Alistair Darling waded into the debate on Alex Salmond's shambolic screw-ups of the past week, labelling them a "defining" moment in the independence debate.
Following a week which saw two of his MSPs resign from the party over its u-turn on NATO membership and the news his government was only now seeking legal advice on membership of the EU despite having launched legal proceedings to block the publication of that very same non-existent advice, Alex Salmond this week came in for a tonne of criticism from all three of the main parties that form the bedrock of the “Better Together” campaign.
For Labour, the Better Together Campaign chair, Alistair Darling, has concluded that, far from being an awkward blip for the SNP leadership, the week’s events, dubbed on twitter as “scomnishambles”, will be proved to be a “defining” moment for the debate on independence.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, the former chancellor observed:
“The fact that Alex Salmond allowed people to believe he had legal opinion on EU membership is the most damaging thing that’s happened to him as first minister. It leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth and will be viewed as a defining moment.”
During a wide-ranging interview, the former chancellor is described as relishing the opportunity to take on the first minister whom he describes as having “got away with bluster”. Dubbing the prospect of independence a “one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain future”, in what was a cutting remark, he expressed his willingness to take part in a TV debate with the SNP leader only “as soon as he’s worked out what he’s going to argue for”.
Asked to respond to comments made by the Spanish foreign minister earlier in the week in which he said an independent Scotland would have to “join the queue” for EU membership, Darling told Scotland on Sunday:
“I’ve long suspected that the Spanish government would find it very difficult to just nod Scotland’s EU membership through. It could take years to resolve and as the EU is so important to Scottish business and tens of thousands of jobs depend on it. We are talking again about a real warning shot being fired.”
The former chancellor also hinted at a greater role for Gordon Brown ahead of the 2014 vote, concluding he doesn’t have the “slightest doubt that he’ll make further contributions to the campaign”, whilst he commented that there was “not a problem at all” if Tony Blair were to get involved.
For the Scottish Lib Dems, meanwhile, meeting at their annual conference over the weekend in Dunfermline, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, called on the SNP for greater honesty over their currently “invisible plan” for independence.
Speaking at a fringe event organised by the Better Together Campaign, Alexander explained:
“You can’t turn on a television without seeing Alex Salmond’s face looming out at you, making his argument. But while he is not the invisible man, he has an invisible plan. He does not explain what the basis of his arguments are.”
“Without the stability of the UK there would be serious questions about whether an independent Scotland could finance the low interest rates which the UK, with its deeper pockets and wider fiscal power, is able to command.”
In his speech to the party faithful, meanwhile, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, called on both the Conservatives and Labour to engage in a constructive dialogue over a plan for further powers that should be offered to Scotland.
“The first minister told his conference last week that to secure the gains of devolution Scotland needs to back independence. Dismantle devolution to protect the gains of devolution? With that logic he’ll be telling us he wants the Pound, the Queen, the Bank of England to make Scotland independent.
“Alex Salmond is showing all the signs of a leader afraid of his own policy. He now includes more and more of the British state he has previously demonised. He’s sending us a covert signal. Perhaps he too thinks we’re better together.
“The best way to protect devolution is not to destroy it but to build on it. Scotland has an alternative. If we want to keep our influential place in international bodies, but with strong domestic powers, people don’t have to look very far from this room.
“Home rule for Scotland in a federal United Kingdom keeps us as a powerful force for good in the world.”
David Cameron, meanwhile, used the weekend to argue the trust lost in the first minister over the EU legal advice made the case even stronger that he must follow the advice of the Electoral Commission in the staging of the referendum.
Writing for the Mail on Sunday, the prime minister argued:
“The SNP’s lack of transparency over whether or not Scottish ministers had sought specific legal advice on which to base their assertions on EU membership makes it all the more important for the first minister and his deputy to now state clearly whether or not they will follow the independent expert advice of the Electoral Commission in setting the referendum rules.
“A categorical assurance from the first minister would at least start to restore trust in the process, since trust has been the main casualty of this recent row.
“The SNP is a player in the referendum, not its referee, so people would be rightly baffled if, for example, it chose to ignore the Electoral Commission advice about the referendum question.
“The discussion about the referendum rules will set the tone for the big debate about Scotland’s future. The Scottish people deserve clarity.”
The developments came as an SNP activist known to be close to the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tendered his resignation from the party over the “disgrace” the first minister had been in conducting himself.
Adil Bhatti, a former member of the party’s national council, convener of the Scottish Asians for Independence and the former branch secretary for Sturgeon’s constituency party, wrote in his resignation letter to the deputy first minister:
“The sight of the first minister being caught lying but refusing to admit it was a disgrace to the office, the party and to Scotland, and was the final straw. The events of the last few days and weeks have led me to lose my faith in the SNP, my trust of the leadership and questioned my support for independence.
“The decision on NATO was not a decision made on principle but a cynical and manipulative attempt to win votes. Similarly the SNP’s position on the EU and keeping the pound are not based on principle but an attempt to hoodwink the public.”
As the Sunday Herald’s Scottish Political Editor, Tom Gordon, concludes:
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“Salmond may have survived last week’s furore, but like every politician he has a shelf life. The big question for the SNP and the independence movement is whether it extends to October 2014.”