Claims by Lib Dem peer Jim Wallace that the Scottish Government does not have the power to hold an independence referendum have been summarily dismissed by First Minister Alex Salmond.
Speaking after the Westminster based Lord’s speech in Glasgow yesterday afternoon, Mr Salmond said Mr Wallace had a “limited electoral mandate” and suggested the Lib Dem peer had now politicised the role of legal advisor on Scots law to the UK coalition.
Mr Salmond was responding to comments by the former Scottish Lib Dem leader in which he repeated threats by the Westminster coalition that any referendum faced a legal challenge unless sanctioned by London.
Speaking on Radio Scotland the SNP leader said Mr Wallace would do well to assume some modesty before claiming to know better than Scotland’s senior judicial office which has advised the 2014 ballot to be within the law.
“We’re confident about our position. It’s the lack of confidence that makes the Westminster government field the law officer, who should have nothing to do with politics incidentally normally, in the position he’s in,” said Mr Salmond who added:
“I think the difficulty Jim Wallace is in at the moment is that we now know - as advocate general, a post that most people have never heard of, in the House of Lords, an unelected chamber, appointed by the party which came fourth in the Westminster elections and fourth in the Scottish elections - is now claiming to know better about Scottish justice than either the Scottish parliament or the Lord President the Senior Judicial Office in Scotland.
“I think that Jim Wallace would do well to assume a posture of some more modesty in his limited electoral mandate before he starts instructing the Scottish people on what we can and can’t do.”
Lord Wallace, in an earlier radio interview, had repeated claims made by Tory and Lib Dem UK Cabinet Ministers that the Scottish Government's independence referendum was not lawful.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, Lord Wallace suggested a referendum that failed to adhere to the conditions set down by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition would also be unfair and not decisive.
He also rejected calls for 16 and 17 year olds to be allowed to participate - despite lowering the election age being a long term goal of his own party - and insisted that there should be no third option.
However the explanation given by the Lib Dem peer appeared to suggest that it was the period after the ballot that was a legal grey area.
Wallace told radio interviewer Gary Robertson that it was the Scottish Government’s pledge to start negotiations if the ‘Yes’ campaign won, that implicitly contravened the Scotland Act.
Asked whether legality depended on the phrasing of the question the peer said: “I think there’s been some red herrings about advisory and consultative.” and added:
“If they [Scottish Government] win that referendum, they want then to move on to negotiate independence. That’s why ... an advisory referendum doesn’t actually get them out of the difficulty that’s there.”
Pressed again on the phrasing, Lord Wallace said: “It’s not so much the question, it’s what the consequence of the question is,”
The admission that it isn’t the referendum itself but rather the possible negotiations that may follow that may lack legal force will be seen by some as evidence that the Scottish Government’s ballot will indeed comply with the law.
It also presents a catch 22 situation for Westminster in that if they refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the referendum then it becomes a powerless consultation, and thus by extension not unlawful.
Recently, respected academic Stephen Tierney when speaking on Newsnight Scotland on January 11th suggested that this very scenario was being played out.
Many observers have already pointed out that the real power of the ballot is not in its ability to legally bind either London or Edinburgh, it is its potential to become an unstoppable political force.