I will admit to a bit of schadenfreude at the uber-smug Alex Salmond coming a fairly major cropper but, actually, the appropriate emotion is pure fury and indignation. Fury because the leader of our Country, the person who represents us, whose larger than life figure has become almost synonymous with Scotland in some people's eyes, has been shown to be so brazen in his manipulation of the facts. That a special adviser should attempt to put words into the mouth of an eminent expert is, in the first place, outrageous. For the First Minister to present these words to Parliament as if they were a done deal just makes it all so much worse.
In their 4 years of minority administration, the SNP had a reputation for being reasonably competent. In the last few months, over the Supreme Court, human rights, Cornton Vale and now this, they have shown themselves to be pretty incompetent. Most of the errors have come from either Alex Salmond or Kenny MacAskill. That's quite telling, I think. I wonder what someone like Angela Constance, much as I'm loathe to see her move from her current position as Children's Minister, could do at Justice. She'd have more credibility and understanding of the issues, I reckon.
Anyway, I digress. I thought it would be useful to tell the full story of yesterday's shocking events in Parliament, from Murdo Fraser's initial question, right through to the FM's statement of apology.
Things to note are:
How utterly smug Salmond was to Murdo, suggesting that if the Tories had taken more advice from constitutional experts, they might have done better these last few decades - just after he's completely misquoted one.
What a good week Willie Rennie has had. He started with the two question referendum issue on Monday and it's been in the headlines for most of the week. On Reporting Scotland last night it was Willie's point of order that was shown, not Iain Gray's. Not bad for a party with five MSPs.
It's also worth pointing out that Willie has made Labour leadership contender Tom Harris look like a total and complete amateur. Tom spent the week before accusing the SNP of trying to rig the referendum by allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. Unfortunately, the discussion centred around Tom's rather antiquated prejudices against allowing young people, many of whom pay taxes, to vote.
Anyway, here are the events as they unfolded. It all kicks off at the end of First Minister's Questions, after the live tv coverage has ended.
Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife)(Con): To ask the First Minister when the Scottish Government will set a date for the referendum on independence.
The First Minister (Alex Salmond): In good time to meet our election commitment.
Murdo Fraser: The First Minister will not give us a date for his referendum and now he wants to muddle things further with talk of a third option. Surely it cannot be the case that the First Minister lacks the courage to put his big idea of independence to a straight yes or no vote of the Scottish people, or is he feart?
The First Minister: I now find out that Murdo Fraser has been feeding lines to the Prime Minister. I congratulate Murdo Fraser, who has, alone among the Tory candidates, questioned me for the fourth time. That is marvellous practice. It would be such a shame if all that practice came to naught.
I have been handed a statement by Matt Qvortrup, a professor and the world‟s foremost
expert on constitutional referenda, from a letter that he is sending to The Times newspaper. He closes the letter by saying:
“While it is a matter for the Scottish people and Parliament to determine the form of their own referendum and while asking about a single question would be much more common, such a two-question proposition would be fair, reasonable and clear.”
Our position is that, whatever else Murdo Fraser can count on—and I suspect that this is more certain than the result of the Conservative leadership campaign—there shall be a yes-or-no question on Scottish independence on the ballot paper, and the independence referendum will be held in the second half of this parliamentary session. That is the proposition that we put to the people of Scotland, on which we received an overwhelming and resounding majority.
Murdo Fraser: I am not interested in the opinions of constitutional lawyers, however eminent they are; I am interested in the opinions of the First Minister. If the First Minister is so confident that he can win support for independence, why not put the matter to a votenow and let the people decide?
The First Minister: There are a couple of reasons. The people of Scotland showed faith in
the Scottish National Party in the election campaign, and I thought that the SNP would show faith in the people of Scotland. That is an original concept for the Conservative Party. I am fascinated. We heard from Annabel Goldie that she did not really care about some of the world‟s most renowned economists; now, of course, we are not to care about the views of the leading constitutional professors and experts. The problem for the Conservative Party and the reason why it has been reduced to its present pitiful condition is not that it has not paid attention to the views of economists or constitutional experts, although doing so would have been good; the reason for the state of the Conservative Party is that it has never paid attention to the views of the people of Scotland.
So, a classic put down from a smug First Minister.
But pride comes before a fall – I was going to write smugness, but I’m not going to rewrite a well known saying for my own ends.
