SNP 'stripling general' has resurrected generation gap: The election of Britain's youngest council leader has provoked protest on Tayside. John Arlidge reports

IT IS 9am at the undertaker's and Britain's youngest council leader arrives for work. 'I'm sorry the office is so cluttered up with coffins,' he says. 'Our supplier is taking his annual holiday, so we had to stock up and we ran out of storage space.'

Ewan Dow, who was elected leader of Tayside Regional Council last week after the head of the ruling Scottish National Party group resigned, has not given up his day job at a funeral director's firm in Kinross. He answers telephone calls from bereaved families - interrupted by inquiries from newspapers and council officials. 'It's pounds 295 for an oak coffin with all the furnishings - cheaper if you want a cremation . . . That's rich coming from the leader of the Tory group . . . Aye, I am seeing the council chief executive about that this afternoon when I have finished work here.'

The election of Mr Dow, a 22-year-old university drop-out who has only just left home, has provoked protest on Tayside. Tory councillors say the appointment of 'an untutored stripling general' has made the region a laughing stock.

Mr Dow, who served as convenor of the council's powerful general purposes committee after his election in the Bridge of Earn and Carse division in May, is angered by the criticism. He insists he has the right qualities to head a local authority which spends pounds 500m each year providing work and local services for 400,000 people from Montrose to Perth. 'I have the political nous to do the job. My colleagues recognised that when they elected me.' He points to seven years of working for the SNP in Fife and at the University of Aberdeen - 'before I was asked to leave after failing my computer science exams' - as proof of political experience and maturity. 'Obviously, there is a difference in style between student politics and the so-called 'grown-up' variety, but the machinations are the same,' he says.

Although his youth means 'silly mistakes' are inevitable, Mr Dow insists it also gives him advantages, which 'the doddery old men and women who characterise British political life ignore at their peril'.

Mr Dow's tenure at Tayside House will be cut short in 1996 when the council is abolished under government plans to reorganise Scottish local government. He says he will stand for election to the new Perthshire and Kinross single-tier authority, after which 'national' office beckons.

(Photograph omitted)