Oh Danny Boy
The fact that few outside the constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey had ever heard of Danny Alexander this time last month should not be held against him. I do remember that, when he first appeared on television in the distant days of late April, I found myself muttering aloud at the screen (as one does after a certain age): 'Who is this youth?' That was unworthy of me.
Little did any of us realise – it must have come as a slight surprise in the Alexander household – that, by the fading of the May blossom, the same young man would have eaten one Cabinet post for breakfast, moved on to another, and been all over the front page of the Daily Mail as 'The Minister for Gluttony' – a reference this morning not to his obvious appetite for public office but to his liking for food at the public's expense, even when parliament was not actually sitting.
Yet, in his abrupt ascendency, there is both precedent and consolation.
The precedent is Susan Boyle, another home-grown Scot who appeared from nowhere to take the world by storm; before her, Christopher Hoy; before either of them, Lonnie Donegan; and, going back into the mists of Scottish antiquity, Sir Sean Himself. All of these revered Scots were more or less instant celebrities in the Danny mould. Although it is true that none was asked to take command of the British economy overnight, the principle remains a sound one. Scotland is noted for its lads and ladettes o' parts. Pairts, if you must.
So much for precedent. The consolation is that, no matter how badly Mr Alexander does, he will never be less suited to an important office of state than Jacqui Smith, the home secretary of bath plug notoriety; or Geoff Hoon as anything you care to name. It must be acknowledged that this is not much of a consolation.
The auguries for Danny Alexander in his new role as the chap in charge of our impressive £159 billion deficit are encouraging. A Lib Dem spokesperson came on breakfast television yesterday to assure a frankly rather incredulous Susanna Reid that Mr Alexander 'did' economics at university and that, as someone who had once been involved in a private company, he had learned quite a lot about balance sheets and things.
Exactly. It will now be a relatively simple matter for Mr Alexander to request a pocket calculator – there must be one or two still hanging about the Treasury even in these straitened times – and tap in a figure, multiply it several billion times, and arrive at a sum of public expenditure cuts large enough to make him unelectable in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for the next 300 years. Anything else he needs to know he can pick up at some evening class in Wandsworth.
When Susanna said something about yesterday being Mr Alexander's first day in the job, she was firmly corrected. 'He was at work on the bank holiday,' replied the Lib Dem person. To his many other qualities, then, we must add a certain amount of on-the-job experience and a willingness to ignore the absurd public holidays foisted on this country as if half the population were still down the mines and required regular communal outings to Blackpool. We cannot afford bank holidays. We cannot even afford the banks. Perhaps Mr Alexander, realising these unpalatable facts, chose to work on a bank holiday as a statement of intent. We must hope so.
My only concern about Danny Alexander is that he was once, not so very long ago, the 'Head of Communications' of the Cairngorms National Park Authority.
Even by the standards of quangoland, the performance of this body is spectacular. Overseeing the activities of a park is a committee of 23, the same size as the present UK cabinet. I'll say that again: running Britain requires a committee of 23; running the Cairngorms National Park Authority requires the same number.
Of the UK cabinet members, 22 are paid. But, in the Cairngorms, everybody's paid. In fact, although in the financial year 2008-09 the authority claimed to have 23 members, it succeeded in handing out fees and expenses to 27 because of mid-year changes of appointment. This is not bad work if you can get it. Lots do.
The part-time chairman was on £20,441 plus expenses of £11,025. The others were paid fees of up to £10,221 for attending meetings. The total bill for committee members in 2008-09 – the year of the great crash – was £191,195 (up from £177,164 the previous year) with another £29,084 being paid in expenses. No one, but no one, served on the Cairngorms National Park Authority for the love of it.
How did the authority's Head of Communications defend this set-up? It would be interesting to know what he had to say in its favour. Privately, of course, Mr Alexander may have abhorred such a colossal waste of public money, but it is a worrying thought that he worked within such a culture and was paid to communicate its ethos. His first symbolic act should be to reduce the board of the Cairngorms National Park Authority from 23 to six. But, since this is a reserved matter, it is beyond his power; he must wield his axe elsewhere. The problem for Mr Alexander is that no one seems willing to take him seriously – a very grave handicap in a politician, even one who works on a bank holiday.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review