Fast forward a couple of hours, and just before 3, Murdo Fraser, having realised Salmond’s mistake – maybe he’d been reading the Scottish Lib Dem website, because Willie Rennie had put out a press release giving the correct version of the Qvortrup quote before FMQs – raised this point of order:
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. At First Minister‟s questions today, the First Minister, in response to a question from me on the referendum on independence, stated the following, and I quote from the Official Report:
“I have been handed a statement by Matt Qvortrup, a professor and the world‟s foremost expert on constitutional referenda, from a letter that he is sending to The Times newspaper. He closes the letter by saying: „While it is a matter for the Scottish people and Parliament to determine the form of their own referendum and while asking about a single question would be much more common, such a two-question proposition would be fair, reasonable and clear.‟
End of quote.
I have now been informed that the words quoted by the First Minister purporting to be from Professor Qvortrup are not those of the professor but were written by the First Minister‟s official spokesman, who advised the press of that at lunch time‟s media briefing. I am sure that you will agree, Presiding Officer, that if that is correct it appears that the First Minister has misled Parliament, which should be a matter of great concern to all members. Will you ask the First Minister to come to the chamber and make a statement so that the record can be put straight?
With less than half an hour to go before the end of proceedings, Iain Gray got in on the party too:
It is evident that either the First Minister knowingly misled Parliament or that his official spokesperson knowingly misled him. Whichever explanation is true, one of those people must face the consequences and the Parliament must hear an explanation from the First Minister for his conduct earlier today. I therefore ask the Presiding Officer to reconsider the issue and to provide additional time this afternoon for the First Minister to clarify the position.
Fifteen minutes later, with still no word from the First Minister, Willie Rennie ramped the pressure up a notch, calling for a full Parliamentary debate:
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification, further to the points of order that were raised earlier. Professor Qvortrup was clear that the SNP‟s two-question referendum is untenable, but today the First Minister delivered a fabricated endorsement to the chamber. He quoted a letter that turns out to have been written not by the professor, but by the First Minister’s special adviser in his own office this morning. This is a blatant attempt to nobble an academic, to doctor the evidence and to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Scotland. An apology is not enough.
Presiding Officer, will you make time for an early meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau so that a full debate can be held on the Government’s conduct on this matter.
And, so, as the session closed, a wearied Alex Salmond rose with his tail, rightly, between his legs.
Presiding Officer, I gave a response to Parliament at First Minister’s question time today that I would now like to correct. I believed that the words that I used in response to Murdo Fraser were going to be included in a letter from Professor Matt Qvortrup to The Times newspaper. I now know that that was not the case and, therefore, apologise to the chamber for my mistake. It was never my intention to mislead Parliament, so I wished to correct the record at the earliest opportunity. I was given a message shortly before I entered the chamber that was wrong, and therefore my response was incorrect. The responsibility for that is mine, and mine alone, which is why I apologise to the chamber for the misinformation.
The good news is that I have now spoken to Professor Qvortrup this afternoon—something that I should perhaps have done before First Minister’s question time. I now fully understand his position, which is that, if we wish it, it is entirely feasible to hold a two-question referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future in a fair, reasonable and clear manner, provided that certain conditions are met.
Furthermore, as one of the world’s foremost experts on referendums, Professor Qvortrup has agreed to put his services at the disposal of the Government and the Parliament—if it wishes—to bring about a two-question referendum, should that be the will of the Parliament, when the time comes.
A slight bit of smuggery at the end, but by no stretch of the imagination has this been an edifying week for the First Minister. He would have wanted to come out of his Conference with a bit of a boost after launching the independence campaign - but instead, it's all looking a bit ragged after this week.
One thing is absolutely clear above all else: in the second half of this parliamentary term, there will be a clear question in the referendum that consults the people on whether they support Scotland becoming an independent nation.
The thing is, the SNP would be quite happy with a straight yes/no question. They clearly don't understand the implications of a third option and how to correctly determine the will of the people. They could have responded to Willie Rennie's initial investigation with something like " We need to make sure that the outcome is clear and that the process is fair. We'll give details of how that'll be achieved in due course." What they did instead was to engage in a debate they don't understand. Once they'd said that independence would win even if it effectively came second, they were sunk. It was an unforced error, as they say on the tennis court.
A final word, though. I'd hate to be the poor staffer who had to tell Salmond that he'd just lied to Parliament. That can't have been pleasant. Although what they were doing was absolutely wrong, I do have just a little bit of sympathy with that person. Having to admit you have made an almighty balls up to your boss is never easy.