Alex Salmond refused to apologise today in the increasingly acrimonious row over the UK Supreme Court and, as a result, he now faces the possibility of having to contest a defamation suit brought against him by one of the country’s top lawyers.
The First Minister was given three opportunities during First Minister’s Questions today to withdraw remarks he made, both about Professor Tony Kelly, a visiting professor at Strathclyde University and an authority on European human rights law, and about Lord Hope, one of Scotland’s senior judges.
But, despite being accused of “bombast, arrogance and conceit” by his opponents, Mr Salmond spurned each one.
Professor Kelly announced this morning that he was so upset with Mr Salmond’s remarks in Holyrood magazine this week that he could not let them go by unchallenged and that he intended to take steps to take the issue further through the courts.
A full and unequivocal apology by Mr Salmond during First Minister’s Questions today could, possibly, have averted a defamation case but the First Minister’s decision to brazen it out now makes a legal suit against him more likely.
The row over the UK Supreme Court has been smouldering for weeks. It is the final court of appeal for UK human rights cases and, on two occasions recently, the court has made controversial decisions which affect Scots criminal law – even though the cases were brought under human rights legislation.
This has angered many, including Mr Salmond, who has gone on the attack, not just against the structures which have made the UK Supreme Court an unexpected arbiter for some contentious Scots law criminal cases, but against Scottish judges sitting on the court as well.
This reached a peak yesterday when Holyrood magazine was published containing an interview with the First Minister.
Mr Salmond used the interview to lambast, not just Lord Hope of Craighead, one of the Scottish judges on the Supreme Court, but also Professor Kelly, one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers.
The First Minister accused Prof Kelly of exploiting the system to make “an incredibly comfortable living” from human rights cases.
Mr Salmond said: “The judicial system does not exist to serve Professor Kelly, it exists to serve the people and any judicial system which allows that to happen would fall into disrepute, and what’s more, it costs lives because if you take £100 million out of the justice budget you cost lives; less police, less courts, less effective justice and incidentally, less Legal Aid and it is an inevitable consequence of that sort of thing.”
And, on Lord Hope, Mr Salmond said: “All I would say to Lord Hope is that I probably know a wee bit about the legal system and he probably knows a wee bit about politics but politics and the law intertwine and the political consequences of Lord Hope’s judgments are extreme.
“And when the citizens of Scotland understandably vent their fury about the prospect of some of the vilest people on the planet getting lots of money off the public purse, they don’t go chapping at Lord Hope’s door, they ask their parliament what they are doing about it.
“I am perfectly happy if Lord Hope wishes to exercise his freedom of speech and I hope he is happy with mine but at least I went to the bother of being elected. It may be an inconvenience but nonetheless it has to count for something.”
In response, Prof Kelly said: “I am sad that the First Minister has called into question my professional integrity.
“I act for the most maligned in our society and in so doing fully expect that such a role is disliked and at times misunderstood by others.
“However, for a politician to attack me for the work that I do – and to mistake so seriously my motivation – cannot be left unremarked upon.”
He added: “With regret, I have had to take legal advice and following upon that, given the nature of attacks upon me, I have decided to formalise my opinion.”
With legal figures, senior nationalists like former MP Jim Sillars and the entire opposition in the parliament ranged against him, Mr Salmond came under intense pressure this morning to apologise, to withdraw the remarks he made about both Lord Hope and Prof Kelly and defuse the row.
With no public comment by the First Minister before he appeared in the chamber at midday, no-one knew how he would react to the inevitable demands for an apology.
Labour leader Iain Gray was the first to ask Mr Salmond to apologise.
“These crass personal attacks demean the office to which he was elected. He should retract them now,” Mr Gray said.
And the Labour leader added: “The First Minister attacked a lawyer for representing people because they are ‘vile’. His justice secretary threatened to cut off funding from a court because he did not like their judgements. I do not like some of their judgements too.
“But vile people having rights is the price we pay for us all having those rights. Vile people being properly defended is the price we pay for our right to be defended too. We make the laws but the independence of the judiciary is the price we pay for the for the freedom to do that. “
Mr Salmond refused. He said: “I think we all have a right to fair comment.”
And he added: “As well as a right to free speech, we have a duty as parliamentarians to articulate public concerns.”
Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie then said: “The First Minister’s interview with Holyrood magazine amounted to an extraordinary rant, characterised by bile, intemperance, provocative personal insults and a sneering disregard for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.
“No-one denies there is a serious issue about how the Supreme Court engages with Scots law in determining human rights issues. It is right that the mechanisms be looked at.
“But the First Minister’s blustering, bellicose outburst has totally obscured the real issue, made a laughing stock of Alex Salmond and most seriously of all, has diminished the office of First Minister.”
And she added: “The First Minister said just over a month ago that he did not have a monopoly on wisdom – that is self-evident. Unfortunately, as he has just demonstrated, he can claim to have a monopoly on bombast, arrogance and conceit.”
Miss Goldie then asked: “Will you apologise?”
To which the First Minister replied: “No.”
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, also used his questions to the First Minister to ask for a retraction from the First Minister.
“The answer is the same as I gave to Miss Goldie,” the First Minister replied.