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In the ‘Roman de Fergus’, the hero must travel to Dunnottar to retrieve a magic shield

Scotland has a new hero. He’s called Fergus and he comes from Galloway. He sung his way onto the stage at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh last night (Tuesday 10th December ) in the world premiere of a new operetta by Alexander McCall Smith and Tom Cunningham.

Fergus of GallowayScotland’s master storyteller has retold a 13th century tale of a knight from Galloway who wins the approval of King Arthur and the hand of the beautiful princess of Lothian, Galiene. A series of 12 poems sees Fergus hunting stags in the forest, defeating evil knights, rescuing the lovely Galiene from a siege at Roxburgh and, of course, marrying her. “I believe in happy endings,” McCall Smith told the audience afterwards. “ But of course the Le Roman de Fergus, written in courtly French, was a send-up, a parody of the King Arthur legend.”

And the 8-member cast of the Edinburgh Studio Opera brought all the humour to life. This is an operetta mainly for the chorus and their chorus work was superb. Every face told the story, every word could be heard and their movements around the stage were assured and precise.

Alexander McCall Smith  believes in 'happy endings'

Alexander McCall Smith
believes in ‘happy endings’

Tom Cunningham’s music too was delightful, flowing natural tunes with a pacey accompaniment provided by Stuart Hope on the piano and Emma Donald on the violin.

The whole show reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan with its immediately appealing music and its comic observations on our social manners.

As McCall Smith said afterwards; “Almost everything we do has a deeply symbolic meaning, if we care to look for it.” And while this, like the opera, was meant as a joke, there is a slight element of truth in it and this is what gives the comedy backbone.

Scotland’s independence debate illuminates an unspoken truth about Britain’s national tensions

by David Gray
Freelance Journalist

The great cacophony created by Scotland’s independence debate has been so deafening you could easily have missed it. In the rush to claim all manner of glories or horrors for Scottish independence, the sabre rattling has all but annihilated a telling silence at the heart of the battle – the curious absence of its political bedfellow, south of the border. Independence for England?

No Debate on the  Future of England

No Debate on the
Future of England

It is an idea that contradicts nearly every notion we have about Britain’s biggest nation – as if even considering the concept would confound the emotional, psychological and political instincts which lie at the heart of public debate in these islands.

Merely asking the question throws up a confusion of reactions. A void exists around the subject, and it is only now, as the United Kingdom is forced to consider its future ahead of the Scottish independence referendum, that the idea is exposed a surprisingly potent taboo. It is a taboo born of politics. But it extends far beyond the limited worldview of the political classes, into nearly every facet of public life.

Whether or not independence is right for Scotland has dogged the nation’s chatter, from fireplace to tearoom, from pub to Parliament. Tongues are alive with the meat of the argument, and its nuances, and nearly everyone has an opinion. Barely a day passes when the subject is not grist to the Scottish media – the newspapers and magazines, television and radio fizz with the debate. It has become part of the fabric of daily life, and the spinners and plotters on both sides of the divide are working extremely hard to keep it that way.

Cross the border into England, however, and an entirely different picture emerges. Despite the frenzy created by the Scottish debate, some of which has filtered to other parts of the UK, the concept of independence for England has simply not fired the public imagination. The cultural and political cross-fertilisation which often happens between Scotland and England has resulted here in silence, in a curious void. It is an enigmatic silence, with no immediate explanation.

The Independence High Ground  Seized in Scotland

The Independence High Ground
Seized in Scotland

This may in part be due to the nationalistic tendencies of the English far-right, notably the BNP and English Defence League, and whose policies are so offensive to vast majority of English people that ideas of independence, whether by accident or design, have gradually been assimilated into the murky world of proto-fascist campaigns, rallies and high-profile anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and anti-European rhetoric.

By contrast, in Scotland, the independence high ground has been seized by the SNP, a mainstream centre-left party that has been very successful in persuading both socialist-leaning Labour and middle class Liberal Democrat voters to join its ranks, and who could in no way be associated with the extreme views of far-right nationalists in England.

But the activities of small numbers of English fascists and their flag-waving nationalism only shade part of the answer. While their behaviour taints the concept of nationalist politics south of the border, there is no convincing sign that independence for England, as an idea, is likely to break into the mainstream any time soon. And if that were to happen, a democratic party would soon evolve to capture that support, as it did in Scotland. Which begs the question – why not? Why is Middle England so immune to the concept of independence?

Understanding the reasons, which are woven into the fabric of the two nations’ shared history, begins with a bad marriage – or at least, a fractious one. No one – whether for or against Scottish independence, would argue that the bonding of England and Scotland was ever destined to be a Union made in heaven.

