Euan McColm: Minefield of wanting political truth

Alistair Carmichael has admitted sanctioning the 'Sturgeon memo' leak. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Alistair Carmichael has admitted sanctioning the 'Sturgeon memo' leak. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Many Nationalists hope MP Alistair Carmichael loses a historic court case. But they should be careful what they wish for, writes Euan McColm

IT PROMISES to be must-watch TV for Scottish political anoraks, particularly those of a perpetually furious disposition. And, heaven knows, there are a lot of those about these days.

Some activists in Orkney have been calling on their MP to stand down. Picture: Orkney Photographic/Ken Amer

Some activists in Orkney have been calling on their MP to stand down. Picture: Orkney Photographic/Ken Amer

In the Court of Session on Monday, a hearing will commence which could see the election of Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael as the MP for Orkney and Shetland overturned.

And we’ll be able to watch every minute of proceedings on STV’s Glasgow and Edinburgh channels (as well as online). It promises to be quite the drama.

Mr Carmichael, the former secretary of state for Scotland and, since May, the sole Scottish Lib Dem MP, faces a legal challenge to his election over his conduct during and after the leak of a memo about First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s meeting with the French ambassador.

You may recall that the document found its way to the press and its contents – the, subsequently stoutly denied, assertion that Ms Sturgeon favoured a David Cameron rather than an Ed Miliband premiership – made headlines on the front pages of some newspapers during the general election campaign

The First Minister was adamant that she had expressed no such opinion and reiterated her position that she would prefer a Labour PM, with whom the SNP might co-operate.

Mr Carmichael promptly denied that he had anything to do with the leaking of the memo. The thing was that, in fact, he had sanctioned its release to journalists. He had orchestrated an old-fashioned leak, designed to cause trouble for an opponent.

By the time Mr Carmichael eventually put his hands up, he had been returned as an MP. He accepted that the contents of the memo were incorrect (though there is no suggestion that the document was prepared in anything other than good faith), admitted that he had ordered the leak, and conceded that – had he still been a member of the Cabinet – this would have been a cause for his resignation.

Four of his constituents scented blood. Pro-independence activists and SNP members soon raised more than £50,000 through a crowd-funding website to enable them to legally challenge Mr Carmichael’s election.

Their position was that, had the good people of Orkney and Shetland known of his deception, they would not have returned him to Westminster on their behalf.

And so, on Monday, for the first time since 1965, the Election Court will sit in Edinburgh, under the joint chairmanship of judges Lady Paton and Lord Matthews. At stake is Mr Carmichael’s political future.

Should they agree that, yes, his actions do merit a re-run of the election in the constituency, it seems unthinkable that he would make a credible candidate. Who would bet against the SNP taking the seat?

I can imagine how exciting this must be for SNP supporters. The disappointment of winning only 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies in May must have been hard to bear and the chance of adding another to the tally must be hugely appealing.

But, perhaps, as those who want to see Mr Carmichael’s career end in disgrace settle down with their popcorn on Monday to watch this court case unfold, they should remember the old warning that one should be careful what one wishes for.

Yes, a decision in favour of the petitioners would mean a scalp for the pro-independence movement and a subsequent re-run of the election would almost certainly mean the election of a 57th SNP MP.

But the precedent the decision would set would have ramifications not just for the Lib Dems but for all political parties, including the SNP.

Politics is a contact sport. We can tell ourselves that it should be conducted with the utmost propriety but, here in the real world, it is often vicious.

The ability to play dirty is not restricted to members of unionist parties.

Back in March of 2012, former First Minister Alex Salmond was asked, during an interview conducted by Andrew Neil, whether the Scottish Government had received legal advice about the status of an independent Scotland within the European Union.

The SNP’s official line was that an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the European Union; that it would enjoy this status because it had previously been a member as part of the UK.

This was not, according to the UK government and sundry EU officials, the case. They were adamant that a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for membership, a process which would require considerable negotiation and the adoption of the euro as the national currency.

Mr Salmond told Mr Neil that the Scottish Government had, indeed, received legal advice that supported its position.

In fact, no such legal advice existed. Mr Salmond’s reply was a deception, just as Mr Carmichael’s denial of any knowledge of the leak of the Sturgeon memo was.

Should Lady Paton and Lord Matthews agree that Mr Carmichael’s election should be rerun, then SNP supporters will have opened a box that they will not be able to close.

During any campaign, SNP politicians will be as bound as any other to give direct answers to often difficult questions or face devastating, career-ending consequences.

Now, I’m not arguing that politicians should not be obliged to be honest and I’ll be perfectly happy if this becomes a legal requirement. If a politician denies involvement in a leak which he orchestrated, then why shouldn’t he pay a price? If a First Minister claims ownership of legal advice that doesn’t exist, why should he be allowed to do so with impunity?

But politicians who hope that next week’s proceedings will lead to a decision to turf Mr Carmichael out of Westminster are hoping for the laying of a new political minefield across which they will have to travel.

There will always be difficult questions which politicians would prefer not to answer. Sometimes, it seems the art of politics is as much about “finessing” the truth as it is about winning and exercising power.

If Alistair Carmichael’s career is ended by this court action, we can expect others to face the same fate before long.