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Ron Mackenna's column: Strikes me that Jack is missing a great opportunity; The voice of Scottish politics.

Byline: Ron Mackenna

OKAY, it went something like this. Me: "Why don't you just give the firefighters the money, Jack. You'll be a local hero?" First Minister (spluttering): "You must be (bleep) joking. Not a chance".

I don't think I'm betraying any confidences by recounting this conversation. We knew Mr McConnell was opposed to paying off the firefighters. We just didn't know whether it was his own idea or whether big Tone had ordered him to say so.

After all, the First Minister was a striker himself. Once. In his youth.

A long, long time ago. When men were men and Tories were nervous. So there could still be socialist impulses coursing deep through his veins. You never know.

Well, I do now. Mr McConnell and myself were comfortably esconsed in a little hostelry in Edinburgh the other day, sipping mineral water, when I popped the question. The gist of my point was that the First Minister should cut mad, bad Tony Blair loose, and sort out a Scottish settlement to the firefighters' strike. Pronto. Before starey-eyed Mr Tony drags the whole Scottish Labour Party into the abyss with him.

AFTER all, and I know I keep banging on about it, there is an election up here in a few months.

We Scots are still largely socialist. And don't forget, we have got devolution which means, apparently, our parliament can implement Scottish solutions to UK problems. No don't laugh. It has happened already.

The teachers have got a far better deal up here than they have down south.

The old age pensioners have too, if someone could just work out what it is. So there is plenty of precedent for giving the vicky to Downing Street.

Even old jelly spine, Henry McLeish, managed to be brave once or twice. Sure, he had to put his bicycle clips on first and he usually had a fit of the vapours afterwards, but he tried it on.

And there's another point. The Scottish First Minister is untouchable.

Bet you didn't realise that.

Jack McConnell answers to no other politician. Anywhere. Not Tony Blair, not Gordon Brown. It doesn't matter what he does, the man cannot be sacked. So why not be brave and do the decent thing, I asked?

If you believe in it. The probHE doesn't think the firefighters have got a fair claim and he doesn't think they should get a penny more than what's on offer.

Astonishingly, and this will surprise you, he actually believes the public are with the Prime Minister on this issue.

Yeah, work that one out. That's what he said. Secret polling? Who knows?

Furthermore he certainly doesn't think Joe Public wants to see good taxpayers' dosh spent sorting out this strike.

Even, and you got to respect the First Minister here, if the popularity boost he'd get on the eve of an election would be massive.

"Short-term gain," he scoffed. "And we'd have to pay for it in the long term."

I think he's talking about the money. But, again, who knows?

MAYBE he's thinking of how Alistair Campbell and the rest of the Downing Street mafia would exact revenge if he didn't hold the line.

I sincerely hope not. But, there you have it. If you're a Scottish firefighter don't expect the executive to come riding to your rescue.

Don't think that this May's election will give you any leverage. Do dig in for a long struggle.

You've got my sympathy. Honestly. Because I believe the firefighters deserve a better pay settlement. I believe that you should have the right to withhold your labour without being demonised.

And I believe in the power of compromise. You just don't have the First Minister's sympathy. Really.

Because I believe him on this one. He is not going to intervene. That's a tragedy for us all.

Because the whole point of a Scottish Parliament is to recognise the people of this country have different values than those living, say, in the south east of England.

The parliament should allow us to tailor local answers to national problems taking that difference into account.

Why doesn't a Labour First Minister think that way.

A Labour First Minister who, when a teacher in 1984, was on strike himself.

I don't know the answer to that. I really don't.


lem is the First Minister doesn't belive in the decent thing. Not in this case anyway.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 31, 2003
Previous Article:SCHOOL'S SHAME.
Next Article:Ron Mackenna's column: When push comes to shove.

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