The Royal Bank of Scotland came into being as a result of The ill-fated Darien Scheme

The Royal Bank of Scotland
came into being as a result of
The ill-fated Darien Scheme

The record shows that there was rioting in Scotland when the Parliaments north and south of the border merged in 1707. The record also shows that this deeply unpopular Union, signed in secret, was driven partly by Scottish failure, after the economic collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama. This attempt at colonialism had left Scotland with crippling debt and the nation’s “nobles” realised their woes could be substantially solved by trading Scotland’s sovereignty for a Union with their more powerful, and wealthier, neighbour south of the border.

Ironically, although the Union was born partly of Scottish failure and birthed the idea of Scotland as inferior to its more colonially-successful neighbour, the Scots went on to excel during the golden era of the British Empire, and subsequent Enlightenment, making a stellar contribution out of all proportion to their relatively tiny population.

This story captures an essential element of the national Scottish psyche. Success born of failure – a grandiose, historically-acknowledged triumph from the ashes of humiliating disaster and, here, it was a triumph inextricably bound to notions of “Britishness” and the Union.



But this success, ultimately – and with the rich irony that has often characterised the British experiment, motivated demands for a return to Scottish self-determination. The arguments being made today have their first echo in the late 19th century, during Prime Minister William Gladstone’s era, and sounded again in 1913, and 1979; but then, as today, Scotland’s national sense of pre-eminence, for some, could not be split from a belief that the Union had been the catalyst for this success.

Inevitably, the failure of these campaigns only heightened the sense of duality in Scotland’s national character, and at the start of the 21st century, it is more pronounced than ever. The landslide Scottish election victory of the Scottish National Party in 2011 has only served to heighten this tension, as latest opinion polls show that only around one-third of voters, at most, are convinced by arguments for independence.

No-one would argue, on this basis, that independence is a done deal, and once again, the country is split. Nationalists know they must work hard to convince the one in four undecided voters, while the proportion in favour of the Union – around half of those polled in most surveys, suggests that even if the SNP is successful in winning over more middle ground voters, the final battle in 2014 may be balanced on a knife edge.

It is a scenario that reinforces the history of the Scottish psyche, and the absence of any debate on English independence in 2013 well illustrates a profound difference between the two countries. England is by far the most powerful nation in a Commonwealth of more than 50 countries, and from this perspective, is beholden to nobody. Its psychological development as a nation has tracked a course defined by control and influence on a global scale.

The British Commonwealth

The British Commonwealth

And here lies the crux of the independence argument. Although part of a British Commonwealth, there is no precedence for England seeking independence from a world in which it has no larger power to answer to. Instinctively gravitating towards securing that position and maintaining British influence – illustrated recently by the verbal spat with the Argentinian government over the Falkland Islands – the English national psyche has not been forced to develop in thrall to any outside influence.

Sometimes silence can be as meaningful and revealing as any number of carefully chosen words. In the case of English independence, as a taboo subject in public debate, it says much about that nation’s history, social psychology and unspoken ambition.

That it took another heated argument about Scottish independence to illuminate this truth suggests a conundrum. It shows again how Scotland and England interact, for good or ill, and exposes a virtually impenetrable complexity in the relationship between the two countries – a Union forged in adversity, from unequal forces, and shaped by profound differences in national character.

Whether those differences favour the Union, or an independent Scotland, will always be a matter of opinion. But it seems that a Great British taboo, which lies at the heart of the relationship between Scotland and England, may be one idea that will ultimately help to crystallise, and define, the answer.

Ends (1,323 words).

snp1In a major new campaign initiative, First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday launched the Scottish Futures Fund – a £250 million fund, paid for by savings secured by the SNP Government from the Forth Replacement Crossing project.

The Scottish Government had included in its budget planning £1.87 billion of spending on the Forth Replacement Crossing between now and 2016, but thanks to negotiation and procurement, and the work of the Scottish Futures Trust, the cost of the bridge has been reduced to £1.54 billion.

If re-elected, an SNP Government intends to invest savings from the Forth Replacement in a £250 million Scottish Futures Fund initiative. The Futures Fund will support five key projects of £50 million each in order to strengthen Scotland’s society and economy and prepare the nation for the challenges of the future. The five futures projects will be:

• Young Scots Fund
• Next Generation Digital Fund
• Sure Start Fund
• Warm Homes Fund
• Future Transport Fund

Publishing the Scottish Futures Fund initiative – and setting out the Sure Start Fund – Mr Salmond said:

“The new Forth Crossing is our bridge to better times. The largest construction project in Scotland’s history, it will support 3,000 jobs and ensure connectivity between north and south.

