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Talking points

Brian Taylor | 10:06 UK time, Thursday, 11 February 2010

UPDATE AT 1306: As expected, it was Talking Point two which dominated questions to the first minister - with each of the opposition leaders making cogent points.

Is there any crime, Iain Gray asks, which would not attract a letter of reference from the first minister or his deputy?

In a classic technique, he then asked for a show of hands on who would have written the letter despatched by Ms Sturgeon.

I remember Michael Foot doing something similar in the Commons. Catches them every time.

Annabel Goldie asked first about the use of a government spin doctor to plead Ms Sturgeon's case with the media.

Perfectly reasonably, Mr Salmond said that was because her position as a member of the government was under challenge from a resignation demand.

Ms Goldie, it strikes me, was on firmer ground asking whether there was any connection between Ms Sturgeon's constituent and the SNP.

Considerable distance

The first minister replied that he knew of no connection - other than that between a constituent and an elected member.

Tavish Scott then asked where the line should be drawn when it came to acting as an elected member.

He plainly felt - and said so - that Ms Sturgeon had stepped some considerable distance over that line.

Mr Salmond repeatedly suggested Ms Sturgeon had been under an obligation to act.

Others suggested that she was under an obligation to pay heed to her constituent - but not to write to the court.

Again, it comes down to judgement.

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Two talking points today.

I suspect you will not need any prompting but it is customary for me to pitch in first - so let us adhere to tradition.

Talking point one: the new referendum strategy from the SNP, disclosed by me to an astonished nation this morning (or, at least, that substantial and sensible portion of the nation listening to Good Morning Scotland.)

Talking point two:was Nicola Sturgeon wise to write to Glasgow Sheriff Court suggesting they might consider an alternative to custody for a constituent, Abdul Rauf, convicted of defrauding £80,000 from the Department of Work and Pensions?

Incidentally, today's initiative on Talking Point one was planned and scheduled by the First Minister before item two broke as a Talking Point last night.

So, to the referendum. Alex Salmond is now acknowledging tactically what has been evident numerically for some time: the arithmetic will not permit a referendum bill to pass at Holyrood in the current circumstances.

As background, Mr Salmond witnessed the claim and counter claim with regard to the passage of sundry bills.

He noted the controversy, which arose again last night, over the scheduling of Margo MacDonald's bill on assisted suicide.

Referendum bill

The issue here is arcane. Indeed, the framers of the Schleswig Holstein question would have been proud to be associated with such minutiae.

But, in essence, the concern was that shifting Margo's bill to an ad hoc committee instead of the health team had consequences for other bills in the pipeline.

The particular consequence for the referendum bill being that it would end up before an ad hoc committee with a Labour convener.

There were reports - by BBC Scotland and The Times among others - of suspicions that this was designed to kill the bill swiftly.

Within weeks, one report suggested.

In such circumstances, Mr Salmond has ordered the use of a stratagem, a device, a ruse: a tactical withdrawal, if you like.

If a bill is formally introduced, then it becomes the property of parliament: it is up to MSPs to dispose of it as they will and as guided by the presiding officer and the business bureau.

Staying alive

The Nationalist suspicion is that it would be disposed of swiftly and without ceremony.

So Mr Salmond produces a bill in draft form only, for further consultation among the public.

Said consultation to be driven by the government, not primarily parliament.

For Mr Salmond, this has two advantages. One, it keeps the bill alive, it keeps the issue alive.

Two, it sustains the prospect, however remote, that there might be a change of heart by one or t'other of the Opposition parties after the UK General Election has run its course.

Further, the planned bill contains two questions. Broadly, one, do you back independence? Two, do you back more devolved powers for Holyrood?

The consultation will focus upon whether "more powers" means Calman or Devolution Max.

The downside? Fairly obviously, if the bill is delayed from formal introduction, then it is delayed from potential legislation - and the referendum itself is delayed.

Backing down

There is now no realistic prospect of legislation being in place in time for the detailed administrative and electoral preparations which would be needed in order to hold a referendum in 2010.

Mr Salmond's opponents will say that he is backing down, that he is ducking a decision.

However, Mr Salmond's calculation will be that a bill deferred is better than one destined for certain defeat: that we already knew a referendum in 2010 was doomed, that this keeps the pilot light flickering, perhaps for later ignition.

Talking Point Two: Nicola Sturgeon's decision.

Did she have a "duty", as she says, to act as she did? In calculating that, perhaps one has to distinguish between her duty to consider the plight of a constituent and the particular action which might follow.

It might be argued that she had a duty to respond to an approach from a constituent or one lodged on his behalf.

It might be argued further that she did not have to write to the court. Nor in those particular terms which included a suggestion that the court might consider an alternative to custody.

The SNP says such court letters are common custody. They point to a case from 1999 when it was reported that Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote to the High Court with a testimonial on behalf of a constituent who had been convicted of growing £10,000 worth of cannabis.

The constituent was spared a jail sentence.

These matters are a question of judgement. The court case involving Ms Sturgeon's constituent is a matter of judgement.

If you trust her judgement in his issue, you will say she has done nothing wrong. If you do not, you will take the counter view.


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