FIRST Minister has done his independence cause a great deal of harm in being caught out by a cheap lie, writes Bill Jamieson
Before proceeding any further with this article, I should – in fairness – warn readers that I seem to require a medical check-up, the eyes and the ears especially. Clearly, the ears have got furred up and the eyes so unfocused that I struggle to hear and see correctly.
Before yesterday, I thought I had a fairly clear idea of what Alex Salmond told me about Scotland’s position with regard to the European Union in the event of independence. This was that Scotland’s membership would be continued, we would not have to reapply as a totally new state, that legal advice had been given from the Scottish Government’s law officers but that this advice could not be published because of the protocols of confidentiality surrounding advice given to ministers.
This has been the perceived Scottish Government position for months. Questions seeking clarity on the position of our EU membership were met with this broad response and – as is the First Minister’s wont – often delivered with a world-weary shake of the head and condescending chuckle. Could not his opponents accept these simple facts? Would they never tire of scaremongering? There is no need to worry. We would not need to reapply and sign up to join the euro.
Now, here I have to make a confession. I did believe the First Minister’s indications that legal advice had been undertaken and, while he was unable to reveal the contents of that advice, he was confident of the SNP’s position that there would be no need to reapply as a “novice” state. For good measure, I also accepted the position regarding the confidentiality of ministerial advice. Indeed, so anxious was the SNP administration to protect this confidentiality that it went into a legal battle to stop publication of the circumstances surrounding this advice.
But now it appears that I have totally misunderstood this position – together with most of the Scottish population. I have misheard the FM, grasped the wrong end of the stick, seriously misread the many articles that confirmed and repeated this point.
It seems that I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, have been subject to what could politely be called “inexactitudes”: a portrayal of reality conforming to no known terrestrial dimension or continuum. I have been foolishly clinging to a false reality, an uncorrected misunderstanding of the facts of the matter.
According to Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, in a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, the administration has only just begun seeking specific legal advice. “The Scottish Government,” she said, “has previously cited opinions from a number of eminent legal authorities, past and present, in support of its view that an independent Scotland will continue in membership of the European Union – but has not sought specific legal advice”.
In a television interview later on Tuesday evening, she referred to an interview months ago where Salmond had been quizzed on this point and said he had received legal advice. Now, said Sturgeon, people needed to look at the whole of the exchange. “Any fair-minded person who reads the entire transcript of that interview”, she declared, “would see that what he was doing was talking about the general debate. He cited a number of legal opinions. He was also talking about general government documents, all of which underpinned law officers’ advice.”
Is this just me? Or are we being treated to a display of semantic somersaults designed to disguise the fact that the First Minister has misinformed the Scottish Parliament, his own supporters and the Scottish nation?
This is a descent into convoluted verbal gymnastics that both obscures the matter at hand and perpetuates what can best be described as “a misunderstanding”. It is just this sort of disingenuous dissembling that explains why trust in politics and in politicians is at absolute rock bottom.
A clarification and an apology back at the time would have dealt with the issue. Instead, parliament and the public have been led to believe in the existence of advice that was never given and support for a contention that has no legal basis whatever.
If this is how it’s going to be in the referendum debate for the next two years, God help us all. Let’s arm ourselves with ear plugs and black-out pads, so that we can stay better informed.
It is just this playing fast and loose with the truth that turns people off politics and corrodes trust in politicians. It makes everyone feel mugs for believing the First Minister in the first place.
And on such an important issue as this – who really governs us –this is a highly dangerous game to play.
There is enough danger already around our future dealings with a European Union fast heading towards a fiscal federalism that will soon disabuse an “independent” Scotland of its scope for tax and borrowing discretion.
For the record, I do not believe our membership of the EU will be automatically rolled over. I do not see how the governments of Spain and Italy and France are going to defer to that. I do not believe an independent Scotland will be given an opt-out from a pledge to join the euro.
Indeed, like Jim Sillars who spoke so knowledgeably and insightfully on this subject at a Scotsman conference on Tuesday, I believe that membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) is a better alternative for us to consider than the EU.
Opposition MSPs are now demanding publication of documents pertaining to this case. Who can blame them, having been treated like nodding donkeys? And other issues will surely be brought to the fore now that trust has been handled in so cavalier a fashion.
What, for example of the risk register assessing the strengths, weaknesses opportunists and threats posed by the independence referendum? SNP ministers are refusing to make this document public, although the public interest argument for doing so is surely formidable.
The refusal to publish is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew. If she orders publication, ministers could challenge it in the courts.
Trust is a finite quality in politics. Time and again the First Minister will need to say to the Scottish people on this and other issues: “Trust me; you know I will not deceive you.”
But who is going to trust Alex Salmond now, having been caught out in such a cheap lie?
And in this he has just cost the independence cause dear. Who now is going to believe what he says without double and triple-checking every jot and tittle of his pronouncements?
Little wonder this week is being seen as quite the most damaging for the First Minister. But by his own fancy-footing, he has tripped up and brought condemnation upon himself. Who would trust the word of the First Minister now – on this, or on anything?