This morning a pair of judges in Edinburgh dismissed a petition seeking to overturn the result of the general election in Orkney and Shetland. Alistair Carmichael is not guilty of breaking the Representation of the People Act (1983) and may remain a Member of Parliament. There will be no by-election in the northern isles.
Obviously this was an outrage and not just because everything in Scotland these days is an outrage. It was a disgrace. A whitewash and an establishment stitch-up. A stitch-up slathered with whitewash. All across Scotland you could hear the screeching as nationalist fury chimps rattled the bars of their cages. A dirty protest of the mind will doubtless follow.
Carmichael had been taken to court by four of his constituents who argued that he breached electoral law by lying about his involvement in the leaking of a civil service memo minuting a meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambassador in which it was claimed, or so the minute asserted, that the First Minister had suggested she would prefer the general election be won by David Cameron and not by Ed Miliband.
Not so! Ms Sturgeon said. Non, said the French. OK, then, sorry, said Mr Carmichael. Or words to that effect.
Let it be noted here that Mr Carmichael is a politician of such oafish incompetence he was caught by his own leak inquiry. That’s not supposed to happen.
Let it also be noted that, whatever she says, Ms Sturgeon is wholly aware that a Tory-dominated England suits her long-term purposes rather better than an England dominated by the Labour party. Why do you think the SNP are so happy to shed crocodile-worthy tears over Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects?
Be that as it may, the judges found that although Mr Carmichael was a thoroughly unreliable witness he was not guilty of the offences he was alleged to have committed. That is, that although he told a number of ‘blatant’ lies he was not guilty of telling lies that amounted, beyond a reasonable doubt, to a “false statement of fact in relation to [his] personal character or conduct.”
The judgement is hardly a vindication of Mr Carmichael but the verdict is, if narrow, clear. He survives.
Not for long, I imagine, however and not just because there is, much to the delight of certain members of the Faculty of Advocates, already talk that the petitioners will appeal. No, I should be very surprised if Mr Carmichael stands for re-election in 2020.
The SNP issued a press release arguing that where it really counts – that is, in the ‘court of public opinion – Carmichael’s standing will never recover. This assumes he had any standing in the first place. (I wager half the population couldn’t recognise him or tell you anything about him.) Nevertheless, a certain breed of nationalist is most unlikely to let this go. (The National, a viewspaper that supports independence, had treated the entire episode as though it were Watergate on steroids.) This is also why such matters are tested in court, not by the general public.
But, as always, the nationalists are only half the story. Many people with no particular affection for Mr Carmichael will be delighted by this ruling. Not because they wanted him to win but because they wanted the petitioners, and the nationalist movement more generally, to lose.
Everything in Scotland is a zero sum game these days. That’s why there’s plenty of delighted hand-wringing from Unionists about the collapse in the price of a barrel of oil and, more recently, the suggestion that cancelled repairs to the Forth Road Bridge could have avoided the damage that has caused it to be closed for the next month. Anything that’s bad or embarrassing for the nationalists cheers Unionist souls. And vice versa, of course. In the new Scotland bad news is always good news for someone and good news is bad news too.
Scotland’s two tribes are locked into a kind of Cold War mentality and I see no prospect of a thaw any time soon. This is both exhausting and unsurprising and there are no conscripts for the non-aligned movement.
Was this a vexatious, politically-motivated bid to unseat a duly-elected MP? Of course it was. Nonetheless, it came closer to achieving its goals than many people, including many denizens of Parliament House, had predicted.
On balance, I think there are reasons to be thankful that it failed, however, and these go some way beyond poking nationalist zoomers. On the whole, blatant deceit is not to be encouraged; on the other hand if the Carmichael standard were applied to every MP I’m not sure how many could escape a court challenge.
And this too, I think, also helps demonstrate why demands for a statutory recall mechanism are so thoroughly misguided. Social media and crowd-funding websites make it easier than ever to launch this kind of action and recall, far from making for more honest politicians, actually increases the power of dedicated and often extremist special interests.
Besides, we already have a recall mechanism in place. It’s called a general election.