“The bridge will also help deliver a Scotland that is fairer, stronger and greener. Thanks to skillful negotiation and procurement, and the work of the Scottish Futures Trust, the SNP government has achieved substantial savings on the cost of the crossing. We intend to invest these savings in a £250 million Scottish Futures Fund.”

Want to discuss other issues? Join in the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Mr Salmond also welcomed news that Alexander Dennis Limited – the Falkirk-based bus manufacturer – is to build over 160 vehicles for FirstGroup which means that in recent weeks the company has secured orders for over 500 buses, worth in the region of £100 million.

Visiting the company yesterday, the First Minister said:

“This is great news for Falkirk and Scotland. The success of Alexander Dennis shows what can be achieved with a positive and confident attitude about the future.

“The jobs they have secured show that will mean increased investment which can mean the strengthening of Falkirk’s and Scotland’s economic position. It is companies like Alexander Dennis which can help Scotland’s economic recovery. Protecting and delivering jobs as the Scottish economy recovered is a key part of the SNP’s economic strategy and this contract does just that.

“The work force at Alexander Dennis are very dedicated and I have no doubt they will be delighted at this announcement.”

The SNP has also yesterday signed up to NUS Scotland’s Reclaim Your Voice campaign, committing to:

1. Improve student support
2. Protect graduate numbers and college places
3. Rule out tuition fees.

The campaign is calling on every candidate standing for election to go beyond election promises to make cast-iron commitments to students.

Commenting after he signed up to the commitments Education Secretary and SNP Candidate for Argyll & Bute, Michael Russell, said:

“At this election, I am proud to stand on the SNP’s record of restoring free education in Scotland and proud to sign the NUS pledge to keep it that way.”

greens2Yesterday’s plan from the Scottish Liberal Democrats to resell Scottish Water’s debt to fund a one-off set of spending plans is pure fantasy, Greens have said.

The move would see additional bonds sold to refinance an existing £2.75bn debt, and even if the Treasury decided not to reclaim the income, the outcome would see yet another public sector institution handed over to the markets.

Patrick Harvie said:

“This is fantasy island economics from the Lib Dems. You can’t build a sustainable future for Scottish public services by handing them over to loan sharks and doubling down on the debt. It’s the exact same financial illiteracy which sent the whole economy down the plughole not so long ago.

“Even Margaret Thatcher never managed to flog off Scottish Water, and this daft idea simply won’t wash. Tavish Scott’s campaign has been floundering for weeks now, but today it is officially dead in the water.”

Mr Harvie’s statement came as Greens published figures showing that the party’s offer of free membership to disillusioned Lib Dem members has been downloaded 800 times in just six days, almost once every ten minutes night and day.

Another surge was expected yesterday as the Lib Dems launched a manifesto which makes no mention of their decision to put the Conservatives into power at Westminster, their decision to treble tuition fees, their u-turn on nuclear power, or their support for the cuts to public services in Scotland.

Commenting on the figures, Patrick Harvie said:

“There are a lot of disillusioned Lib Dems out there, appalled at the decisions they’ve taken on fees, on cuts to public services, on nuclear power and on Royal Mail privatisation. If the polls are to be believed, Scotland has now seen right through them, and we have had an extraordinary response to our offer to Lib Dem members to join the Greens for free. More than eight hundred people have downloaded the form from our website in just six days.

“Everyone in Scotland knows what Lib Dem manifestos mean – absolutely nothing. They make empty promises on the environment, and then back deepwater oil drilling, unsustainable new motorways and bungs to the aviation industry. This is a manifesto that would literally hand over the scrutiny of business over to business itself, while privatising and cutting public services, the very same model which led to the collapse of the banks.”

The Alternative Debate: In the spirit of open discussion, The Caledonian Mercury is giving the leaders of Scotland’s main parties the chance to explain why you should vote for them. Here Patrick Harvie, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, says why you should back it.

<em>Picture: Ed Miliband</em>

Picture: Ed Miliband

I’d the great pleasure of hearing Labour leader Ed Miliband speak at the weekend. I say “great pleasure” in the relative sense; compared, say, to having my nose amputated without anaesthetic.

