Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Danny Alexander and the bed of nails

Congratulations then to Danny Alexander who, though he turns 38 this Saturday, will still be the youngest Secretary of State for Scotland in living memory.

In fact he is so damn young that I can for the first time in my own short life deploy that crushing Scottish compliment: "Aye, I kent his faither".

Alexander senior - Di Alexander - earned tremendous respect across the Highlands for his campaigning and practical work on affordable housing. So, the new Secretary of State has quite a lot to live up to, even before he looks outside his family circle.

He has had a meteoric rise for someone who came to parliament in 2005. He chose wisely and hitched his wagon to Nick Clegg's star early on and became the leader's trusted chief of staff and the author of the Lib Dem manifesto.

As one of the negotiators of the historic coalition deal (funny how they all got jobs in government) and now a cabinet Minister he's already booked his berth as Lib Dem elder statesman in the years to come.

But as a Lib Dem Scottish Secretary in a Tory-led government he has his work cut out for him in the immediate future. He has been given, I reckon, the second toughest job in Scottish politics - the hardest being that of Tavish Scott, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, who has to stand up and defend this coalition arrangement at First Minister's Questions tomorrow.

Everyone expects the Lib Dems to be slaughtered in Scotland for bearing David Cameron into Downing Street atop their eleven Scottish shields. Labour's Iain Gray accused them of making a Faustian pact with the devil. Alex Salmond just licked his lips.

Alexander's own Inverness, Badenoch, Nairn and Strathspey constituency, a three-way marginal this time, will become the hottest target seat in Scotland although he has increased his majority.

But the job of being Scottish Secretary in a hostile political environment has been done before. The late George Younger was given a miniature silver bed of nails by his diminishing band of Scottish Tory colleagues when he outlasted previous holders of the post.

Michael Forsyth seemed to enjoy himself in office, and managed some political flourishes, while being a political hate figure in Scotland.

I'm sure Lord Forsyth has his own thoughts on how the Tories can continue to govern Scotland with one MP. His English colleagues in the Lords will be wondering if the Tories could not have an overall majority in the Commons if Scotland didn't return 47 hostile Labour and SNP MPs.

Constitutional tensions will run through Alexander's entire tenure, but that kind of goes with the territory.

He comes to office bearing some gifts. He has agreement to implement the Calman Commission recommendations to increase tax-varying powers in the Scottish parliament. That's an about-turn for Annabel Goldie and her Scottish Tory MSPs, we assume.

His first order is to end the controversial detention of children at the Dungavel immigration centre in Scotland, which is the kind of civil liberties motif that might run through this coalition and was entirely missing from the tough security agenda of the Labour administration.

Money will the big argument. The Scottish block grant is already allocated for this year but there are big cuts coming down the road on top of the defence review, social security benefit cuts and everything else that's due.

The whole of Scotland, not just it's Secretary of State, will be lying on a bed of nails for years to come.

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