Robison denies pressuring academic on independence

Shona Robison, Scotland's sports minister. Picture: PA
Shona Robison, Scotland's sports minister. Picture: PA
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SCOTTISH government minister Shona Robison has said she would never try to stifle debate after becoming caught up in a row over freedom of speech in the independence debate.

Robison, a Dundee MSP, released a statement stating her position following claims that she questioned the impartiality of Professor Chris Whatley, a Dundee University historian who is involved in a project to investigate issues raised by the referendum.

It emerged last week that he appeared at a pro-UK Better Together event, prompting Ms Robison to ask whether his views are compatible with the neutrality of the university’s 5 Million Questions project.

She emailed the university principal Professor Pete Downes on November 4 to voice her concerns and say she thought Professor Whatley should remain neutral as he is a “figurehead” of the project.

Her intervention attracted an angry response from opposition parties and led to an open letter from leading academics worried about freedom of speech, published in The Scotsman on Saturday.

First Minister Alex Salmond was challenged by Conservative leader Ruth Davidson to condemn any intimidation during exchanges at Holyrood on Thursday.

He said: “The accusation is total and utter nonsense. The words ‘intimidation’ and ‘Shona Robison’ don’t sit easily together

Today Ms Robison, the Commonwealth Games and Sport Minister, set out her position in a statement on her website.

She wrote: “Firstly, I am very happy to endorse the First Minister’s support for Professor Chris Whatley’s chairmanship of the project, and his right to participate in the launch of Better Together in Dundee. My concern was only ever about the perceived neutrality of the project itself, something it heavily stressed in its foundation statement - all of which is perfectly clear from the email I sent to Professor Pete Downes, principal of Dundee University.”

She went on: “Secondly, I actually agree with the academics who wrote to the Scotsman newspaper on Saturday that it is better if we know the views of people participating in the debate, and then everyone is in a position to view their contribution in that light. I would never try to stifle debate or attempt to restrict the right of anyone, whether an academic or not, to have a view in the debate on Scotland’s future.”

Her statement concluded: “I believe that a fully informed debate best serves Scotland’s referendum, and indeed the achievement of a Yes vote. I welcome open and diverse public debate on Scotland’s constitutional future - engaging our academic community among many others is an important part of that process.”

Ms Robison also published the email she sent to Professor Downes, in which she wrote: “I’m aware that individuals involved in 5 million questions may sit on either side of the debate and I have no problem with that, however Prof Whatley’s position is somewhat different as he is the figurehead of the organisation and should in my opinion have remained neutral.”

Professor Downes said: “I think it’s laid out quite clearly on Shona Robison’s website that what Shona Robison emailed me about was to ask whether or not Professor Whatley’s role in a Better Together event represented a conflict with his role leading our 5 million questions events on the referendum which prides themselves on being unbiased and neutral evidence based forums on the referendum.

“I said I would speak to Professor Whatley about this and I emailed him and got a response from him. I contacted Ms Robison and said I was happy that there was no conflict and she responded to say she was satisfied.”

BACKGROUND

St Andrew’s principal urges academics to speak out