Iain Gray, the party’s leader in Scotia, is one thing – feel free to add your choice of adjective as to what kind of thing. But – and this is going to sound incredible – he was better than his boss when it came to public speaking and showing a bit of personality. I’ll just read that last sentence back. Iain Gray, personality, better. There’s something odd about it, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Ed is odd. A dweeb, doubtless, but a dweeb who hopes to lead this great nation of theirs – England and the Other Bits. All parties go through a period of unsuitable leaders before striking paydirt. Say what you like about Blair, he had the X-factor. Following that up with Broon was madness. And now this fellow. He comes across as the sort of man who has a budgie.

I bet if, as an investigative journalist, you had just cause to enter his lavatory, you’d find the sheets of loo roll numbered.

It just goes to show that you should never leave politics to political parties. Remember the Tories had Iain Duncan Smith? William Hague? No country in modern history has ever elected a bald person to office. Until David Steel’s legislation of 1968, bald people didn’t even have the right to vote. They had to sit up the back on public transport.

It was a form of apartheid (see what I did there; heid – oh forget it). That was what did for John Swinney when he was made leader of the SNP. Honest John, beloved by all, a good, decent man, even his political enemies would concede. But he just didn’t have that number one, leader, top banana thang.

No-one was more surprised at Iain Gray, known to the nation as Elmer Fudd, getting the leadership of Labour in Scotland. From day one, when he was an MSP back on yon Mound, I’d marked him out for his soporific qualities. He enters a boisterous, joyful social gathering and, immediately, it all goes quiet, the silence eventually broken only by a sudden sob.

But, when you look at who else might lead Labour, you have to laugh. Andy Kerr? Richard Baker? Wendy Alexander? Oh, I forgot, the last-named gave it a go.

I don’t think the Nats can rest easy either. Deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has one foot on the tiller, as it were, but I fear she lacks that instinct for the jugular. She’s sane and rational, which doesn’t help. And she’s a bit of a lawyer, too.

Ecksforth Salmond, the current leader, has it all – a bruiser with a brain – but must beware the pitfalls of hubris. In particular, he needs to avoid his gambler’s habit of predicting things: Scotland free by 2003; returned to power within the hour; I’m a little elf by 2012.

Michael Russell is statesmanlike and smart, possibly even the best speaker in Holyrood, but he’s suspected of being a bit of a trimmer, somewhat flexible with his principles.

I remember during the fox-hunting debate, Mike seemed happy to go along with most sensible people on the issue, until he remembered his constituency was full of red-coated nutters, and so he hesitated about a ban. It was only when he stood up to speak that we noticed he had a riding crop stuck up his arse.

And, as the Declaration of Arbroath makes clear, Scotland will never be ruled by a man “bearing ye appendages of the anus”.

Anyway, leadership isn’t a problem for the Nats at the moment. Between Ed at Westminster and Elmer at Holyrood, this is a double-whammy of goofiness.

Elmer put on a decent performance at the weekend – perhaps because he wasn’t spitting bile directly at Eck – but I stress the word “performance”. I believed he even moved his arm at one point, and doctors at the scene pronounced he was alive. But the content was the most shocking bilge, utterly devoid of ideas. I’d the misfortune of hearing several delegates speak beforehand.

Put it this way: it is never difficult to distinguish between Labour conference and an edition of Mastermind. Utterly clueless and, as you would expect, banging on with old insults about Ireland and Iceland. In a surprise development, nobody mentioned our similarly sized, oil-rich neighbour Norway, nor yet Denmark, Sweden, nor even, if you will, Switzerland (population 9 million) or – why not? – the Netherlands (population 16 million, bigger than us but much smaller than Britannia). For the Brit Nats, though, it’s all about being a big boy strutting about the world stage.

On the stage in Glasgow at the weekend, Ed strutted about like a pished gerbil with a gammy leg . In Nat circles, much has been made of the fact that he spoke largely about English matters and avoided talking about Scotland. Indeed, he seemed nervous about the whole thing, particularly when any mention of “nation” or “national” came up.

I made a note of this at the time, because I had a written copy of the speech (reluctantly provided, I have to say), and most of the departures from the text occurred at these points.

The written speech spoke of the Tories breaking apart the NHS, the verbal one added “in England”. Ed spoke of schools being axed, this time deleting “in England”. The written speech burbled about Labour “at a national level”. In the delivered speech, he missed that bit out.

The Conservative-led coalition, he said, threatened the living standards of “us all”, where the original text said “the whole country”.

I wasn’t intending textual analysis. The differences, particularly the last noted, don’t mean a great deal in themselves. It’s just that, every time he came to anything mentioning “national” or “country”, he seemed to panic, and changed what was otherwise a mostly verbatim delivery.
It hinted at discomfort, as if he’d been briefed beforehand: “Remember to be careful about the country, the nation, and so forth. Don’t want to upset the Scotch.”

