25 October 2012

Salmond: Nixonian, Clintonian, Delboyian...

And in a single bound, free. Well, not quite, but Alex Salmond certainly cleared some much-needed waddle-room for himself at this afternoon's First Minister's Questions, in great part because of the ineptness of his sapskulled interrogators. After a bruising week of often Jesuitical evasions from the Scottish Government, skeptical hacks perched like rooks in the Holyrood rafters, ready to pick over Salmond's carcass, the stage was meant to be set for an uncomfortable encounter for the First Minister.  

Hitherto, there's been something of Schrödinger's cat about Salmond's account of himself. The condensed version of his Holyrood statement was essentially "The concept of legal advice obviously includes and excludes any advice about law which I may and may not have received." The justification has been full of doubleness, distinguishing legal advice which he did and did not ask for or possess, and could and could not disclose, distinctions which he claimed were implicit in, but not really made explicit to Andrew Neil in their BBC interview. For most, a bemusing guddle of an answer, which could prompt only boredom and disengagement  - or a significant dollop of mistrust.  Salmond's been stewing in this stuff for days now, despite the defensive sallies he and some of his colleagues have launched on telly and on radio in his defence.

Plenty of choice ingredients, you might well think, for an underemployed leader of the opposition to fork through, selecting the choice cuts to serve up to Salmond this afternoon. Lamont, conspicuously absent from the EU advice controversy so far, was spotted practising on a tumshie with her mashie niblick on top of Arthur's Seat this morning. Davidson's neighbours report she's been pummelling an aubergine-shaped punch-bag in a double-breasted suit into the wee small hours over in Partick. Wee Willie Rennie, ill-luck dogging him, is still recovering from last night's BBC Newsnicht and wasn't allotted a question today. At the very least, he no doubt rehearsed enthusiastically braying and pooh-poohing dubiously, as Salmond was taken seriously to task in the chamber. 

None of that materialised. Instead, both Lamont and Davidson were abject, feeble, unfunny, unfocussed. Instead of dragging him across the coals as anticipated, they bungled on content and style, Davidson more ridiculously. They might as well have put him up in a yielding leather armchair beside a nice cosy fire instead. 

I've been pondering how they were able to cock it up so merrily. Poor advice? Bare incompetence? For at least two days, both leaders were in a position to prophesy more or less what Salmond's defence would be. It should have surprised neither of them that he resorted to his nifty device - the independent panel on the ministerial code - to try to douse the controversy. Neither were the lines of justification which he offered novel, or a radical departure from earlier accounts of himself, and the import of his words and actions. They could also rely on Salmond resorting to the old debater's techniques of quibbling with definitions, deflecting from the main thrust of questions by pouncing on perceived errors in their construction.  

Accordingly, it seemed obvious that they'd need to be on top of the precise contents of the Ministerial Code, if they were to stand a hope in hell of catching him out.  Instead, neither politician seemed to have done their homework. Save, that is, for drafting and reading out their prepared remarks, with greater and lesser degrees of dudgeon.  Ruth's approach might be summarised as: "this is an important, serious matter. Now for a series of jocular interludes". It helps if the jokes are witty, and preferably, didn't involve the (more or less) vital, youthful Tory party leader referencing television programmes which were finally discontinued over a decade ago, its glory days already long behind it.  It seems a waste to squander youth's bounty, for the sake of a flaccid gag.

Looking back over past showings, it seems to me that Johann and her advisers are unable to keep critical focus.  At all. Instead of more forensic, detailed dismantling of the First Minister on specific policies, specific failings, setting up tripwires for him to blunder over on themes of wider resonance, she feels much more comfortable delivering acid perorations and pre-chewed put-downs. At length. Accordingly, every week, she skimps on the analysis, and rushes to denunciation, almost in a single breath.  Very rarely do you see her dangling a hook in the water, waiting for Salmond to take the bait, then goggling wetly as the hook finds his throat. 

