Gosh, camera crews in Edinburgh!

Kirsty Milne reports growing political excitement in Scotland - about Sky Sports as well as coalitio

You know that Scottish politics have arrived when you see the Press Association reporter running - yes, running - down Edinburgh's historic Mound. When you stroll down the High Street and see camera crews entrenched on George IV Bridge. When you take a turn round St Giles' Cathedral and find Channel 4's correspondent Sarah Smith, one of John Smith's daughters, leaning on the parapet updating her notes.

Welcome to PR politics, which has brought healthy muddle and confusion after a campaign that was over-ordered and super-spun. On the day of the election, visiting journalists from every foreign capital were to be heard demanding: "Isn't this a bit of a damp squib?" Now they've gone, indigenous hacks are finding that the devolution story is only just beginning.

Coalition-watching is like bird-watching: it requires stillness and patience. On Tuesday night, at the end of the second full day's negotiations, the press were camped out in a pub while across the road, in an undistinguished 1970s office block, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were locked in talks. Tuition fees, which the Lib Dems (and the Tories, and the SNP) want scrapped, were top of the agenda, with Labour raising the possibility of some kind of parliamentary review. But the two sides also discussed the Private Finance Initiative, the beef-on-the-bone ban, Skye Bridge tolls and PR for council elections.

The parties have their own negotiating teams. Donald Dewar is fielding two old hands - Henry McLeish and Sam Galbraith - plus two new MSPs: Tom McCabe, former leader of South Lanarkshire council, and Sarah Boyack. Jim Wallace's side has been padded out with members of the Lib Dems' Scottish executive, at least two of whom, Andy Myles and Denis Robertson Sullivan, have a record of opposing any cosiness with Labour. Some MSPs among the 17-strong Lib Dem group would prefer to go it alone on the opposition benches, just as some Labour MSPs support a minority administration. But few have voiced their feelings publicly, and it is clear that Dewar and Wallace would like a deal, especially after the collapse of Labour-Lib Dem talks in Wales.

But while Wallace would certainly be offered a ministerial post, perhaps home affairs or local government, the only Lib Dem who might follow him into the Scottish executive at St Andrew's House is the former MP Nicol Stephen. The SNP, eclipsed by all this activity, is showing signs of grumpiness. When proceedings opened on 12 May at the parliament's temporary home in the Assembly Hall, the SNP's 35-strong group made a bit of a show by wearing the white Jacobite rose. The scene was ever-so-slightly chaotic. Winnie Ewing, who as the oldest MSP was supposed to take the chair, had not been coached adequately for her role. Just three minutes after the parliament officially got going, she was heard to remark: "What happens now?"

Delicious details of the parliament's housekeeping arrangements are emerging. The SNP's John Swinney has joined Sam Galbraith and the Tory leader, David McLetchie, in a cross-party campaign to get Sky Sports on the live internal television feed. There are rumours that the SNP's Margo MacDonald would like to see the parliament's 9.30am start put back to 10am to fit in with her aqua-aerobics session.

Even at this early stage, there are signs that Labour's 56 MSPs will be subject to strict party discipline, with Tom McCabe the favourite to be chief whip. Attendance at an "awayday" at a hotel in Dunkeld is "obligatory". Journalists doorstepping the first group meeting could not get a word out of anyone apart from John McAllion, who shames Millbank with his frankness. Contrary to speculation, McAllion has said he will not stand for deputy leadership of the Labour group, but would prefer a housing job. Dewar would prefer simply to appoint the former minister Malcolm Chisholm - who resigned over single-parent benefit cuts - as Deputy First Minister. The jobs gossip is that Henry McLeish may get education. Wendy Alexander, the bright Blairite who was Dewar's special adviser at the Scottish Office, could get a business and enterprise brief. Angus MacKay, until recently chair of finance at Edinburgh Council, looks a safe bet for promotion, while Susan Deacon, another Edinburgh business consultant, may be rewarded for defending tuition fees during the campaign.

The early days of the parliament have been rather downbeat and utilitarian. Pomp and circumstance must wait until the official opening on 1 July. Even so, as you watch MSPs strolling down the High Street and disappearing into pubs and restaurants, you can't help feeling that somewhere a student is dreaming up a thesis: "The effects of the Scottish Parliament on the local economy."

This article appears in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence