For months now, the Scottish Government has been giving the strong impression that it had sought specific legal advice on whether an independent Scotland would be allowed automatically into the European Union. It has blocked attempts to force it to publish that advice and has responded to the growing clamour that it should publish by saying that legal convention prevents it from doing so.
It now turns out that it had not sought such advice at all. Alex Salmond stood up in Parliament to explain the source of the rumour – a March interview with the BBC in which the matter of EU accession and the legal issues surrounding it were discussed.
Now, when you listen to the interview carefully it is true that Salmond’s words can be interpreted in two ways. He’s now saying that he was referring to various legal utterances that underpin various documents on independence issued by the Scottish Government. At no stage did he specifically claim to have sought stand-alone advice on this specific matter.
But the clear impression is that he did, and it’s obvious that the interviewer Andrew Neil took is that way (something that he confirmed on today’s Daily Politics show). Moreover, over the intervening period opposition figures, the media and the public have all assumed that such specific legal advice existed, and one MSP launched a Freedom of Information campaign to force the Scottish Government to release it, which the Scottish Government contested in the courts.
By implication, therefore, the SNP was lying, even if Salmond’s words were ambiguous.
I must say I was bemused that the SNP would have sought legal advice and then refused to reveal its content. Everyone assumed the advice was negative to its cause (hence the attempts to hide it), but since it was obviously going to come out eventually, it seemed odd to make such a blatant attempt at concealment. I even suspected a trick – the SNP would eventually reveal a positive legal ruling with which it would confound its critics.
But it turns out that this was simply another case of politicians refusing to eat humble pie and admit they had ‘misspoken’. It’s very similar to Cameron’s gaffe on electricity price regulation the other day. When you listen to what he said in the Commons, it can be interpreted almost any old how. But his opponents took it to mean one thing and he refused to recant, getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble.
Salmond should have said long ago that he had never sought specific advice and was sorry if he’d given the impression that he’d done so. As it is he has effectively be caught lying, and should pay a heavy political price. Whether he does or not is down to the Holyrood opposition.