All the action from first minister's questions

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond was asked a series of questions on health issues

Today's prize for courage goes to Jim Eadie of the Scottish National Party.

Boldly going where few had gone before, Mr Eadie arose magisterially in the Holyrood chamber and announced that there was a flaw in the hitherto perfect armoury of his leader.

There had been no clue in his preamble. It was a perfectly innocuous question about the weather and the impact upon transport. (The answers were, in order, hideous and limited.)

But then he came to it. Gazing straight at Alex Salmond, he declared: "I accept that the first minister does not control the weather."

The chamber instantly fell silent. Nationalist members studied their shoes. Opposition MSPs glanced at each other in wild surmise. Civil servants at the back of the chamber thumbed through their briefs.

The moment quickly departed.

Mr Salmond charitably decided to overlook this bold declaration that he fell short of omnipotence. It was as if a storm - brief and violent - had moved over.

In truth, it was a rather different edition of first minister's questions altogether - and not just because it was interrupted to allow parliamentary staff (and Labour's Dr Richard Simpson) to attend to a visitor who had taken ill in the public gallery.

The exchanges themselves were mostly about the deeply serious issue of the provision of drugs to cancer patients in Scotland. Perhaps the grave and mostly non-partisan nature of that topic occasioned a different type of debate.

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Then there was the dog that didn't bark. The renewed controversy over whether an independent Scotland would or would not be automatically a member of the European Union.”

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Labour's Johann Lamont was granted a full 15 minutes to make her case that Scotland's patients were being let down, citing evidence to a parliamentary committee by doctors earlier in the week.

They were being denied pharmaceutical treatment available south of the border. She made her case cogently and thoroughly, drawing upon an individual example.

Patiently, like a weary consultant towards the end of a ward round, Mr Salmond said that the Scottish system was indeed different from the cancer drugs fund implemented in England.

He noted that the English fund had itself drawn criticism on the grounds that it instigated a postcode lottery and drew resources from elsewhere in the system.

Ms Lamont persisted effectively. There was already a postcode lottery.

She conceded however that she was not positing a particular solution: simply, at this stage, challenging the first minister to defend his policy towards Scottish patients.

Ruth Davidson for the Tories pursued the same issue - while noting that her party alone had been consistent in supporting an extension of the English system north of the border.

Mr Salmond again repeated his point about the potential flaws in the English system. But he stressed, again repeatedly, that he was very far from arguing that the Scottish system was perfect.

He had, in fact, instigated a review.

It was, in short, a valuable exchange of views - both philosophical and pragmatic - on the core conundrum of health provision at a time of competition for resources.

Care provision

Then there was the dog that didn't bark. The renewed controversy over whether an independent Scotland would or would not be automatically a member of the European Union.

It wasn't Willie Rennie's shottie to ask a question.

Otherwise, the Liberal Democrat leader might have been relied upon to tackle this topic, given that it is being partly driven by a member of his party, the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.

In the past, Ms Lamont has pursued this topic relentlessly - so why not today?

Point one, she genuinely cares about cancer care provision. Point two, we have yet to see the actual letter from the European Commission upon which the latest controversy is founded.

Point three, perhaps voter research tells Labour to get off such topics and back on to "what about me" issues - such as health.

In any event, the issue resounded in the garden lobby and elsewhere at Holyrood.

EU flag The Scottish government believes an independent Scotland would remain in the EU

It is reported that the European Commission, in a reply to the House of Lords, will say that the remainder of the UK would be the continuing member state while an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership, negotiating terms.

Contrary to comments from some quarters, Scottish government ministers have said in the past that Scotland would have to negotiate terms.

Admittedly, they have not made such comments in a particularly loud voice or written them in notably large print.

But it has been said. The scenario they envisage is the following. There is a referendum. There is a Yes vote. At that point, Scotland still remains within the UK - and thus within the EU.

Only intent has been declared, not implementation.

There follows perhaps two years of detailed negotiations between the Scottish government and the UK government.

In parallel, it is argued, there would be negotiations - involving Edinburgh, London and Brussels - as to the future status of Scotland in the EU.

More generally, it is intriguing once again to note that both sides cite legal advice - while simultaneously relying upon the rather more inchoate world of political bargaining.

You will hear it said by Unionists that an independent Scotland would be an accession state - and, consequently, would require to apply afresh for EU membership.

It is said that would require Scotland to join the Euro and adopt the Schengen agreement with regard to open borders. That is why they are keen to cite the Commission advice, once it emerges in public form.

You will hear it said by Nationalists that an independent Scotland would inherit membership of the European Union as a constituent part of the UK - and, consequently, would simply negotiate the terms of a revised membership from within the EU.

Legal advice

Scottish ministers have now, after some delay, sought advice from their own law officers.

However, neither side rests solely upon legal advice - although each produces a blizzard of sources. Both sides also cite politics.

Unionists say that Scotland might face obstruction from other EU member states which have secessionist movements within their boundaries.

In particular, they argue that Spain would scarcely be inclined to accommodate Scottish membership of the EU while Madrid is trying to contain the aspirations of Catalunya.

Nationalists also turn to politics. They note that Sweden which joined the EU post the Maastricht Treaty has yet to adopt the Euro in practice - and indeed shows no sign of doing so.

They note further that the EU is an intrinsically expansionist organisation - which is scarcely going to wish to expel from membership a territory such as Scotland with her oil, renewables and fish.

Plainly, more will emerge on this - not least because the Scottish government knows that it requires to address the topic still further in the light of political challenges.

But I am sceptical as to whether a precise answer will emerge.

As I noted, the Scottish law officers have now been asked to offer their formal legal advice.

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I believe rather this will come down to belief and trust - as is so often the case in the imprecise world of politics”

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But consider. Say the lord advocate rules that an independent Scotland would definitely remain in the EU.

Do you think that would end the argument? Do you think rival opinions would subside? Or would critics of the SNP position point to alternative interpretations.

I believe rather this will come down to belief and trust - as is so often the case in the imprecise world of politics.

The UK government's legal expert on Scottish affairs is Advocate General Lord Wallace.

He has already delivered his opinion. Speaking in October, he concluded that, in practice, the remainder of the UK would continue with existing international obligations and rights, including EU membership.

And he concluded further that, on balance, an independent Scotland would start off outside the EU and would have to reapply. But he chose his words with care.

He said this scenario was "the likely consequence".

He said that Scotland would require to strike terms for membership which - and I quote - "would create considerable uncertainty about the future of Scotland outside the UK."

Doubt, in other words. Doubt versus reassurance.

That reassurance is offered by Nationalists who argue that it is inconceivable that Scotland would be expelled.

Yes, they acknowledge, Scotland would have to negotiate terms. But they insist such a negotiation would be amicable.

Which is where, for now, the issue rests.

More precision may emerge but I believe this topic will also be one of trust and belief.

Brian Taylor, Political editor, Scotland Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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