Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Saturday, 22 December 2007

Wise men make Christmas decisions

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

There was mention of Santa Claus, of Scrooge, of King Herod, even of Happy Christmas.

Christmas tree
Holyrood enjoyed some Christmas cheer

End of term at Holyrood is a happy affair with carol concerts, Christmas dinners, scurrilous press suppers.

It's also a time for decisions. The SNP government ended a triumphant year with three big decisions.

It's to go ahead with the biggest construction project for a generation, a new cable-stayed bridge over the River Forth, just up-stream from the present road bridge.

It will cost between 3.2 billion and 4.2 billion and have room for a light railway or tram. Construction will start in 2011 and will take five and a half years.

There was also overwhelming support in parliament for the scrapping of bridge tolls. The 1 toll on the Forth Bridge and 80p on the Tay Bridge will go early in the new year.

And there was a narrow 65 to 60 vote in favour of abolishing the 2,300 charge students pay once they graduate and start earning. Fiona Hyslop the education secretary told MSPs: "We want to restore the principle of free education."

And in the Christmas spirit she added: "Those who vote to keep the unwanted, unfair graduate endowment fee, the ghost of governments past, will be the Scrooge of Christmas present."

'Sleaze' response

The Conservative Murdo Fraser teased the Liberal Democrats for abandoning the "first born" policy of their former partnership with Labour. "Even King Herod, did not kill off his own first born son."

At first minister's question time, the Conservative leader Annabel Goldie continued the Christmas offensive.

"Far from being some sort of Celtic Santa Claus, the First Minister has been revealed as Ebenezer Scrooge in a kilt."

She was appealing for him to follow the English example of offering a fuel tax rebate to bus operators in rural areas.

But Alex Salmond had other Christmas crackers thrown at him. Labour's Wendy Alexander went back to the Trump affair for ammunition. On Thursday morning, the First Minister called the press to St Andrew's House to view no fewer than 54 written answers to parliamentary questions.

He also published a letter from the head of the civil service Sir John Elvidge which stated that ministers and officials had acted with total propriety throughout.

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond was likened to Ebenezer Scrooge

But it did emerge from the 54 answers that Mr Salmond had made a telephone call to the chief planner the day before the Trump planning application had been "called in" for ministerial decision.

Wendy Alexander asked: "Was this the routine action of a constituency MSP or is it really a misuse of the position of First Minister?"

When the Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen rose to ask his question, about centralising NHS services, he got a reply to his accusation last week of "sleaze".

"I'll tell you what sleaze is," said Alex Salmond. "It's taking 2.4 million pounds from a jailed donor, using it to fund elections campaigns in England and Scotland, and refusing to give it back."

And amid cheers from SNP benches, he added, " Happy Christmas".

'Agents for change'

The bunker Alex Salmond has found himself in over Donald Trump's golf resort is his only bad shot of the year.

He's had a remarkable 12 months, running an ambitious and all-or-nothing campaign, winning the election on May 3rd, surprising everyone with a cascade of popular announcements in the first 100 days, ending with the launch of his "national conversation" on independence.

His team of cabinet secretaries and ministers, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Fiona Hyslop, Linda Fabiani, Stewart Stevenson, Jim Mather, Stewart Maxwell, Mike Russell, have brought verve and competence to government.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have struggled to come to terms with opposition. The Conservatives have had to guide them towards an alternative to the "national conversation", a commission on more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

Labour, in particular, have lost the sure touch of Jack McConnell who's gone off to do voluntary work in Malawi.

Parly chamber
The parliament has not had a lot to do since the election

The Greens have been reduced to two MSPs and the Socialists have gone over the barricades and disappeared completely.

To be frank, the parliament has not had a lot to do since the election. The SNP do not believe in legislation for legislation's sake.

The committees have confined themselves to nit-picking opposition. MSPs have concentrated more on their role as "agents for change" in their communities. And not a bad thing either, in my own humble opinion.

The new presiding officer Alex Fergusson has steered the democratic tractor with a firm farmer's hand. He doesn't stand for any nonsense in the chamber.

But he is also the first to laugh at himself. And he has thrown himself into the ceremonial role of hosting conferences and VIPs and even exchanging amusing stories with the Queen.

Some of the carols this week came from supporters of St Margaret's Hospice in Clydebank.

They sang in the cold open air outside the parliament and brought with them a 60,000 signature petition calling on MSPs to save Scotland's oldest and largest hospice.

It's in danger of losing most of its funding because of changes to Glasgow Health Board's care plan for the elderly.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien told the petitions committee: "You cannot put a price on life or death."

Unfortunately the politicians have to. Budgets are finite. We may laugh at the Wise Men as they stumble across the Christmas tableau, following a star, but in the end we respect their wisdom and their authority.

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