Scottish Independence: Alex Salmond up for judgment over EU ‘legal advice’ stance

Salmond may face as many questions about appointments as he will do from inquiry
Salmond may face as many questions about appointments as he will do from inquiry
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ALEX Salmond yesterday referred himself for investigation into whether he breached the ministerial code about what he said concerning legal advice over an independent Scotland’s future in Europe.

The panel of advisers on the code will look into claims that the First Minister misled the country by wrongly indicating the SNP had sought advice to back up its case that the country would remain in the EU.

But the Labour politician who demanded the investigation has already denounced it as a “smokescreen”.

MEP Catherine Stihler had previously submitted a Freedom of Information request to try to ascertain what legal advice, if any, had been given to the Scottish Government over post-independence membership of the European Union.

Ministers took the case to the Court of Session to try to prevent the release of any information.

But on Tuesday, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that the SNP administration had only now commissioned “specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union”.

A row erupted, with Mr Salmond being branded a “bare-faced liar” after he appeared to suggest such advice had been taken in an earlier television interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil.

During a heated First Minister’s Questions yesterday, Labour leader Johann Lamont insisted: “No-one believes what Alex Salmond says.”

The First Minister announced that former Whitehall mandarin Sir David Bell has been drafted in to head the independent

panel’s investigation into him, along with former lord advocates Lord Fraser and Dame Elish Angiolini.

Last night, Ms Stihler said: “This is a smokescreen by Alex Salmond. My question wasn’t just about the ministerial code, it was about his abuse of power.

“I wanted to know why he went to court at the taxpayers’ expense rather than answer simple questions.

“The more the First Minister speaks, the further he gets from the truth. Appearing before his own hand-picked court will do nothing to regain the trust he has lost.”

The row has prompted widespread criticism of the SNP government, which spent thousands of pounds fighting a court battle with the Information Commissioner to conceal its position on the EU legal advice – which did not exist.

Ms Stihler warned that the inquiry must look into Mr Salmond’s comments in the television interview.

“If this inquiry doesn’t consider what Alex Salmond said to Andrew Neil, the public will think he has just got a bunch of cronies to give him cover,” she added.

Mr Salmond said that the findings of the independent advisers will be made public: “I will accept them, and I hope that all members will do the same.”

The First Minister insisted there are two separate definitions of legal advice. He said he was referring to the legal advice which underpins all Scottish Government documents, including those setting out the position on Europe.

This, he insists, is different from seeking specific legal advice on EU membership which the Scottish Government is now to do in the aftermath of last week’s Edinburgh Agreement, which paves the way for a referendum to be held.

Ms Lamont branded the First Minister “as straight as a corkscrew” over the affair, and hit out at the Scottish Government for spending thousands of pounds in taxpayers money in a court battle to conceal the existence legal advice which “doesn’t exist”.

The argument for independence “does not meet the times”, she said, and was falling apart in front of Mr Salmond’s eyes. “His deceptions are being found out – no-one believes him any more,” the Labour leader said. “How can this country have an honest debate about our future, when you can’t trust a word Alex Salmond says?”

Mr Salmond insisted it was important for Scotland to take its place as an independent member of the European Union.

“I think Johann Lamont should look at the huge number of authorities who have said that over the years, which are cited many times,” he said at First Minister’s questions. “It is of fundamental importance that we elect the government we want, and not have one foisted upon us by Westminster.

“It is fundamentally important that this chamber and the Scottish people see Scotland as an independent member, equal with other nations in the European Union – self-government for Scotland and proper representation by a government that reflects the interests of the Scottish people.

“That is entirely the argument which will carry in Scotland in two years’ time.”

Tory leader Ruth Davidson called for current Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland to be called before parliament to explain what government law officers had been asked, and when.

But Mr Salmond insisted that law officers in Scotland are “entirely independent” of ministerial control.

He added that there have been five previous investigations by the panel advisers after complaints by opposition MSPs – all of which saw him cleared.