Instead, Lamont tends to posit an SNP scandal or failure up front - take it for read - and then crack on with Salmond bashing. As a result, we almost never see Alex wriggling uncomfortably, dangling on the line, forced into an awkward admission.  Lamont is simply too predictable, and always furnishes him with some partisan ball to bat back her way from the very get go. She has no lightness on her feet whatsoever as a debater, but being so mechanically pre-scripted, she really should resist the urge to talk so much. Today's little failure in Holyrood was an object lesson in these vices. I'm sure the First Minister appreciates the assistance at this difficult time.  

What might the Tory and Labour leaders have said instead?  Their questioning could go down at least two distinct lines.  I suppose the first is more attractive if you are focussed on Nationalist defeat in Holyrood, the second if you are most concerned with discrediting nationalism more generally in the referendum.  The first, favoured by Labour, was anticipated by Paul Martin's characterisation of the First Minister as a "barefaced liar".  On this line of questioning, the EU topic is of peripheral consequence: the goal is to paint Salmond as a duplicitous scoundrel, a chancer, who habitually lies to journalists, fibs to parliament, and litigates to cover up his falsehoods. It's classic ad hominem stuff, an attempt to dent the personal credibility of the leader, and its effectiveness relies on building up a miasma of mistrust and mislike around the man.

Instead, you might take another approach - one that backgrounds the issue of falsehood, misspeaking, distortion - and instead focusses precisely on the issue of Nationalist credibility on the EU. For my money, while the media and parliamentarians might find the "liar" angle most interesting, it is this second line of questioning which strikes me as more potentially damaging for nationalists, though neither Davidson or Lamont came close to nailing the case.  It might go something like this:

"First Minister. You've been a nationalist for over thirty years. You've been First Minister for six. In that time, your government has brought two referendum bills before this parliament to separate Scotland from the UK.  We now discover that in all those years, it never once - never once - occurred to you to ask your law officers for their opinion on Scotland's EU status after secession. You seem remarkably incurious about this vital question. Scotland's people need an informed debate about independence.  How can the ordinary citizen hope to understand the choices before us, when First Minister's own best notion of the legal possibilities and challenges facing his policy are apparently borrowed from newspaper cuttings from the 1990s, and selective quotes from academic journals? This isn't what a serious, credible nationalist case for independence within the EU looks like."

In the event, both Ruth and Johann wanted to pluck on both strings, but managed to produce two dud notes, rather than one clear one. 


  1. Instead they came out with the same old, same old - no digs about the principled (or huffy) defection of two list SNP MSP's, no attempts to question just what Eck means by the removal of Trident on independence just vacuous, empty rhetoric.

    I get your point some one needs to test Eck's mettle but currently it is only his party's members that are up to the task, asking for detail and more information on 'policies' before they are 'bounced' at conference.

    It is bizzare but true, the strongest opposition and test Wee Eck faces is from his membership - that indicates to me there is something rotten in the other parties in Holyrood.

  2. Do we actually know for certain that specific legal advice has not be requested in the past? Did Nicola Sturgeon confirm this? Given the prior consent needed to either confirm or deny it's existence, it seems possible that they may be requesting it again with prior consent simply to make a public statement about it.

  3. I know you relish your position as "self-proclaimed Unionist Stooge to the gentry" but since the opposition parties are not shy about making comments based on the FM's appearance (or childessness come to that) could you maybe aim a little higher than that?

    Self-criticism of your own side is a valuable thing for a free and fair debate, but you can corrupt yourself by going that way.

    You can point out weak areas and errors, without this.

    To take on your point, if I were the FM, something like this

    "Legal issues depend on legislation or precedent. For the situation we are in, neither exists. We sought opinion from experts which we have published, unlike Westminster by the way, and with that as a background, we are asking for specific advice, which can build on that and from information coming from the EU which has had a chance to consider"

    A favour though, a genuine request
    If the thing about not even saying whether or not you have had advice is true, and if it isn't could you point out where in the guideline this is made clear I would be grateful.

