An independent Scotland at Europe's top table

EUROPEAN stuff can be complicated and it is easy to get wrong, especially when there are a few folk actively seeking to misinform with a blizzard of half truths, errors, alternative facts and outright lies.

Sunday Herald

First published in The Sunday Herald, 05 February 2017

We live in confusing times, and we need to beware distraction by those who would seek to divide and mystify us. Recent speculation that the SNP is somehow going to change our European policy - from seeking independence within the EU to some sort of more arms-length arrangement - is, if not entirely fake news, certainly pretty close to it.

Good sport as it was for the Tories, LibDems and their commentariat chums, there’s nothing in it. The policy stands. There’s enough to discuss about how best to safeguard Scotland’s interests, let’s not jump at shadows.

The SNP wants to see Scotland independent, but not to be separate or apart. We’re not isolationist. We don’t just want to re-establish the sovereignty of the people of Scotland as an ambition in itself, we want to use it to make the country better. Independence is about joining the world, as ourselves, making our own decisions at home with the full powers to implement them and, also, working with our friends and allies further afield towards common endeavours.

Climate change, organised crime, security, tax avoidance, the refugee crisis and a host of other issues are bigger than any one country. With Putin to the east of us and Trump to our west we need to maximise Scotland’s voice in the world and work closely with our allies.

Last week’s Brexit vote in the House of Commons proves that the alternative is to shut ourselves off as a small, eminently ignorable minority at Westminster where we will always lose. Spoken for in the world by a Prime Minister literally hand-in-hand with a US President who could use some friendly candour about how awful his policies are.

We want to join, as ourselves, such organisations as will best serve our ambitions for Scotland. It is and will always be open to the people of Scotland to change our mind because who knows what the future holds? As Brexit rolls forward we need to be open to all options, however unpalatable. But to change policy now would be wrong in three ways, which is why I’m glad it is not happening. It would be wrong on principle, wrong on timing, and wrong tactically.

Since I was elected in 2004 I sought membership of the Switzerland, Iceland and Norway delegation of the Parliament so I could find out more about the European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area options. They’re legitimate options that successful, friendly countries we have a lot in common with have chosen, as is their democratic right. They might be workable half-way houses compared to Theresa May’s Brexit, which is why the Government has proposed variations of them as potential compromises, but they’re poor options for an independent Scotland.

Firstly, they’re rule takers. The countries involved have to implement pretty much all of the single market legislation, yet have no say in its formulation. Secondly, they have to pay into the EU budgets, and have no say in how the money is spent. They’re part of the single market, and benefit from freedom of movement in and out, but it costs them. It is a diminished status.

Obviously, a number of people in Scotland voted to leave the EU and I respect those individual decisions. We’re too small a country to demonise folk. I’ve written articles, run meetings and conducted surveys of Leave voters to better understand. I am firmly of the view that most folk voted Leave on the basis of specific promises – we’ll get the fishing grounds back, we’ll be able to cut down on red tape, we’ll get out of awful trade deals like TTIP, even we’ll get £350million a week for the NHS.

Some people are concerned about immigration, let’s not deny that too. I don’t rule out the idea that there might be opportunities from Brexit, rest assured we’re looking hard for them and we’ll be sure to take them if they exist.

But I’m afraid I don’t see many. In fact, quite the reverse. I’m firmly of the view all of these promises will be betrayed. As the reality of Vote Leave Take Control sinks in – that Brexit has given a blank cheque to the most right-wing UK government in years – I am confident even former Leave voters will reconsider the benefits of EU membership.

All new powers for Holyrood, if indeed any materialise, will come through Westminster. Nothing is automatic. Such flexibility as the UK, and Scotland, may gain without EU rules will be replaced by World Trade Organisation rules and the trade deals the UK government will sign us up to with no meaningful say at all. If you hated Brussels wait till you meet Geneva. If you voted Leave because of TTIP I’m afraid you’ll find even less to admire in a Trump/May trade deal.

So, even after the vote, the case for the EU still needs to be made. Some people are sceptical about independence in Europe, I know. But we’ve never had independence in Europe, we’ve allowed a reticent and reluctant UK to speak for us in the EU. Look where that’s landed us.

The timing is also wrong, we have a huge goodwill in the bank in Brussels and across the EU capitals. Attitudes to Scotland are almost totally inverted compared to 2014. We’re the good guys, not the awkward squad. To change policy now would line us up with the awkward squad, throwing that goodwill away, for nothing. Sure, a number of people voted Leave, but most didn’t. We don’t take our line on what’s best for Scotland from the UK.

And on the tactics, as we contemplate Scotland’s future, I think people need clarity, ambition, a vision of a better community and nation. We need to be sensitive to Leave voters, but let’s remember the Remain voters. Many were previously sceptical on independence and are now looking at the idea with fresh eyes, open to persuasion - a huge opportunity for us. An independent Scotland at Europe’s top table, working with our friends and allies, enjoying the same rights and responsibilities across a continent of 500 million, is a vision to attract people.

The EU is a platform for Scotland to shine, and it emphatically remains our aspiration.