Squabbling mars royal opening of Scots Parliament

THE SCOTTISH Parliament is facing a crisis in support ahead of today's official opening by the Queen. Critics are saying that the promised answer to Scotland's problems has soured in its first 50 days. The "new politics" has produced little more than petty squabbling over allowances, holidays, exalted titles for parliamentary officers and whether the spectacular design for a new building should be abandoned.

"The new Parliament has had virtually no public impact," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. "The continued rows over allowances have smacked of old-fashioned political interest and intrigue. And there has been a lot of criticism of the quality of speeches, not that many people have heard them since they are not being broadcast."

Meanwhile, a time bomb is ticking beneath the fragile coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, prompting one dissident Liberal Democrat, Donald Gorrie, to brand his partners in government, "the biggest bunch of liars you could meet". The Tory leader, David McLetchie, called the Liberal Democrats a "Judas party" for joining the coalition.

There are parallels with Northern Ireland, according to Professor Curtice. "In just the same way, the two sides disagree about what it is they agreed upon initially. That is hardly a recipe for success."

The Parliament's legislative programme, which will not begin until September because MSPs are on summer holiday from tomorrow, has been condemned as "lacking in ambition" by Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party. With little distinctively Scottish in the programme except the abolition of feudal laws, one Labour ministerial insider admitted: "We've made a slow start. At times things have been a bit shambolic."

Mr Gorrie has been more forthright, calling his fellow MSPs "idle" for working shorter, more family-friendly hours than Westminster MPs. There is talk in Labour circles of the failure by the First Minister, Donald Dewar, to match Tony Blair's first 100 days of new initiatives after the 1997 general election. Mr Dewar, better regarded for his disciplinary skills as a former chief whip than as a visionary, is expected to tour Scotland during the summer to regain political momentum.

The party to celebrate the Parliament's official opening began last night as a giant bonfire was lit above Edinburgh, and Scots danced to the pipe- playing Latino rhythms of Salsa Celtica.

Today, the Queen will ride by carriage from her palace at Holyroodhouse to the Parliament building and formally hand over Westminster's devolved powers to Edinburgh, restoring home rule after nearly 300 years. To mark the historic event, Scotland's biggest classical music concert will be held tonight, with picnickers taking to the streets of Edinburgh.

Yet even the opening ceremonies have been marred by discord, as celebrities including Billy Connolly, Sir Alex Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane have turned down invitations to attend because they arrived too late.

Yesterday, Tommy Sheridan, the Socialist MSP, condemned today's formalities, saying: "The elite clique who make up the Scottish establishment will be prancing around in robes and breeches pretending they still live in the middle ages - some of them still do. But if you are a bus driver or a nurse, it will be strictly `no entry'."

Even Douglas Alexander, the Blairist Labour MSP, attacked as a tragedy the "reproduction of obsolete feudal pageantry". He said: "In opting for this poor facsimile of Scotland's feudal past, the organisers missed the opportunity to make the opening ceremony an expression of Scotland's democratic future."

Amid such controversy, once the tidying up starts tomorrow and the MSPs go on holiday, critics will be asking what the celebration was really about.