  4. Peter,

    As you say, interesting that none of the opposition brought up the SNP's loss of two MSPs. I suspect that issues of Nato and Trident isn't exactly a topic Johann would like to open up within her own party.


    A fair question. From the FM's current disclosures, I think it is a fair reading to say that he's never solicited advice from his law officers while in office on this specific topic. That said, I'm sure the SNP have looked into Europe for themselves, and have taken advice from folk who know much more about the law and politics of the issue than I do (which is almost anyone who has set foot in Brussels). Anything else is - frankly - unthinkable.


    Here's the moment when I regret eliminating that last paragraph I was going to include in this piece, for reasons of brevity. The EU argument I sketched was precisely that - an argument, meant to be put in the mouth of Lamont, with a view to her goals and constitutional commitments.

    That shouldn't imply there aren't good answers to these questions which nationalists can and ought to give. Something like what you've sketched there is a reasonable start, and welcome, in that it recognises the complexities and uncertainties of the legal position on the EU (as I understand it) and places the emphasise where it matters. The Lord Advocate's view on whether or not Scotland will automatically stay a member of the EU, or will have to rejoin, might be of interest but it isn't of a great deal of importance. The really significant view on this will come from Brussels.

    I'm a bit worried that we're shaping up for a polarises re-run of the pre-Edinburgh Agreement referendum analysis, where Nationalists and Unionists both advance directly opposed arguments, both claiming that their analysis is bang on, with no legal quibbles or uncertainty to speak of. I'm not sure nationalists can win that argument. Unionists are far better at striking terror into the hearts of the Scottish electorate, and exploiting these sorts of things.

    As with the referendum, these legal problems tend to be resolved politically, but I'm not sure "there is no uncertainty, no legal problems" we may have to navigate, is the best credible argument for nationalists to be making here.

    On your other points, I don't know about relishing being a "Unionist stooge", but I do try to say what I think, hopefully with some sense of fairness to those I'm talking about - but admittedly, not terribly reverently. I've certainly criticised the logic of Lamont's "as a mother" rhetoric before, and any light references to Salmond are fondly meant for my part.

  5. Of course, the unionist parties don't need to be a credible opposition. The BBC in Scotland are doing a fine job for them.

  6. SG position appears to be:

    They set out in previous documents the processes they proposed to follow to deliver the independence referendum and beyond to the dissolution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and re-establishment of an independent Scotland and a residual UK.

    The documents stated, on the assumption that the Scottish Government / Scottish Parliament would not fall foul of UK law on these processes, Scotland would remain in the EU while negotiations on the detailed terms of membership took place.

    On each occasion, Scottish law officers passed the comprehensive set of statements.

    EU and Spain have largely confirmed this is the correct position.

    There was a second scenario in the air - Scotland may need to secede from a continuing, and hostile, UK by using much less reliable international law, not UK law, on right to self-determination.

    This was not set out in documents and therefore Scottish law officer's view on its impact on Scotland’s membership of the EU was never sought.

    The Scottish Government did not seek specific legal advice on the issue of Scotland’s relationship with the EU post-independence. Any such advice would have dealt with both, and possibly more, scenarios.

    Edinburgh Agreement is now in place that confirms the first scenario as the one Scotland will follow.

    Scottish Government now happy to ask law officers what they think.

    Better Together scratching collective head ---and possibly other parts of anatomy.

    Cameron pleased at getting home without being booed and leaves Michael Moore to clean up mess.

  7. You guys must have watched a different FMQ's from me.

    It's not that Lamont or Davidson were brilliant, it's that Salmond was shifty and defensive and his chief henchmen and his troops febrile.

    He's bin fun oot.

    Never glad confident morning again...

  8. Braveheart

    Yours is a curious view on life

    Heard as MSPs left the chamber

    First MSP "Is there any other point about FMQs to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

    "To the curious manner in which the FM was impaled on the loss of two MSPs."

    "The loss of the two MSPs was never raised during FMQs."

    "That was the curious manner of his impaling."

