The debate about the position of an independent Scotland vis-à-vis membership of the European Union has been a long standing point of contention between the parties.
The First Minister and his supporters have continually stated that, because Scotland is already within the EU, if Scotland were to become a separate nation, it would have automatic entry. Opponents claim that this is incorrect, and that as a newly formed nation it would have to reapply for membership, which would include a requirement to join the Euro.
Up until now both sides have highlighted various pieces of legal and political opinions, but official legal advice has not been forthcoming. Opposition parties have previously called on the Scottish Government to publish what guidance (if any) it has received, and recently the Information Commissioner was critical of the Scottish Government’s attempts to prevent the advice (if any) being published. The Government previously stated that to release the information would be to go against the ministerial code. This impasse resulted in a battle in the courts between the Government and the Commissioner.
With yesterday’s announcement that the Scottish Government had not previously asked for legal advice on EU membership (but is going to now), Ministers have come under heavy criticism. Scottish Labour highlighted a BBC interview with Alex Salmond in which, they argue, he claimed that legal advice had been given, and which led the party to call the First Minister a “barefaced liar”. The First Minister refuted this accusation in Parliament.
The Scottish Government has enjoyed a strong record of competence, and if this was an isolated incident, this matter could have been contained. However, as it follows the Donald Trump documentary on Sunday, and the NATO MSP resignations, it is not hard to describe this as being the worst couple of days for the SNP in some time.
While debate continues about the wording of Ministers comments with regard to the legal advice, the certainty with which the Yes Scotland supporters have stated that EU membership would be automatic has now been called into question. Without the backbone of cast iron legal advice, there will always be doubt, irrespective of the weighing of legal opinion. Furthermore the general public will likely query the sense in the Scottish Government spending public money in the courts to keep private the fact that it had requested no information.