Triumphant from signing last week an historic agreement making a referendum on independence by 2014 a certainty and off the back of conference which although tough, nevertheless saw the party leadership claim victory in its efforts to u-turn on its NATO policy, Alex Salmond might have been looking forward to the first day back at Holyrood after the recess…
What happened, however, was a series of events which has led The Herald this morning to declare it to be the SNP’s “darkest day in government”.
First came the news as reported on Left Foot Forward yesterday that Salmond had lost two of his MSPs over the party’s NATO u-turn, in protest, they argued, at what amounts to hypocrisy - being pro-NATO whilst rejecting the principle of nuclear weapons. The resignations now mean the SNP have an effective majority of just one.
Then came the publication of the responses to the Scottish government’s consultation on the mechanics of a referendum which found that, whilst 64% agreed with the SNP’s proposed wording for the question to be posed, 62% opposed the idea of a second question on the adoption of “devo max” being included on the ballot paper, flying in the face of the SNP’s strong determination to have seen such an option included.
And then came the big one. Addressing MSPs, the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced:
“The government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our Law Officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through this process.”
The only problem is that earlier this year, ministers at Edinburgh announced it would be appealing an order by Scotland’s Information Commissioner it should reveal the legal advice it had received on the position of an independent Scotland within the EU whilst in March the first minister had given a strong indication advice had already been sought.
Writing at the Spectator’s Coffee House blog, Isabel Hardman carries an extract of an interview for the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme between the first minister and Andrew Neil:
Andrew Neil: Have you sought advice from your own Scottish law officers in this matter?
Alex Salmond: We have, yes, in terms of the debate.
Neil: And what do they say?
Salmond: You can read that in the documents that we’ve put forward, which argue the position that we’d be successor states.
Neil: And what do they say?
Salmond: You know I can’t give you the legal advice, or reveal the legal advice of law officers, you know that, Andrew.
Seizing on the revelations, Labour MSP Paul Martin - responding to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement - branded the first minister a “barefaced liar”.
“It appears the first minister is a liar and used taxpayers’ money to try to cover up his lies.
“When asked about whether he had sought legal advice on Scotland joining the EU he said he had. He even went to court to prevent that advice from being published and he told the Scottish Parliament that he couldn’t reveal it because the rules wouldn’t let him.
“Now Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that Alex Salmond never had any advice to keep secret in the first place. That means the deputy first minister has revealed the first minister to be a liar.
“This government cannot be straight with the Scottish people. Alex Salmond has started the debate on Scotland’s future within the UK with barefaced lies that even embarrass his deputy.”
For the Scottish Conservatives, the party’s leader, Ruth Davidson, accused ministers of “a Cabinet cover-up right from the beginning using taxpayers’ money to try and hoodwink the Scottish people”, whilst the senior and much respected Scottish Lib Dem MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, declared:
“It shows contempt for the people of Scotland and a complete unwillingness to engage in the detail of the debate about the consequences of independence.”
Speaking to Newsnight Scotland last night, Nicola Sturgeon argued the first minister’s comments to Andrew Neil had been taken out of context, arguing:
“Any fair-minded person who reads the entire transcript of that interview 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 are underpinned law officers’ advice.”
This was not, however, the view of Andrew Neil himself who has tweeted:
“No confusion over what I was asking Alex Salmond: what official legal advice he’d been given re Scotland’s EU status if it left the UK?”
Fusing together the mess over NATO and the EU, John Curtice, the much respected Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, has concluded in The Scotsman:
“To have the credibility of one key argument undermined on one day might be thought unfortunate. To be put on the back foot on two could be considered careless. And without credibility the “Yes” cause will certainly be lost.”
Meanwhile, declaring it to be the first minister’s “darkest day”, the Herald’s leader column this morning observes:
“Yesterday was Mr Salmond’s darkest day since he came to power. And future potential fractures, in particular between the economically liberal and socially liberal wings of his party, could be even more damaging. The SNP’s case for independence rests largely on the administration’s competence and confidence.
“It would be premature to say these have been undermined by recent events but they have certainly been shaken.”