PROTESTERS seeking a by-election for the Northern Isles constituency have disputed Tavish Scott’s claim that efforts to unseat Alistair Carmichael are being orchestrated from the SNP’s Edinburgh headquarters.
The MP, who won the seat with a vastly reduced majority of 817 earlier this month, remains under strong pressure amid complaints to the parliamentary standards commissioner, a legal challenge and even a report to Police Scotland.
It relates to Carmichael’s admission last Friday that he had leaked a controversial memo asserting that Nicola Sturgeon’s preference was for David Cameron to remain Prime Minister, and then lied about it. Sturgeon and the French ambassador she met both categorically deny she expressed such remarks.
After five days of silence, on Tuesday morning Scott and the local Lib Dem party came to Carmichael’s defence, though the MSP is “very angry” and “very disappointed” at his fellow parliamentarian’s conduct.
Later on Wednesday Scott told Shetland News it was clear the SNP was behind the various tactics and was openly “trying to cause [Carmichael] as much damage as they can”.
“It’s the SNP leading the charge to force Alistair out, this is a campaign being mounted by SNP HQ in Edinburgh.”
Logan Nicolson, the Brae school teacher behind the ‘We the People of Shetland’ group, said he agreed with much of Scott’s “balanced and fair” statement on Wednesday morning – including his praise for Carmichael’s track record over the past 14 years.
But, while he is an SNP member and voter, Nicolson pointed out that the open letter issued to political parties in Shetland calling for a by-election – signed by 12 people – included several individuals who were not SNP members.
The SNP and Scottish Greens are the only parties lobbying for a by-election locally, with the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems condemning Carmichael’s actions but saying he should remain in office.
Nicolson described the group as “a complete grassroots movement within the community”.
“I’ve spoken to Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative members who are all privately saying that they think there should be a by-election. But because of the small nature of the isles, and feeling they may need to work with him [Carmichael] in the future, they don’t want to come out and say anything.
“Democracy shouldn’t stop from happening just because we live in a small community and people are afraid of having that open and honest dialogue.”
A Crowdfunder effort has raised £32,640, pledged by 2,089 people, to launch a legal challenge against the election result in the past two days.
Nicolson said the legal route was “not the way that I want to pursue this” so he declined to become involved, but he believed the allegiance of those behind it was “more towards the Greens, and ex-Labour” members.
He went on to say that he “really took exception” to Scott referring to “real Shetland folk who will give him [Carmichael] a fair hearing”.
“We’re not going down this track road of a narrow idea of what a Shetlander is – if you live in this constituency, you’re allowed to have an opinion on this and you’re allowed to be unhappy. I think it’s really divisive and I think he should apologise for it.”
Scott said what he had meant was that “the Shetland I know will accept someone has made a mistake and want to understand what he’s going to do about that”, though he accepted some folk will “never forgive him [Carmichael] for this”.
Others “will give him a hearing in time” and his route to restore the electorate’s faith is “by sheer hard work” and “being a solid constituency MP and doing the things he built his reputation on”.
Addressing the suggestion that protesters had gone over the top, Nicolson said he felt the majority of local campaigners had made their feelings known in a respectful manner.
“I don’t think we have been personal or unpleasant,” he said. “We didn’t at all have mob rule, we had a peaceful protest on the streets of Lerwick.
“Our letter was balanced and rational, and I contacted all the chairmen of all the political parties before I sent it out.”
He conceded that some of the placards on display during last Saturday’s march through Commercial Street had been “a bit dubious, and maybe a bit inflammatory, and at future demonstrations we will not allow” placards of that nature. Another protest is being planned for this Saturday.
Scott said he was only informed of his colleague’s role in leaking the memo by Carmichael himself on the Sunday following the 7 May election.
He waited five days before defending the MP because he was “very angry about it and very disappointed, so I wanted to think carefully through what I would say and make sure it was balanced and measured”.
Scott already knew he was facing the toughest fight to date to hold onto his Holyrood seat next year, and accepts he may now bear the brunt of the electorate’s anger at Carmichael’s conduct.
“That won’t be the first time,” he said. “I had to take a hit in 2011 because the Lib Dems had gone into coalition with the Tories, which I knew to be cataclysmically bad politics.
“That was the end of my national career, so I’m all too aware of the consequences of this. I’m very determined to fight very hard against them [the SNP] – if they want a fight, by god they’re going to get one.”
He said the SNP’s “complete overreaction” may actually help the Lib Dems and pointed to the past conduct of Sturgeon and her predecessor as leader, Alex Salmond, as evidence of hypocrisy.
“Given they’re fronting it up, it’s legitimate for me to point out that Alex Salmond lied through his teeth on the referendum [about legal advice on Scotland staying in the EU}… and also Nicola Sturgeon – defending a benefits fraudster – said we shouldn’t instantly rush to judgement.
“Not one SNP member in Shetland ever apologised for that. [List MSP] Mike Mackenzie was clapping Alex Salmond every day in parliament.”
Scott said he was “angry and frustrated” that a combination of factors, including the coalition government’s unpopularity, were hampering the Lib Dems’ ability to outline the case for a more liberal Scotland.
“There needs to be some force against a one-party state. I think there is such a huge opportunity to provide an alternative to the SNP. [But we’re doing it with] one hand tied behind our back because of what some of our colleagues have been doing.”
He added that there was a strong case for clear water to be placed between the Scottish and UK Lib Dems.
“If you believe in federalism as a basic philosophical approach, a party in Scotland that makes the case for a liberal Scotland should be separate from what goes on in England.
“I hope the party will consider how best to think of its future [and] learn the lessons the electorate clearly gave it.”
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