Still, at least Ed’s appearance inadvertantly helped Labour’s cause in Scotlandshire: he made Iain Gray look good.

Wendy AlexanderFormer Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander announced today she was quitting frontline politics.

One of the undoubted political heavyweights on Labour’s Holyrood benches, Ms Alexander’s departure will leave a gap her party will find hard to fill.

Ms Alexander said she wanted to spend more time with her young family.

The MSP for Paisley North has found it difficult to find a role since she quit the Scottish Labour leadership in 2008 after a long-running controversy over funding for her leadership election.

Ms Alexander was a protégé of the then Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar in 1997 and became an MSP in the first parliamentary intake in 1999.

She considered standing for the leadership after Henry McLeish’s resignation in 2001 but decided not do so, allowing Jack McConnell to assume the party leadership and the First Minister’s job.

Ms Alexander quit Mr McConnell’s Cabinet after being loaded with a massive portfolio by the First Minister.

She returned to the backbenches but challenged for the leadership, and won, after Mr McConnell stood down in 2007.
But her leadership was short-lived. She courted controversy first by urging the SNP to “bring it on” over the independence referendum and then after it emerged that she had accepted donations to her leadership campaign funds from someone who was not entitled to give political donations in this country.

The pressure intensified until she quit at the summer in 2008.

A Scottish Labour spokesperson said today:
“Labour will now start the process to select a new candidate for the Paisley seat. We all wish Wendy the very best for the future.”

1. Letter from Wendy Alexander to Iain Gray
Iain Gray MSP
Scottish Labour Leader
Scottish Parliament
17 February 2011

Dear Iain
As you know, I have been considering my position. My children turned five this week. The demands of politics mean I could miss out on them growing up. Many politicians have claimed they wish to “spend more time with their family”. In my own case it is quite simply true.

And so it is with regret that I have to inform you that I will not be standing again at the forthcoming elections.
I have been hugely privileged, enjoying fourteen years at the heart of Scottish politics. It began working with Donald on the first Scotland Bill. And last year I was delighted, at your request, to convene the Scottish Parliament committee examining the second Scotland Bill.

I have served in the Cabinets of all Labour First Ministers and I hope and believe, you too will attain this high office in the near future. If so honoured, I know you will bring dignity, integrity, ability and authenticity to the role. But it is time for me to seek a new life, outside active politics.

Since 1999 I have had the honour of representing the people of Paisley, Renfrew and Linwood. I’d like to thank them for their support. My work for the constituency wouldn’t have been possible without the help of local Labour members, and my dedicated staff. I’d like to express my gratitude to them.

Throughout my time as an MSP my parliamentary duties have come first. Hence I have made no future plans. I look forward to discovering new and exciting challenges outside politics.

It is of course a wrench to leave. At its best, politics is still a noble undertaking borne of high ideals. I know you, and all our colleagues, are dedicated to advancing Labour’s values in the forthcoming Parliament and beyond. But twelve years after Donald set us all on that exciting journey it is time for me to move on.

I may be leaving the front line, but you can be assured of my continuing support.
Yours sincerely,
Wendy Alexander MSP

2. Letter from Iain Gray to Wendy Alexander
Dear Wendy

It is with considerable regret that I accept your decision to stand down from the Scottish Parliament at the forthcoming election. There is no greater responsibility, or pleasure, than that of raising a family. Too often the pressures of being a parent, and far too often the duties of being a mother, come into conflict with the demands placed on a modern politician. Your decision is one that I greatly respect and I know that respect is shared by all of your colleagues in the Labour Party.
Over the last twelve years you have represented the people of Paisley, Renfrew and Linwood with passion, integrity and with their best interests as your first political priority. Working with Donald Dewar, as one of the authors of the Scotland Act that brought our Parliament into being, you made an indelible political mark in our country’s history. As a minister you pursued your goal of a Smart, Successful Scotland with imagination and vigour. In your time as leader of our party you began the process of listening to the people of Scotland that has led so many thousands of people to place their trust and hopes with Labour again. Over the last few months you have taken forward the work of the Calman Commission to deliver more powers for our Parliament.

Your political career has been marked by an intellectual excitement and a strength of belief in the values of social justice and equality that are the best of the Labour tradition. On behalf of our party I thank you for your contribution to Labour and to Scotland. I know we will continue to work together to the betterment of both.

Iain Gray

Iain GrayWhat do you do if, through your own polling, you find something which might prove uncomfortable for your opponent? If you are Alex Salmond and your opponent is Iain Gray, you sit on it.

