Spectre at the feast

Alex Salmond was in London today - but not, of course, in the House of Lords where peers were debating whether to grant Holyrood the legal power to hold an independence referendum.

The SNP has a policy which prevents Nationalists, however distinguished, from donning ermine.

And so today's debate in their Lordships' House proceeded without a Nationalist contribution. Nonetheless, Mr Salmond was the spectre at the feast, conjured up by speaker after speaker.

Opening for the UK government was Lord Wallace (Jim Wallace as was but Lord Jim is too redolent of Conrad).

He repeated the argument that there would be moral and political pressure upon Mr Salmond to adhere to, for example, any suggestions from the Electoral Commission for amending the proposed referendum question.

Then we heard from Lord Forsyth of Drumlean who recalled that, as Michael Forsyth, he had known and distrusted Mr Salmond since their days as fellow students at St Andrews University.

Lord Forsyth said that, in those days, Mr Salmond had led a band of about four Nationalists - while the Tory Club, of which Mr Forsyth was a prominent member, had numbered about 1,500.

Europe question

These days, the noble Lord admitted with a slight shrug, their relative political strength in Scotland was rather different. I suspect Mr Salmond would quibble vigorously over the numbers - but not the conclusion.

Turning from ancient history to more recent events, Lord Forsyth's point was that the FM had form: that he could not be trusted, as witness the episode of legal advice with regard to EU membership.

Absent as he was, Mr Salmond was unable to intervene to point out that he had been cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code on that issue.

Lord Forsyth argued that it was outrageous that the power to hold a referendum was being transferred without any final detail on the franchise, the question - or even the date.

He criticised the Edinburgh Agreement (between the FM and David Cameron) on the grounds that it excluded "the Mother of Parliaments" from sorting such matters, shifting them instead to Westminster.

The Scottish Parliament amounted in practice to "one man, Alex Salmond". A man who, he said, had made it his life's work to destroy the United Kingdom.

'Grave error'

However, Lord Forsyth's speech, while passionate, was far from a monotonous rant of the sort which enthusiasts occasionally inflict upon the populace.

It was droll, dry - and, at times, self-deprecating. Lord Forsyth opened by saying that, if he were ever facing a murder rap, he would hope to hire Lord Wallace QC as his defence counsel.

On today's performance, he said, he had made the very utmost of a thin brief.

Others spoke - and still Mr Salmond was the underlying topic. Lord (John) Reid declared boldly: "I am not frightened of Alex Salmond."

Their Lordships, he argued, should have confidence in the Scottish people who, he forecast, would reject independence.

Lord McConnell, Mr Salmond's predecessor as FM, said that it had been a "grave error" to delay the referendum until 2014 - but he argued that it would be a mistake to challenge and thus undermine the deal between Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron.

And we heard an intervention too from Lord Robertson (cv: Defence Secretary, Nato, Shadow Scottish Secretary). He had said, in an interview with me, that devolution would kill Nationalism stone dead. How was that going, Lord Forsyth inquired?

It had yet, said Lord Robertson, to be proved wrong. Just what was that spectral sound? A throat clearing? A distant chuckle?

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