Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Dark Arts; Or Be Careful What You Say Others Wish For.

The right to freedom of speech is a fundamental one but it does bring a responsibility with it to tell the truth. The right to smear an opponent is not one we should be defending.

Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney & Shetland, 12 November 2010 in the "Shetland Times" Full note HERE

He smugly made out he knew nothing about it, but his shifty body language as he told the interviewer that things like the Sturgeon memo "happen during election" made it no surprise when now former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, the last Lib Dem MP in Scotland, finally had to admit that not only did he know the contents of the memo before it was published; he authorised the leak.

"An error of judgement", he called it after a taxpayer funded enquiry rumoured to have cost  £1,400,000 concluded he dunnit. 

Some error. His craven party, reduced to a handful of MPs and doubtless terrified of losing another, has rushed to his defence, pointing out he had generously foregone his £17,000 pay off for no longer being Secretary of State. And his adviser, seemingly tossed to the wolves, is similarly not getting his redundancy (Carmichael continues to receive his MPs pay and some of the highest expenses of any parliamentarian in the UK). So on that basis, the Lib Dem leadership, such as remains of it, hope it will all go away, just like Alistair has gone off on his holidays, doubtless somewhere out of signal of mobile phones and without a broadband connection. I'm thinking Rockall.

Much has been written about this which I won't rehash here. The issue goes wider than whether or not he should remain MP for Orkney and Shetland, where some of his constituents were protesting for his resignation yesterday - and the SNP have launched a formal process to have his election struck down.

Rather it goes to the heart of what he claimed in the interview where he denied knowledge of the memo before a journalist contacted him about it, that such things, smears, are routine to election campaigns.

On the whole, they are not; and when they are, they shouldn't be. But the hubris of our political class, of which Mr Carmichael seems to have been an eager member, is such that in spite of the expenses scandal and the low esteem politicians are held in by voters, the ruse to dishonestly undermine Sturgeon by a Government Minister has passed virtually without comment south of the Scottish/English Border.

And this is the wider scandal. Because the memo was leaked just after the SNP leader had performed so powerfully in the Leaders' Debate, challenging both Miliband and Cameron on austerity and nearly winning the viewers' vote. One survey suggested that 9% of English voters would have voted SNP had they had the choice.

So what did the memo leak attempt to do? Claim that this anti-Tory politician had told the French Ambassador she hoped that the Tories would win the election as she felt that would advance the cause of Scottish independence. Yet the contents of the memo conclude with the author noting his concern that the comments attributed to Sturgeon seemed out of character, extremely unlikely and "possibly lost in translation". Both the First Minister and the Ambassador confirmed the words had not been said but, with the enquiry not reporting until after the election, the potential damage would be done.

There was of course no apparent damage to Sturgeon in Scotland - the SNP pretty much swept the board with only 3 of the 59 Scottish seats not in its hands by 8 May. Of course, by a narrow margin, Mr Carmichael kept his previously safe seat over the challenge of the SNP veteran Danus Skene. Had they known, the voters of the Shetland and Orkney islands might have taken an even dimmer view of their Lib Dem parliamentarian.

But further south, it was perhaps a different story, and one which may have swung the election. With the memo seeming to make Sturgeon out to be a liar who would happily heap scorn on Ed Miliband to any passing foreign diplomat (just reading it, doesn't the whole idea seem absurd?) , the rightwing media, from the leak publishing Daily Telegraph to the Daily Mail thundered about the chaos that would ensue if there was a hung parliament where Labour had to reach an accommodation with the SNP. Miliband's own comments probably did not help, although to be fair his hands were tied to some degree.

At least some analysis since the election suggests that this fear of potential chaos between mutually loathing SNP and Labour above all else was the impetus driving many would-be UKIP (and even some Lib Dem) voters to swing to the Tories and deliver them the outright majority they now have. With several marginals only just clawed into the Tory column, the votes of as few as 900 people seem to have made the difference between 5 years of untrammelled Tory domination and a potentially progressive balanced Parliament. Consequently, Carmichael's little ruse may have had tragic consequences for the whole of the UK.

Be careful what you say others wish for....
To suggest Nicola Sturgeon was seeking this outcome, a Tory Government, is plainly ludicrous. On the other hand, watching Mr Carmichael's giddy relief on election night to have "survived the tsunami" as he put it, perhaps his own aspirations were not so far from being realised. But was this really just something motivated by his own focus on getting at the SNP (doubtlessly unaffected by Sturgeon's drubbing of him during a televised Scottish referendum debate)?

Or, given the potentially devastating consequences of Carmichael's dishonest ruse, as many are now asking, did this man, now The Bruised rather than (hilariously) The Bruiser, really do all this all by himself?

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