A sidelines view of some fancy footwork

14th December 2007 at 00:00
I know Christmas is fast approaching and one is meant to be charitable at this time of year, if not others. But is it really possible to trust politicians? Irrespective of party colours, can we believe anything they say?

I asked myself this the other Sunday after being asked to appear on the BBC's Politics Show. As political sport goes, it's becoming required viewing.

First on was Fiona Hyslop, Education Secretary, there to defend the apparent abandonment of her flagship smaller class sizes policy, following the announcement of dour public spending figures by her team-mate, John Swinney.

Cast in the role of strapping centre-back, she gave away nothing and said the commitment was still there, it was just no longer a target that would be measured year-by-year. In other words, it was a promise that might not be kept. So those who supported the latest educational panacea would just have to cross their fingers and hope.

She then took the ball into her opponent's half, arguing that education spending would in fact rise in the next three years and that the awarding of extra money to local authorities would more than make up for the cut in planned central education spending growth. She even had some figures that left her interviewer looking rather bemused, as if different authors had compiled their imaginary Rothmans Football Yearbook for 2008.

This brought a wry smile to the lips of Ms Hyslop's minder, who was sitting in the wings with the rest of us media junkies, taking copious notes as we waited our turn. No doubt sowing confusion is seen as some sort of achievement (it eats up the time and has opponents scurrying for their briefs, fearful that their own figures are wrong and that they will look a prize ass on screen).

Ms Hyslop was then given another kick at the ball, this time on university funding, where she fancied herself as a latter-day Jim Baxter, running a mazy dribble and playing keepie-uppie all over the park. "It's my ba', and am keepin' it" was her tactic, proudly showing that "fitba'" lessons for girls had not been wasted on her.

Although Ms Hyslop didn't score, she conceded nothing either. A goalless draw, but more appealing than a thrashing.

Next on the pitch was Nicol Stephen, which made me wonder if I was watching Sky's Masters Football tournament. This Liberal lothario seems to have been around for decades, doesn't look any older and is still helping to produce children.

Surely he'd be too nice for this game? But no, risking a straight red from a two-footed tackle at the start, he aggressively refuted all Ms Hyslop's figures and fired off some of his own, as he sought to take the lead. It wasn't pretty, but every winning team needs a ball winner in the middle of the park.

Interviewer Glenn Campbell could be forgiven for thinking that the elbowing and tugging of jerseys was a bit rough, but he knew Mr Stephen had to prove he wasn't a pushover, as the ageing hacks had been saying recently.

Another score draw was the result, leaving Ms Hyslop and Mr Stephen with a play-off at the Holyrood playing fields, which are covered in concrete like so many school pitches that some politician thought would serve us better as large public buildings. I know which I'd rather have.

I strolled up for my five-minute section, feeling I was the post-match warm down, when I would have preferred to have entered in the half-time penalty kicks.

What could I say, who could I believe, how could one set of spending figures be presented so differently?

Politicians? I'd rather trust a footballer.

Brian Monteith is a former Tory education spokesman and was left-back in the primary football team.

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