There is nothing new in politicians avoiding answering a question. The ability to reject the premise of a question is part of the political beginners set.
But answering a question that was not posed, or rather not posed by anyone other than the person about the give the answer, is something that Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has taken to new levels.
Here is a transcript of the First Minister’s interaction with Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie during First Minister’s Questions today:
Willie Rennie: “There is a great deal of confusion about his plans for Scotland in the EU. Asserting something doesn’t actually make it true. The First Minister says he’s right and Scotland will be a continuing member. But what if he’s wrong?”
Alex Salmond: “He will have heard his former colleague Lord Wallace support the Scottish Government’s position in terms of the legal advice by pointing out he would face exactly the same circumstances as a Westminster minister. I’m quite certain that Willie Rennie, given Lord Wallace’s comments, will understand that the ability to reconcile the provisions of the ministerial code with the imperative of information to the people of Scotland is one where I think assuring that the White Paper will contain the information consistent with legal advice provides a satisfactory solution towards.”
WR: “But there’s clearly a dispute about that legal advice, and if voters opt for independence they may well find out that we have lost the rebate, we are forced to join the euro, and the Schengen agreement. That’s the reality. That is the consequence if the First Minister is wrong, so when is he going to get clarity on this? When is he going to start negotiations and discussions with EU members about the way ahead on this? Because we need clarity. It can’t just be a step in the dark based on his assertions.
AS: “I thought the call was for the publication of our legal advice – the issue in these questions. He seems to be doubting the legal advice even before its publication. I do think the process of publishing the White Paper consistent with legal advice will satisfy even Willie Rennie in terms of the bona fides.”
Now, you will notice the First Minister saying “I thought the call was for the publication of our legal advice – the issue in these questions.” You will also notice that it was not Willie Rennie who raised legal advice first, it was Mr Salmond in his first “answer.”
At no point did Willie Rennie ask when the Scottish government will release legal advice on an independent Scotland’s position in Europe, or even why the SNP government isn’t doing so.
The only person who heard those questions was Alex Salmond because those are the questions he wanted to answer.
It has turned into First Minister’s questions, literally. Not questions to the First Minister but questions thought up and answered by him.
The reason Mr Salmond started to hear voices in his head compelling him to answer a question that was not asked is simply because he didn’t want to answer the actually question posed.
Let me remind you: “When is he going to start negotiations and discussions with EU members about the way ahead on this?”
The First Minister said it was imperative to let the people of Scotland see the full advantages of Scotland being a member of the EU in its own right. The full details and benefits of this would be outlined in a White Paper next year.
As such, I would expect negotiations over an independent Scotland’s entry to EU to begin in the next few months. These negotiations would decide which opt-outs Scotland would keep, how much of the UK’s rebate we might expect to retain, if we might have to join the Schengen agreement dealing with border control, and if we would have to join the Euro?
This is the kind of information Scots need before going to the polls and if the First Minister is serious about giving Scots the full detail in the white paper next year then the negotiations with EU members should being in earnest.*
Alas, there seems to be a reluctance to say when, or even if these negotiations will take place. An advisor to SNP MSP Colin Keir tweeted that negotiations could not take place before the referendum. Odd that the SNP want to send people to the polls not knowing what they are voting for in terms of EU membership.
When I pressed the advisor on this point I got no response. Obviously taking a lead from of the First Minister.**
When I asked an SNP press officer on Twitter when negotiations would begin, again I got no answer.
These are important issues that voters need clarity on, not more obfuscation and misdirection.
The lack of answers coming from the First Minister or anyone in the SNP is an indication that they don’t think Scotland will like the answers.
They know that the Member States that will decide on an independent Scotland’s entry to the EU are unlikely to agree to a new state with all the same opt-outs and rebates that the UK has negotiated. After all, some of these Member States have entered the EU on terms less attractive that the terms the UK has.
So an independent Scotland would have to enter the EU with terms and conditions that are less attractive than the UK currently has.
This is something that they know, but are unwilling to say.
So much for debate.
*Some, including the BBC’s Scottish Political Editor Brian Taylor, have asked who the SNP government would negotiate with given that European authorities see this as an internal matter. That holding line worked well when there was no referendum on the horizon. Now negotiations are in full swing over when it will take place and with how many questions it will have it no longer holds water. If the SNP government went to the European Commission and said “the terms of EU membership are important to Scots, it will help many come to a decision before the referendum and we want them to have that information” or words to that effect then European authorities would give an opinion. That, at least, would be start.
**Colin Keir’s advisor has responded and said I should take up fact Scots will not know details of opt-outs, rebates, Schengen or Euro until after referendum vote “with Brussels.”
I will but it alarms me that the SNP government seem so content to accept this lack of information. Nothing like a well informed electorate…