluded’ to try to emulate Norway?
Some analysis would have been good, indeed one might argue that an objective scrutiny of each claim and counter claim was actually essential if the electorate are to form their own opinion instead of relying on BBC reporters and headline writers.
Given the reluctance on the part of the Scottish media to provide any, let’s have a look at the each of the areas of verbal conflict between Holyrood’s main protagonists.
Before we go further here is the exchange between Alex Salmond and Iain Gray in full that you may form your own opinion, before we give ours:
If we establish that Ireland’s economy is actually in quite decent shape then in one fell swoop Iain Gray’s line of attack crumbles and with it the press headlines. The description of Iain Gray’s attack as ‘withering’ by the BBC itself begins to wither.
This is the problem with many Scottish journalists; they appear to have abandoned any pretence of objective analysis when it comes to public statements from Labour politicians in Scotland. The attack on the Irish economy is a case in point; a cash flow problem with a bank does not mean that the economy is in crisis.
Unfortunately the timing of the Marc Coleman broadcast, early on Saturday morning, means that few Scots will be aware of the actual facts regarding Ireland’s economy. The newspaper headlines and prime time broadcasts from the BBC presented to Scots an image of Ireland and of Iain Gray that the Labour party wanted Scots to see.
If the line taken by Iain Gray on Ireland was as flawed as it appears to have been, what about Mr Gray’s other ‘questions’. We put quotation marks around the word questions because Iain Gray doesn’t really ask questions at FMQs, Labour’s group leader tends to fire off a series of claims, interspersed with personal insults and a lot of pointing, at the First Minister. His outbursts can be quite intemperate at times and unbecoming of someone aspiring to be Scotland’s First Minister – it is as if he is trying to goad rather than elicit answers.
Iain Gray’s line of ‘questioning’ on Thursday didn’t just centre on Ireland. The ‘N’ and ‘O’ words also made an appearance – yes, Norway and Oil were mentioned. Although this was more as a result of skillful manipulation by Alex Salmond who pounced on Iain Gray’s independence theme than any desire on the leader of Labour’s MSPs.
Save for a throwaway line in The Herald, the exchange between Salmond and Gray on this matter was ignored. Could the reason have been that Iain Gray revealed a breathtaking ignorance in his understanding of how Norway’s Oil Fund has been created? Gray seemed to be under the belief that the fund was due entirely to Norway’s state owned company Statoil.
This embarrassing lack of knowledge on Iain Gray’s part has been airbrushed from the reportage of Thursday’s events and, like Marc Coleman’s intervention, will be unknown to the average Scot. BBC Scotland having felt that forgetting the surname of the leader of Edinburgh council was more important than Mr Gray’s ignorance of Norway’s oil fund.
The third area of attack, and the one that Gray was directly alluding to when he raised the example of Ireland, was the banking crisis and the bale out of the two banks that the Scottish media and Unionist parties now longingly refer to as “The Scottish Banks”.
It’s the last refuge of the Labour party as they fight to ensure that Scotland remains under the control of Westminster. That HBOS and RBS received help in the form of taxpayers money to ensure their survival is not in doubt. They were helped out along with Lloyds, Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley (The English banks?). Of course when HBOS and RBS were pumping billions into the UK treasury they were UK banks, only becoming Scottish when Gordon Brown’s de-regulation led to our banking crisis. Another British success and Scottish failure.
Iain Gray tried to insist that funds used to protect the whole of the UK financial sector were in fact solely used in order to bale-out HBOS and RBS. This was another ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of Mr Gray that required no effort on the part of reporting journalists to discover – for the First Minister clearly pointed it out in the chamber.
So, three themes dominated the exchanges between Alex Salmond and Iain Gray; Ireland’s economy, Scottish banks and the Norwegian Oil fund. It is clear that in all three areas the Labour group leader demonstrated a lack of understanding and/or a breathtaking ignorance. What is also clear is that these limitations on the part of Labour’s Holyrood leader did not feature in any prime time broadcasts nor in any subsequent Scottish press reports.
The surname lapse by Salmond? Yep, it was momentarily embarrassing, but the First Minister turned it into a bit of a joke – a description that applies to a few Scottish journalists. Alex Salmond may have forgotten a name but the Scottish media seem to have forgotten most of the exchange.
Finally, the ‘Scottish Banks’ bale-out argument is one of the most bizarre arguments of all against independence. It must be one of the first times in history that a political party (Labour) have held up an example of their own incompetence (banking regulation failure) in order to insist that the mechanism under which the crisis happened (the Union) should remain.
What makes Labour think that an independent Scotland would have allowed her financial institutions to gamble in the same reckless manner as Labour ENCOURAGED them to?
It’s just possible that an independent Scotland would have behaved in a far more prudent manner and would have employed competent banking regulation and thus would not have experienced the same banking crisis.
After all, the small nation most like Scotland did just that, avoiding a recession and a banking crisis and now sits with a massive oil fund.