Winning riposte deflects secrecy criticism

Much happening in Holyrood today? Can't tell you, I'm afraid. It's a secret. Lame gag, I know, but secrecy of the official kind was much on the minds of opposition leaders as they lined up to lambast the first minister.

The peg was the hearing in the Court of Session on a motion from the Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew to the effect that the Scottish government should disclose whether it has received legal advice about the future status of an independent Scotland within the EU.

Not what that advice is, please note, but simply its existence or otherwise.

To date on this topic, First Minister Alex Salmond has looked a little uncomfortable. He has stressed that no administration discloses legal advice - and that even to acknowledge its existence would be to breach the Ministerial Code.

Constitutionally sound, one can assume. (Presumably he took legal advice before making the statement.) But politically tricky. Folk generally want to know stuff - and tend to distrust secrecy, even if well founded.

And so the opposition leaders, from Labour and Conservative, must have felt they were on sure ground in pursuing Mr Salmond over this topic.

In the event, though, the FM contrived to deflect criticism in fine fashion with a combination of extensive detail - and a barbed counter-attack aimed at Labour.

The detail purported to show that his administration coped much better with Freedom of Information requests than predecessors. Any increase in appeals, he said, was driven by an increase in the number of requests in the first place.

Then the barb. It appeared that one person - "a Labour researcher" - was responsible, solely, for some 14% of info requests.

The name of this doughty seeker after truth? Mr Salmond regretted he could not share that fact with the chamber "because he has asked to remain anonymous".

Maybe you had to be there but, on the day, in the chamber, it was a winning riposte. Even Labour's Johann Lamont indicated that it had been a successful sally - although she counselled her opponent against depending too much upon the cheers from his own backbenchers.

A little ungallantly, Mr Salmond said that his calculation of success depended rather upon the countenance of his opponent.

Plainly, Labour - and indeed Ruth Davidson of the Tories who also pursued this topic - are trying to construct a narrative that Mr Salmond is secretive, aloof and remote from the concerns of individual citizens.

They will, I feel sure, try again on this tack. But today it was a points victory to the FM.

And the Court of Session case? With the agreement of the Scottish government, Mr Salmond assured us, it has been set down for urgent consideration. In December.

I know, I know, it is important to get these things right. Ms Lamont noted, in passing, that Mr Salmond could expedite the case still further by simply owning up to whether he had taken legal advice. Mr Salmond smiled wanly. Aye, his smile said, that'll be right.

It is all, of course, part of the continuing skirmishing prior to the referendum on independence. More talks on that next week, leading up to a meeting between the PM and the FM in mid October (probably after the Tory conference and just before the SNP gathering.)

One stumbling block, I gather, is the issue of how the deal is implemented. The Scottish government wants the minimum of detail to be included in the necessary law. In essence, it wants a simple statutory order transferring the power to hold a referendum to Holyrood, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998.

It wants the rest of the deal - on number of questions etc - to be set out in a memorandum of understanding between the two governments.

The UK government would like rather more detail to be on the face of the order. Not that they don't trust their counterparts, you understand, but....

That is where we are right now. My forecast? A deal there will be. Single question, yes or no to independence. Westminster then processes the statutory order by early next year. And Scotland chooses in October 2014.

More on this story