Scots' new Parliament gets nasty

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY SAW the moment that the new Scottish Parliament turned nasty, when the New Politics soured and Westminster habits returned.

It came when the SNP's Roseanna Cunningham, part of that great influx of female MSPs said to be civilising Parliamentary practice, began to savage Jim Wallace, Scotland's new Deputy First Minister, in an attack on the coalition.

"He claims to be a Liberal Democrat," said Ms Cunningham, as Mr Wallace awaited the house's confirmation of his post of Justice Minister. "I see very little liberal or democratic about him and precious little justice. So I would have him struck from the list.

"Promises," she said, "were made by the Liberal Democrats which are not going to be kept. Jim Wallace has shown that neither he nor his party can be trusted." Mr Wallace, there to defend his party's coalition with Labour, squirmed.

It was the first proper debate in the Scottish Parliament. But already the braying "hear hears", the banging of desks and the ritualistic personal abuse, so reminiscent of the Commons, could be heard.

Even David McLetchie, the Conservative leader, apparently untarnished by Westminster where he has never held a seat, settled into the style of the mother of Parliaments. "The Liberal Democrats," he declared, "have been exposed for what they are, totally unprincipled and happy to act as Labour's lapdogs."

Mr Wallace, he said, had misled the electorate and "hoodwinked" his colleagues. The new administration, with 22 ministers, said Mr McLetchie, was "bloated and needed to go on a diet". It would be best to remove Mr Wallace and his fellow Liberal Democrat cabinet member, Ross Finnie. "They are too rich, indigestible and unpalatable."

Donald Dewar, the First Minister, had opened the debate on his Cabinet choices and warned: "The opposition seems to be on automatic pilot." At one point, he sighed: "I get a terrible sense of deja vu."

An alliance of the Conservatives and their arch enemies, the SNP, were determined to round on Mr Wallace. Their weapon was university tuition fees, which all the parties, except Labour, have promised to abolish. The Liberal Democrats, in joining the coalition, had betrayed the cause, said the other parties. "We will put our view that tuition fees must be abolished. There is no sell-out." protested Liberal Democrat MSP George Lyon.

But his opponents were unimpressed. Ms Cunningham declared: "The actual majority in the Parliament will be overridden or side-stepped. That's not democracy. It's not what the people expected." She concluded with a statement which perhaps spoke as much of the debate as it did of the Liberal Democrat's: "We are in danger of engendering real disappointment among the voters."

The vote on the cabinet went Mr Dewar's way. All his ministers were confirmed in their posts. It was unclear, however, whether the public felt this first debate signalled the new type of Parliament that they had been promised for so long.