Why? Because the SNP leader has decided that any publicity, however much it might embarrass the Scottish Labour leader in the short term, would raise his profile and that‘s not what he wants to do.

As is the case with every major party these days, the SNP conducts opinion polling of its own. The questions are often more specific than in major, public opinion polls because the party concerned wants to discover public attitudes to particular issues and politicians.

The SNP polled across Scotland on the relative public profiles of Mr Salmond and his Labour opponent, Mr Gray.

The results were startling. They surprised even the more experienced members of the SNP campaign team. They showed that almost everyone knew who Mr Salmond was but, for Mr Gray, public recognition was embarrassingly low.

What to do with results? There was a move by some in the SNP to make the results public, to embarrass Mr Gray by showing just how anonymous he is in Scotland.

This short-term political hit was dismissed by Mr Salmond who decided, after some of the newspapers had been sounded out about the idea, that the results would not be released.

He didn’t do it to save his opponent from a political bashing, nor because he wanted to conduct the debate on a higher intellectual plane. He did it because he didn’t want to be responsible for even the smallest breath of publicity going the way of his Labour opponent.

It is better to keep Mr Gray out of the papers, the SNP leader reasoned, then put him in the papers – even in an embarrassing way.
And this is the way the SNP is going to operate until polling day in May. Don’t mention Mr Gray unless you have to and never give him a platform to build his profile. SNP managers know that, in Mr Salmond, they have the most recognisable politician in Scotland and, in a tight race, that could be one of the deciding factors.

It is true that Mr Gray is in a difficult position. He is the first Scottish Labour leader to go into an election since devolution without the status and recognition that office brings.

Donald Dewar was Scottish Secretary when he fought the election in 1999. Jack McConnell was First Minister when he fought the elections of 2003 and 2007.

Mr Salmond was not the incumbent when he won in 2007 but he had been in front-line politics for 20 years or more so was well known to the voters.

Mr Gray doesn’t have that advantage but, more than that, he is fighting someone in Mr Salmond who boasts 90 per cent or more public recognition (according to a straw poll in The Scottish Daily Mail today).

It is always difficult, fighting an incumbent in office but more so when that person is very well known and you are not. But Labour don’t – as yet – seem to have done anything to try to change this imbalance. Mr Gray’s speech at last year’s Scottish Labour conference was the first real attempt to get across the personal, the passionate and the committed sides to his character.
However, no-one really watched that speech outside the Scottish political village, where everyone knows who he is anyway. The task for Labour is to try to raise Mr Gray’s profile with ordinary voters because they haven’t done much good at that so far.

A Daily Mail reporter asked voters outside Mr Gray’s constituency office in East Lothian whether they knew who he was and only eight out of twenty recognised his picture – while 19 out of 20 recognised Mr Salmond. If he can’t score better than that in the heart of his own constituency, then he really is in trouble.

SNP strategists know this which is why this campaign, for them, will be all about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists know this as well, which is why their campaign will be about everything except Mr Salmond.
As a result, we are set for a strange personality campaign which will be all about Mr Salmond from one side but not about Mr Gray and all about Mr Gray from the other side and not about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists believe that their man will benefit from the leaders’ debates, and they may be right. These events tend to favour the challenger, not the incumbent, because it puts both on an equal footing – at least for the duration of the debate.

Mr Gray will be able to raise his profile during those debates but will have to hope that he also is seen as combative and competent enough to score a draw with Mr Salmond in the content of the debates as well.

If he isn’t, then no amount of publicity or profile raising will off-set the boost Mr Salmond will get from winning the debate itself.
It has been a good week for the SNP. First, the £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, then a poll in The Times yesterday giving the Nationalists a lead over Labour which would see them back in charge of the Scottish Government.

As a result, the election race is wide open. If they haven’t realised it already, Labour strategists should know by now that they are in a real fight to win the election in May. They also know that Labour in general and Mr Gray in particular have to start fighting if they are not to lose their second contest in a row to the SNP.

Radio Beacon

Radio Beacon

The so-called Special Relationship. We give them hand-carved ornaments, they give us the DVDs they forgot to post back to LoveFilm.

The currency exchange in pop is similarly uneven. The BRITs this year was a game effort by Universal Records’ David Joseph to return to the concept of being All About the Music. Unfortunately the newspapers preferred to concentrate on the important mattter of Cheryl Cole’s dress.

