Scotland politics

Salmond 'sorry' for election expert Matt Qvortrup claim

First Minister Alex Salmond has apologised for misleading parliament over the position of a leading academic on the independence referendum.

Mr Salmond said referendum expert Dr Matt Qvortrup had endorsed the SNP government's plans for a two-question vote on Scotland's future.

He later corrected his comments, saying he had used information at Holyrood which was "wrong".

Prof Qvortrup had told the Times that a two-question referendum was untenable.

Opposition parties reacted angrily, saying Prof Qvortrup had been "nobbled" by a government determined to "browbeat and bully" those who disagreed with independence.

The issue flared up during first minister's questions, when Mr Salmond was pressed to name the date of the SNP's independence referendum, planned towards the end of the current parliamentary term.

The Scottish government is also considering whether to include a second question on the ballot paper, asking people if they want significant new powers for Holyrood, short of independence, known as "devolution max".

Mr Salmond earlier told MSPs during question time: "I've been handed a statement from Matt Qvortrup, a professor and the world's foremost expert on constitutional referendum - a letter that he's sending to the Times newspaper.

"It closes by saying, 'while it is a matter for the Scottish people and parliament to determine the form of their own referendum and while asking about a single question would be much more common, such a two-question proposition would be fair, reasonable and clear'."

But Mr Salmond was later forced to clarify his remarks, after deputy Tory leader Murdo Fraser said he was informed the professor's comments, as quoted, were written by the first minister's official spokesman.

Issuing his apology to MSPs, Mr Salmond said: "I believe that the words I used in response to Murdo Fraser were going to be included in a letter to the Times newspaper from Professor Matt Qvortrup.

"I now know that was not the case and therefore I apologise to the chamber for my mistake. It was never my intention to mislead parliament."

Explaining his use of the comments, the first minister went on: "I was given a message shortly before I entered the chamber which was wrong, and therefore my response was incorrect.

"The responsibility for that is mine and mine alone, which is why I apologise to the chamber for the misinformation."

Mr Salmond said of Prof Qvortrup: "I now fully understand his position, which is that, if we wish, it is entirely feasible to hold a two-question referendum on Scotland's constitutional future in a fair, reasonable and clear manner - provided that certain conditions are met."

The row came after Prof Qvortrup told the Times newspaper that a two-question referendum would not provide enough clarity on what Scots wanted.

"Two questions on a ballot where people are asked to vote on both options is simply not feasible," he told the newspaper, adding: "There is a good chance that you would end up not knowing what people really want."

Mr Fraser, said of the row: "It speaks volumes about this government that, when it comes to their flagship policy of an independence referendum, they mislead, manipulate and manufacture evidence in support of their stance and they browbeat and bully those who dare to take a contrary view."

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, added: "The first minister delivered a fabricated endorsement.

"He quoted a letter which turns out not to have been written by the professor, but by the first minister's special adviser.

"This is a blatant attempt to nobble an academic, doctor the evidence, pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Scotland."

Labour's Iain Gray, added: "While it is bad enough that the first minister should deliberately choose to mislead the chamber on behalf of his government, that he should give a misleading representation of an academic's views when he has no recourse to answer here in this chamber is surely an abuse of the trust we parliamentarians hold with the public."

Mr Salmond also said Prof Qvortrup had agreed to offer his expertise to the Scottish government and parliament, in relation to the forthcoming referendum.