Hurrah for the Return of Punch and Judy Politics; the Black Art of Personal Invective Can Bring Alive the Most Important Election in Scottish History

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HE has never had a real job in his life,' says Alex Salmond of Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander.

'The guy looks like he brushes his teeth ten times a day and gets patted on the head.' Ouch! But the SNP leader's invective against the boyish opponent who will run Labour's election campaign in May does not stop there.

Salmond says Alexander was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and resembles a prim Sunday school pupil frantic to please teacher and win an extra star.

It is an apposite attack on Gordon Brown's most dedicated ally and a long overdue development in Scottish affairs. Politics is getting personal and the ascent into abuse could not be better timed. As Ogden Nash put it: 'Any kiddie in school can love like a fool, but hating, my boy, is an art.' In this case, it is one that can bring alive the most important election in Scottish history.

Tony Benn is absolutely wrong to believe that 'personal invective is calculated to discourage people from an interest in real politics'. In the days when Norman Tebbit accused Neil Kinnock of having 'more gimmicks than guts' and Kinnock called Conservative ministers 'Mrs Thatcher's glove puppets', elections were passionate affairs. Turnout never dropped below 70 per cent and often approached 80 per cent. In the last Holyrood election, barely half the voters bothered to vote.

In unexceptional times, politicians loathe each other in inverse proportion to the affinity of their views.

Thus it was a fellow Tory who accused Edwina Currie of doing 'as much for our party as King Herod did for baby sitting'. But when the decisions facing the electorate really matter, they are duty-bound to be confrontational with their opponents. Prudes may call it 'playing dirty' - but it is the most effective way to ensure crucial debates are drawn to the attention of people with busy lives.

When Donald Dewar compared Lady Thatcher to 'a refugee from 'Allo 'Allo, scuttling from safe house to safe house as she nervously circles the real problems of life', he was paying her a compliment. Like his colleague Denis Healey, who lampooned her as 'the Iron Lady - with metal fatigue', Dewar recognised a brilliant enemy and made it his business to couch his hostility in terms that grabbed attention.

Now, with the future of Britain at stake and Scottish prosperity hanging by a thread, there is no room for insincere bonhomie. Mr Salmond detests Mr Alexander because the freshfaced, robotic Cabinet minister stands between him and his passionate ambition. The national interest requires Douglas Alexander to respond in kind. He despises Mr Salmond, but is he up to it?

So far, Alexander's reaction to the SNP leader's acid tongue has been: 'We are not going to bother commenting.' He will have to do a lot better than that to prevent a Nationalist victory on May 3. In the past, Labour politicians have condemned the SNP as 'Tartan terrors' and ' political maggots ' . Mr Salmond's self- satisfied grin reminds me of Irish Nationalist Daniel O'Connell's slur on Robert Peel: 'A smile like a silver plate on a coffin.' Politics ought to get lively when parties are at daggers drawn on issues of fundamental principle. Scotland faces a date with destiny in fewer than four months. A campaign of vitriol, ideally leavened with wit, is exactly what is needed to make sure the future of Britain is not dictated by apathy. …