The Blackpool pier fare on offer at London’s O2 will always take second place to the Bob Fosse razzmatazz of the Grammys. Here were the ten main differences between Sunday night and Tuesday night’s shows:

1 The Grammys is longer. With a stiff breeze behind you and a decent fastforward on your planner, you can skip ads and do the BRITs in under 90 minutes. The American awards ceremony lasts three and a half hours.

2 The Grammys had its best ratings in a decade. The Brits its worst in five years.

3 Janelle Monae rocks a better quiff than Bruno Mars. But both rock a better quiff than Boris Becker.

4 Perhaps it was understandable touchiness over Rodney King or concern about Ice T getting past security but The Grammys are more sensitive about keeping their riot police separate from the performers. Perfectly reasonable when Plan B is setting a rozzer on fire.

5 Rock remains in trouble on both sides of the Atlantic as far as the mainstream is concerned. Arcade Fire did drag the Grammys into the 21st Century with their surprise win for Album of the Year. Although the Canadians won two BRITs, the main winners and stories in the UK were either pop (Take That, Justin Bieber), rap (Tinie Tempah) or alt-country (Laura Marling, the Mumfords).

In the US, Muse, Jay Z and Alicia picked up awards but country MOR stars Lady Antellebum won the big one, for Record of the Year, and The Bieber also won two Grammys. Arcade Fire aside, no way could this ceremony be described as “rad.”

6 At The Grammys, Mumford and Sons were joined by the Avett Brothers, Bob Dylan and an unnecessary yellow trucker cap. Not so much of a collaboration as acts on the same stage at the same time until His Bobness arrives to sing Maggie’s Farm.

Only the yellow trucker cap crossed the Atlantic when the Mumford family business hit London.

7 Stateside, things are just that bit slicker. BRIT award-winners Justin Bieber (yes, him again) and Tinie Tempah called for, respectively, his international bodyguard Mike and producer Labrinth to join them on stage. Cue: minutes of dead air, and only Mike responding to the call. The awkward silence could have been interrupted, although that might have involved Bieber singing.

Small point: next time an entertainment figure clambers onstage to say “This means so much more because it was voted for the public”, just say: “Four words – Justin Bieber, Brits 2011.”

The other telling stage episode was Arcade Fire’s Win Butler thanking all the British artists who have inspired him, mentioning Bowie, Culture Club and The Clash and chronologically only going up to New Order and The Smiths. No current acts. Like Adam Ant, he struggled to get past the ‘80s. Awards presenters Duran Duran and Boy George must have been secretly chuffed.

8 Cee Lo Green’s Forget You performance
At The BRITs: with Paloma Faith.
At the Grammys: Dressed as Elton John meets Carmen Miranda, with Jim Henson’s Muppets and Gwyneth Paltrow.

9 There is one area where we Brits are ahead of the game. Brits 2010 starred Lady Gaga, and Florence and the Machine who won Best Album. Both were at Grammys 2011. Brits 2011 starred Adele and Tinie Tempah. Expect the pair to try and gatecrash Grammys 2012. Cheryl Cole might be more reliant on a plus one from Simon Cowell. The BRITs is also more cutting edge generally than the Grammys. In the same year (1995) Blur’s Damon Albarn screamed “Wake up, America” at their fourth victory speech, the best Grammy album was Tony Bennett: Unplugged.

10 No-one at The Grammys said anything as jaw-droppingly inane as James Corden’s introduction: “Be upstanding for the legend that is…Dermot O’ Leary.” To recap: he’s ordering a standing ovation for a presenter. He’s dropped the L-word. In connection with… Dermot O’ Leary. Our proud nation can at least console itself that no-one spent three days in an egg preparing for The BRITs. Yeah, exactly. Wake Up, America.

<em>Picture: Scottish Government</em>

Picture: Scottish Government

Mike Russell is, without doubt, the most combative and articulate of Alex Salmond’s ministers – but he will need every ounce of that skill if he is to crush completely the allegations, claims and counter claims swirling around him at the moment.

The Education Secretary is under attack over claims that he may have broken the rules governing the conduct of MSPs and ministers over his intervention in plans to close primary schools in Argyll and Bute.

This has come about because of a highly unusual – perhaps even unique – set of circumstances. Mr Russell is the Education Secretary. If, as has happened in the past, the Education Secretary has to deal with school closures in his or her own constituency, then the system has provisions to allow that to happen. The minister would be allowed to intervene as a constituency MSP – as long as he then passes the ultimate decision on the closures to another minister.

In this case, however, Mr Russell is not the constituency MSP for Argyll and Bute but he has a very real interest in the seat. Mr Russell is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Argyll and Bute and that is where this whole issue gets really messy.

