Former Labour first minister says Salmond “didn’t mislead” over legal advice

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  By a Newsnet reporter   

Former First Minister Henry McLeish has distanced himself from the Labour party’s attack on Alex Salmond over legal advice on an independent Scotland joining the EU. 

In an interview with STV’s Scotland Tonight, Mr McLeish said that he didn’t believe that Mr Salmond had “mislead” voters and added that there were “far more important matters” where the Labour party should concentrate its energy and resources.  

Mr McLeish made the comments after Labour leader Johann Lamont called for a judicial inquiry into the affair.  Labour MSPs had previously called Mr Salmond a “barefaced liar” in ill-tempered interventions in a Holyrood debate.

Asked by presenter John MacKay if Mr Salmond had misled voters, the former First Minister replied:

“I don’t think he’s misled. I think it’s easy to sit apart from the big decisions that have to be made in government. But he certainly hasn’t handled the situation well.

“When we are in politics, when I was in active politics, you tend to try and blur the issues.

“Being out of politics, there’s no reason why the SNP should say: ‘Look, of course we can get into NATO — there’ll be difficulties, there’ll be discussions. Of course, we can get into the European Union — there’ll be difficulties and discussions. Of course, we can get into a currency union, a Sterling union, with the United Kingdom.’

“But you’ve got to own up to the fact it won’t happen automatically. So what I think we do need is a bit more forthrightness, a bit more ability to take the public seriously.

“So I don’t think we should talk about ‘misleading’ — but, on the other hand, it wasn’t a good week for the SNP, and it certainly wasn’t a good week for Alex Salmond.”

However Mr McLeish strongly criticised Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont for her handling of the matter, accusing her of looking at the issue “from extreme” and adding that the party’s performance was unlikely to persuade the public that it was a serious alternative to the SNP government.

Mr McLeish said:

“She’s the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland and Johann has the right to ask for anything she wishes.

“I think our energy, our focus, could be used in better ways because at the end of the day this is unlikely to happen, it is looking at an issue from extremes, and I think there are far more important areas where Labour could win many converts from the public and score many political goals. I don’t think this is one of them.

“This will be another issue which will disappear quite soon, and we’ll be on to the ‘hurly-burly’ of parliamentary politics, which is absolutely the right thing to do.”

In a new book due to be published shortly, Mr McLeish has even stronger criticism of the Unionist parties and Labour in particular, accusing them of “wasting the past 5 years” and failing to put forward a message that appeals to most Scots.  In an interview with the Daily Record, published on Tuesday, he said:

“The world was changing.  Politics was being transformed and so were the views of the Scottish public.  But for some inexplicable reason, the Unionist parties could not respond and seemed to be frozen in time as the world around them changed.

“The last five years have seen unprecedented change and have been wasted years as far as the Scottish Unionist parties have been concerned.

“They seemed unable or unwilling to face up to the stark reality of a new politics being shaped north of the Border.”

Addressing himself to the success of the SNP compared to Labour, he said:

“The SNP have been able to bring some excitement to traditional politics by combining populism, positive leadership and a sense of purpose and embrace identity. This is not rocket science. This is about the ability of a party to better understand the mood of a nation and seize the opportunity to build on Scottishness and credible government.

“Scotland wants to be a nation, a new politics, a source of inspiration, passion and pride. Why does this seem too problematic for Labour?”

Mr McLeish added that support for the Union is at its “high water point”, and would drop as the independence campaign gets going.  

“It would be an error of judgment to think the result is a foregone conclusion.

“Support for the Union is probably at its high-water mark and likely to decline as the campaign develops and intensifies.

“There is no room for complacency on the part of the Better Together campaign. The result is likely to be much closer than current poll evidence would suggest.”