    Salmond was waiting the whole time for when the issue would come up - and he emerged entirely unscathed from the most significant breach in party unity since the parliament was established.

    When are the next leadership elections in the Better Together parties?

  9. Braveheart, you are right. How they skewered him on the loss of two List MSPs was brilliant.

    Wasn't it? It WAS, wasn't it? *blinks*

  10. Councillor Gallagher:

    "it's that Salmond was shifty and defensive"

    Just for the record, you understand: can you point us to an instance at any point in history when in your published view the First Minister WASN'T "shifty and defensive"?

    Merely asking for calibration.

  11. GrassyKnollington25 October 2012 at 21:25

    "They might as well have put him up in a yielding leather armchair beside a nice cosy fire instead"

    lol he did seem fairly relaxed. I was more interested in the grim coupons of Annabel and Murdo in the background when Action Krankie was doing her devastating stand up routine. I haven't laughed so much since I found out that hilarious wee Glesca keelie and fellow comedy unionist Susan Calman was Lord Kenneth Calman's wean.

    Anyway tomorrows radio,

    Cllr Alex Gallagher says "Never glad confident morning again" for Alex Salmond and the SNP I'm Kaye Adams.....do you agree?

    p.s don't bother phoning in if you don't.

  12. 'None of that materialised. Instead, both Lamont and Davidson were abject, feeble, unfunny, unfocussed. Instead of dragging him across the coals as anticipated, they bungled on content and style, Davidson more ridiculously. They might as well have put him up in a yielding leather armchair beside a nice cosy fire instead. '

    As with Grassy, i love that ta LPW. Reminded me of an earlier inquisition -


    Have to say like I guess 80% of the population I feel like that get-my-coat chap in The Fast Show when it comes to the ins and oots of this one. What I get mostly is what I always get when I look at Holyrood on telly - lordy how they all dislike each other. Not a game like Westminster.

    Ruth Davidson was amazingly feeble - LPW rightly gives her absurd likenings top billing and Johann was not a lot better. Yet again, the main thought that comes to me is how lucky Eck is in his enemies.

  13. The First Minister deliberately (and unnecessarily) misled in the Andrew Neil interview. It was an error of judgement and the Scottish Government must have been waiting for a bad news day to lance it ever since. Tuesday’s resignations served that purpose. The politically interested are sufficiently inured to lies and spin, and the uninterested would struggle to make sense of this week’s events if they were presented to them.

    Scottish political culture is so sectarian that our Parliament is dysfunctional. Party loyalty is paramount while personal principle and individual thinking is disposable. The Opposition is so incompetent that the Scottish Government is not being properly scrutinised and held to account and it knows it. The public are the losers in all of this, they deserve so much more.

  14. Braveheart said...

    You guys must have watched a different FMQ's from me.

    It's not that Lamont or Davidson were brilliant, it's that Salmond was shifty and defensive and his chief henchmen and his troops febrile.

    GrassyKnollington said...
    I was more interested in the grim coupons of Annabel and Murdo in the background when Action Krankie was doing her devastating stand up routine.

    Both Johann and Ruth overplayed their hands. Rather than focussing on Salmond's mischief, we got disraction. Not a spiffing demonstration of opposition at its canny best. Annabel's agape face during that was a jolly entertainment. Even Darth Murdo piped down and goggled quietly. They certainly didn't look overjoyed, awash with partisan glee.

  15. Perhaps debating sessions, all of them including FMQs, could be made more even by having the team captains pick their sides at the start of each debate.

    Like football teams get picked at school or in the park.

    PO "Willie Rennie, you win the draw, first pick"

    RENNIE "I choose John Swinney"

    SWINNEY "Naw miss!"

    PO "Swinney, sit behind Rennie. If you try and help your pals it'll be detention. You can play with them at lunchtime"

  16. If you think AS is emerging unscathed from the last few days I can only commend your optimistic world-view.

    "The fact that Eck lied to Andrew and got found out is only for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds...."

    Upbeat's not the word for it.

    Now, deluded....