The Meaning of “Is”


The 2015 British parliamentary elections were a disaster for the Liberal Democrats.  They lost 49 seats, retained only eight, and gained none.  In Scotland they lost ten seats and retained just one meager spot in the Palace of Westminster.  And now even that lone seat is in danger.

The Liberal Dem’s last MP in Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, is facing legal action from a group of voters within his Orkney and Shetland constituency because of the “Frenchgate” scandal.

The People Vs Carmichael is seeking to have his election result overturned. Before the election, Carmichael sanctioned the leak of a memo that attempted to damage SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, and in turn the SNP candidates running for parliament.  He then lied about his part in it.

The memo wrongly claimed that Sturgeon had told the French ambassador that she wanted Conservative party leader David Cameron to return as Prime Minister.

The case has been brought under the Representation of the People Act of 1983, which prohibits making intentionally false statements of fact about “any candidate” in an election.  But since Sturgeon was not running for the seat in Orkney and Shetland, and was actually not a candidate for any seat in British parliament, does she qualify as “any candidate”?

This parsing of words is strangely reminiscent of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial back in 1999.  While testifying before a grand jury regarding his affair with Monica Lewinski, Clinton famously (or infamously??) questioned the precise meaning of the word “is” by stating, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

If The People Vs Carmichael can overcome the “any candidate” issue, they will still have to prove Carmichael’s intent and the impact of his actions on the election result – which was a narrow victory by only 817 votes – as provided by the Representation of the People Act.

But as a first step in this legal action, defining the meaning of “any candidate” in Scotland may soon become as significant as the meaning of “is” in America.

Statement of interests:  Paul McCarthy is an American “geek” with a keen interest in British and Scottish politics.