This is a story of two lies.
In one, a former minister who was standing as a candidate in the general election said that he had not agreed that someone else should leak a document to the media that may or may not have been true and may or may not have affected the outcome of the election in his constituency although even if it did it had no impact on the wider result across the country. The document, written by a civil servant, recorded what he or she believed someone said to someone else in a meeting. The two people cited denied they had said what the document claimed. Under pressure the candidate, now elected, admitted that he had sanctioned the leaking of the document. He apologised, belatedly, and admitted that had his party still been in power he would never hold ministerial office again.
In the normal course of events an elected politician who was discovered to have done this might be expected to face the judgement of his constituents on his behaviour at a future election, if indeed he stood again. On this particular occasion some of his constituents believed what had happened might have affected the result of the election in the constituency. They crowdfunded a legal process to have his election declared invalid. As I write the judgement of an electoral court is awaited on whether the plaintiffs’ case is valid in law.
You know this story – I have already recounted it – but it is important to record the detail in the light of what follows.
In the other lie, the then first minister and deputy first minister of Scotland signed an agreement with the UK government to hold a referendum on whether the country should be independent. The words they put their signatures to included the sentence
The governments are agreed that the referendum should … deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.
Their devolved government then issued its prospectus for independence. It said
There is no arrangement in place for another referendum on independence. It is the view of the current Scottish Government that a referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. This means that only a majority vote for Yes in 2014 would give certainty that Scotland will be independent [para. 557]
and in the preface to the document the first minister used the same words, calling the referendum
a once in a generation opportunity to chart a better way (p. viii).
Throughout the campaign both the first minister and his deputy repeated these precise words many times and elaborated on them to the same effect – this was it, the one chance in a generation. They said it so many times, so publicly, and so often on the record that it is un-necessary to give examples although if there are entirely self-deluded or unworldly fellow citizens who are still unaware of those repetitions I will happily direct them to the evidence. In any event it should not be necessary as the documents quoted above are absolutely unequivocal.
However, in the year since the referendum with its clear majority for No, their former certainty has become increasingly ambiguous. Tomorrow it seems an STV documentary will be broadcast in which the former deputy first minister, now first minister of course, is trailed (for example in The Scotsman) as saying
Our [2016 Holyrood] manifesto will set out what we consider are the circumstances and the timescale on which a second referendum might be appropriate, but we can only propose.
It’s then for people in Scotland, whether it is in this election or in future elections, to decide whether they want to vote for our manifesto and then if there is in the future another independence referendum, whether that’s in five years or 10 years or whenever, it will be down to the people of Scotland to decide whether they want to vote for independence or not.
So at every single stage this is something that is driven by and decided by the people of Scotland, not by politicians.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the differences, from ‘a result that everyone will respect’ and ‘a once in a generation opportunity’ to ‘five or ten years or whenever’ and ‘decided by the people’ (note incidentally that weasel word – ‘whenever’).
Of course in a democracy all political matters should ultimately be decided by the people. But good leadership is not about following the mass of public opinion. If it were we would still have hanging in the UK and vengeance would have been wreaked on the white population of South Africa for the apartheid era. Good leadership is about setting a vision and about integrity and honesty.
If you declare, and repeat many times, that you will respect one of the most fundamental decisions a people can make and that you are committed to it being a once in a generation opportunity you have made the clearest statement possible. If the political pressure of events or public opinion means that position is not sustainable (although I’m not convinced that has happened) the honourable thing to say would be
I made a promise that I would respect the result of the referendum and that it was a once in a generation opportunity. It appears that many people do not accept that position but because of my promise I cannot carry forward an alternative. I will put that decision to my party and the country and if I am not supported I will resign.
I see no sign of this happening.
So two lies. One that might have affected the result in one constituency in a Westminster election, the other that was a promise to a whole nation. I invite you to consider the two cases as I put names to the politicians concerned, although you will know who they are. The first lie was told by Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, the second by then SNP first minster Alex Salmond and his deputy, now successor, Nicola Sturgeon. Who told the bigger lie, and who is more culpable?