Ministerial changes Speech in the Scottish Parliament 12 February 2009

One of the few pleasures of being in opposition is spectating as the Government party experiences a reshuffle and watching its impact on the selected individuals who have lost their jobs, on those who have gained the exciting opportunity that ministerial office presents and, of course, on those who have doggedly sought preferment but been disappointed.
Perhaps next time.
I should predicate my comments by saying that it is a great privilege to be in ministerial office.
I wish those who are departing office well and send every good wish to those who are going into office, which is a privilege to which we all aspire.
As ever, the First Minister's cohorts have been spinning fit to burst but, even by the First Minister's standards, the spin has stretched credibility to breaking point.
First, we are told that Mike Russell is to be responsible for the national conversation.
That responsibility is to be given to a man who has shown no evidence whatever throughout his parliamentary career that he understands that conversation includes people other than himself speaking and that it might possibly involve listening rather than lecturing.
Secondly, we are told that Alex Neil represents fresh talent and that he is a critic being brought into the fold.
With all due respect, I go back a long way with Alex Neil—so far that I can remember when he believed that social justice should be at the centre of Government policy, not in the margins where Mr Salmond's trickle-down economics place it—but not even he, who has shown a remarkable ability to argue for anything in the past year and a half, could possibly characterise himself as a fresh face.
I can only hazard a guess at how those SNP members whose faces are a deal fresher than mine or Mr Neil's feel about that.
I considered for a moment the possibility that, in this Parliament of minorities, we should all be allowed to choose an SNP back bencher to be given the job—perhaps someone who has displayed a scintilla of independent thought—but even I, optimistic soul that I am, recognise a tough job when I see one.
In the unreal world that is the Parliament, where the first rule should always be to expect the unexpected, the transformation of Alex Neil, the alleged critic, from thorn in the flesh to Salmond's little helper has been breathtaking.
Week after week, we have witnessed him in full flow, shouting, bawling and crawling in equal measure.
The reality of course is that the loyalty of the back benchers has been bought by the promise of the one thing that unites them—a Government that is focused entirely on seeking constitutional fights as a means of separating us from the rest of the United Kingdom.
That is the key message of the ministerial and other decisions that Mr Salmond has made this week: separation is now everything.
Ministers who are departing office should not blame themselves or allow themselves to be joined to the long list of alibis that the First Minister uses at every opportunity.
They could work only with the cards that they were dealt.
The Government has failed in its housing policy, which prompted the lobbying today by trade unionists, housing organisations and community volunteers; in its environmental policy, which seeks to privatise our forests, as a result of listening to Rothschild rather than rural workers; in its culture policy, which prompted unprecedented unity of artists in protest; and its schools policy, which—remarkably—has not resulted in the building of one school being commissioned in nearly two years.
I welcome the new ministers to their posts and urge them to do in government what they did not do on the back benches—to speak up.
I urge them to do what their boss regularly fails to do—to listen to those who live with the consequences of the misguided action in their ministerial portfolios and the wilful lack of action by the Government on the economy.
If the new ministers do that, perhaps the First Minister's failed policies might be challenged.
Labour members understand that the critical issue is that the Government should work in the interests of the people of Scotland.
All the reshuffles in the world will not make the difference that we need, which would come from the First Minister, the Cabinet, ministers and the governing party putting aside their constitutional obsessions and using their existing powers to support families and communities throughout Scotland.
If the ministerial change brings about such a change, that will be welcome.