Brian Wilson: ‘Shamelessly, cynically misled on EU’

Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
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SNP’s continued disingenuousness over Europe speaks volumes about how it serves its own interests, writes Brian Wilson

When the story first broke that the Scottish Government had never sought legal advice about Scotland’s future place in the EU, the newspaper that put the boot in hardest was – somewhat counter-intuitively – the Sun.

Mr Salmond was depicted with a Pinocchio-style nose alongside the headline: “EU Liar”. Why should this have been? Quite simply, no journalist likes being taken for granted and deliberately misled – as the Sun perceived to have happened to it in this case.

Now the whole of Scotland is entitled to respond in the same way. We have all been shamelessly, repeatedly, cynically misled on this central question to the constitutional debate for a period of years, as the unambiguous statements by the president of the EU, José Manuel Barroso, confirm.

But it is not only Mr Salmond’s nose that is in need of attention. The task of sweeping-up after him has been awarded to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who is now to “seek talks” with Mr Barroso. The best that can be said of this salvage operation is that it has been mounted several years too late.

Let us go back five years to 11 December 2007, when Ms Sturgeon gave evidence to Holyrood’s Europe and external relations committee and asserted, very specifically, that there would be no need to renegotiate EU membership after Scotland voted for independence.

She continued: “It is the very clear view of the SNP and of the government that Scotland would automatically be a member of the European Union upon independence. There is very clear legal opinion that backs up that position. I don’t think the legal position, therefore, is in any doubt”.

The Scotsman’s report of that meeting noted: “The Scottish Government was last night unable to supply details of the legal advice that Ms Sturgeon said she had on the issue of EU membership”. Five years later, there is still no sign of that legal advice for the straightforward reason that it has never existed.

So was Ms Sturgeon’s dismissive assertion to a Holyrood committee a straightforward untruth – at least as untrue, in fact, as the statements that her boss has come to grief over five years later? If that is the case, and if the Scottish Parliament has enough self-respect to insist that ministers do not treat it in that way, then why should she not resign?

The cuttings are littered with similar assertions in the intervening five years and nobody has the slightest doubt that the SNP-run Scottish Government sought to give the impression that they had authoritative legal advice that an independent Scotland would, in Ms Sturgeon’s phrase, “automatically be a member of the European Union upon independence”.

But let’s move to January this year when they published a consultation paper on the referendum. The second paragraph of the preamble states: “Under independence, Scotland would have the rights and responsibilities of a normal, sovereign state. It would continue in membership of the European Union … Her Majesty the Queen would continue as head of state”.

Unlike Mr Barroso, the Queen has not issued a repudiation. However, we now know, beyond doubt, that they had absolutely no right to make that statement or to put civil servants into the position of collaborating in their dishonesty. Indeed, the whole consultation exercise could be considered invalid because one of its fundamental premises has proved to be – in the words of our favourite euphemism – “a straightforward untruth”.

Last week, The Scotsman reported correctly that Mr Barroso would write to the House of Lords economic committee making clear that Scotland or any other “third country” that gained independence from an EU member state would no longer be party to EU treaties and would therefore be required to apply for membership.

For this newspaper’s trouble, it was accused by Sturgeon’s spokesman of “fabricating” the story while Salmond claimed that it had been “duped by anti-independence people”. An MEP was trotted out to allege “black ops” against them. While the Nationalists, in Corporal Jones’ immortal phrase, “don’t like it up ‘em”, they have no qualms about handing it out when under pressure.

Now Barroso’s letter has duly arrived and states categorically: “A new, independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU, and the Treaties would no longer apply on its territory” before going on to outline the procedures for new applications to join the EU in such circumstances. Fabrication? Dupes? Black ops? Perhaps a word of apology would be in order.

It is ironic that this is happening at a time when a majority of Scots, as in the rest of the UK, say they either want to leave the EU or have powers repatriated from Brussels. Nationalists such as Jim Sillars (who has for long been saying what Barroso said – that there has been no doubt about the constitutional position since 2004) put forward a credible post-independence case for joining the European Free Trade Association and declining to apply for EU membership.

In other words, there was no shortage of alternative options if the SNP leadership had wanted to avoid the elephant trap of insisting they had “legal advice” that guaranteed automatic EU membership. The fact that they chose to blunder on, armed with nothing more than false assertions, speaks volumes about how they regard both people and Parliament as mere tools to serve their own interests.

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of the farcical inquiry initiated by Salmond at the time of the original revelation that the legal advice never existed. In a favourite tactic, the question he posed was the one that nobody was asking – whether he had misled Parliament. On that semantic basis, he would duly be cleared and pour scorn on his tormentors. Attentive readers will recall that Sir David Bell, an old mandarin pal of the permanent secretary, Sir Peter Housden, was the last man standing in this great tribunal after the other two inquisitors, Lord Fraser and Dame Elish Angiolini, washed their hands of it.

That was six weeks ago and presumably the hope was that it would all be forgotten by the time Sir David returned with his whitewash. Not the least of Mr Barroso’s services is to make this less likely. In fact, he now has a lot more evidence to consider. Perhaps he should move north and preside over a permanent truth commission.