Salmond's fickle relationship with the truth

Salmond's fickle relationship with the truth

by David Torrance
article from Monday 19, November, 2012

 ALL POLITICIANS have a fickle relationship with the truth. In opposition they demand scrupulous adherence to the facts, jumping up and down whenever an incumbent government massages figures. In office themselves a few years later, of course, those who jumped up and down suddenly abandon their self-righteous vigour and adopt similar methods.

Even so, it remains relatively rare for one Scottish or UK politician to accuse the other of lying. Nor, indeed, do politicians ever confess to such a deed, preferring to plead that they’ve made an “honest mistake” or been let down by normally excellent officials. The late Alan Clark was an exception, but even then he only admitted to being “economic with the auctualite”.

Although Alex Salmond has almost made a career out of blowing ostensibly helpful quotes or statistics out of all meaningful proportion, rarely has he come close to lying. I can’t help feeling, however, that now the pressure is on (in the guise of an independence referendum), the First Minister’s acquaintance with hard facts is becoming increasingly strained.

This was inevitable, for when you’re trying to win a guerilla war of independence, not only is the goal hypothetical but so too are many of the arguments surrounding it. No Nationalist can say with any certainty what the situation would be post-independence vis-à-vis currency, the economy, EU membership and so on, for they just don’t know.

Their opponents, meanwhile, can at least point to the status quo – however imperfect – and assert with immeasurably more authority that a might mean b. The trouble is, voters generally want facts, and while the Unionist parties can generally dispense them, Nationalists usually have to rely on often vague and unsubstantiated statements of intent, not to mention “vision”.

The former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said politicians with visions ought to get their eyes tested, but Salmond doesn’t think he needs spectacles, and given that he made up his mind about the rightness of Scottish independence more than four decades ago, facts (so to speak) always have to be tailored to his argument rather than the other way round.

In that context, last week’s row over college funding was but the latest incident amid a plethora of Scottish Government muddles, fiddles – call them what you will. Desperate not to be labelled a “cutter” (for that is the preserve of wicked Tory, Labour and Lib Dem politicians), Salmond presented a reduction in further education college funding as a modest rise.

Before that he replied “yes” (apparently meaning “no”) when asked if he’d sought legal advice on an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, and several months before that – despite clear documentary evidence to the contrary – he denied any attempt to lobby on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media empire (before inviting the News International boss for tea at Bute House).

Now all these incidents, though firestorms at the time, quickly tended to extinguish themselves, a largely fickle media moving on to the next story. I made the point after the EU legal advice row that despite Labour cries of “liar, liar, pants on fire”, the whole affair was just too opaque to resonate with normal voters understandably preoccupied with other, less hypothetical, matters.

But I also cautioned against that becoming part of a general pattern of political behaviour, which I think – particularly after the college funding row – is a growing prospect. Between 2007-11 the Scottish Government won a hard-earned reputation for administrative “competence”; if he isn’t careful, Alex Salmond looks in danger of almost single-handedly throwing that away.

Although outwardly loyal, some of his lieutenants and long-suffering advisers must be growing increasingly frustrated at having to clean up First Ministerial mess when they ought to be getting on with demonstrating “competence” ahead of the referendum. Given her obvious abilities, Nicola Sturgeon (once again Scottish Politician of the Year) is generally first at hand with the political pooper-scooper.

A large part of the problem is hubris on Salmond’s part, a feeling of invincibility that grows every time he (ostensibly) gets away with some political misdemeanour or other. But this is subject to the law of diminishing returns: while voters – I suspect – quite like their First Minister being a bit of a chancer, when chancers start being perceived as liars then it spells trouble.

All of this feeds into another important word, that of “trust”. Currently the electorate trusts the SNP to run a devolved government but not (necessarily) deliver independence. Nationalists have always believed this could turn into support for independence, but if things carry on as they have since the beginning of this year then a “yes” vote in 2014 will be, as Eddie Mair recently said of Newsnight, “toast”.

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