There is no real provision in the guidance issued to MSPs or ministers to cope with this unusual situation. Mr Russell’s future as a politician hangs, to a large extent, on the result of the Argyll and Bute constituency vote in May. He has campaigned in the constituency, he is desperately trying to win votes in the constituency, he lives in the constituency and his wife is a teacher in the constituency: yet he is not the MSP for the area – hence the trouble he is now in.

Mr Russell knew that the closure of more than 20 rural primary schools would be an election issue and he, as the Education Secretary, might well end up getting the blame and suffering at the polls as a result.

So, what was he to do? Get involved but stress that he was doing so as the SNP candidate, not the Education Secretary? Or try to influence the SNP group on the council to retreat on the closure plans? Mr Russell has apparently tried to do both while attempting to stay onside with the both the Ministerial Code and MSPs’ code.

The results have been confusing, to say the least, which is why Mr Russell now faces an investigation by Holyrood’s standards commissioner.

This is what appears to have happened. In November last year, the parents at one of the threatened schools invited Mr Russell to a meeting. He cleared this with Jim Mather, the constituency MSP, but did not, apparently, inform the council’s education department.

At the meeting, he clearly told the parents he was there as the SNP candidate, not as the Education Secretary, but one parent then stated afterwards that Mr Russell had been invited purely because he was the Education Secretary.

Then, later that same month, Mr Russell intervened with the local SNP group and it is here that things get even more murky.

Mr Russell sent an email to SNP councillors from his parliamentary email account not, crucially, from a private email account, asking that the consultation process on the school closures be stopped.

In that email (subsequently leaked) Mr Russell stated: “If the group supports these proposals next week, we will have very severe problems which could be very destructive of our reputation and prospects.”

The message appeared pretty clear – go through with these plans and we might not win the seat at the Scottish elections in May.

In all these instances, Mr Russell has claimed that he has been acting solely and wholly as the SNP candidate and, if that was all he was, there would be no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

But Mr Russell is not just the SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute, he is also the Education Secretary and that is not something he can drop for half an hour when he wants to write an email, particularly when that email comes from his parliamentary email account.

It is this grey area between Mr Russell stating that he has been acting only as the SNP candidate and the knowledge that all those on the ground have that he is also the Education Secretary that has caused the problems.

He may say he is just the SNP candidate but is that how his interventions have been received?

For instance, after his email, the SNP councillors quit the coalition – as he asked them to. Would they have done so had the request come from any run-of-the-mill candidate?

The ministerial code is quite clear. It informs ministers they must ensure that “no conflict arises between their private interests and their public duties”. Likewise, the MSPs’ code of conduct states that an MSP cannot intervene in an area outwith his or her constituency without prior agreement.

Mr Russell’s private interests lie in being elected as the next MSP for Argyll and Bute. His public duties lie in performing his role as Education Secretary. This is not his constituency, but it may be his constituency come the elections in May.

It has hardly helped Mr Russell’s arguments that the chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council has written to the Scottish Government expressing concern over the way the school closure issue has been handled.

So is there a case to answer? Labour certainly think there is. It was a former Labour parliamentary candidate, David Graham, who made the complaint to the standards commission and Labour clearly see the potential to subject Mr Russell to an investigation and to embroil him in controversy in the run up to the election.

Given Mr Russell’s reputation for pugnaciousness, he will undoubtedly come out fighting and, because there is so much confusion and so many grey areas here, he is likely to emerge intact, both from an initial commissioner’s investigation and from any subsequent committee sparring to come.

But there is extreme party politics at play here too, both inside and outside the SNP. Outside the SNP, Labour has seen the opportunity to drag another SNP minister into controversy. They managed it with the former transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, over the pre-Christmas snow, they managed it with the finance secretary, John Swinney, over the Tartan Tax and the health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, over her lobbying for a convicted fraudster.

If they could somehow tarnish the reputation of Mr Russell too, that would be seen as a notable pre-election success – and forcing him out of office would indeed be the icing on the cake for Labour.

But inside the SNP, too, there are also forces at play. Mr Russell has never enjoyed unqualified support within the Nationalist movement partly because he is seen as arrogant by some, smug by others and not left-wing enough by others.

Somebody leaked Mr Russell’s email to SNP councillors, the email which is causing him so many problems now which shows that, at least to some, he remains a somewhat divisive character.

Mr Russell will probably head off this standards’ committee challenge and survive to fight the election in May. However, he will have learned one key issue of public perception – that what you say you are, and what people think you are, are often at odds.