Scotland: A good news story for a troubled Europe

Madam Vice-Rector, Professors, friends, good morning, or dzień dobry as I should say, and thank you for the invite back to my old college. It’s great to see how the place has gone from strength to strength since I studied here in 1995. We were the first year fully in Warsaw, and it was a time of great energy, excitement, and not a little upset for people. The Berlin Wall was still not long down, the initial euphoria of regaining freedom from the USSR had dissipated somewhat and the hard job of building a nation was underway.  I have very happy memories of my time here and hope you're enjoying your time as much.

And we live in pretty turbulent times ourselves. The world is a pretty unstable place, with an increasingly muscular Russian foreign policy to our East, a most definitely unstable pinnacle of US governance to our West bringing NATO’s future into question, and to our South an ongoing humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East – now decidedly Post-Arab Spring – where Western inaction shames us all. 

We have an ongoing financial and economic crisis, while automation and technology is changing how we work, communicate and consume information. Above all else, especially visible in our North, climate change is making parts of the world wetter, parts drier, food resources scarcer and the world itself more climatically unstable. 

Set against all these challenges, every one of which is bigger than any one country, the UK’s Brexit vote, to leave the European Union, seems an ugly, grubby, thoughtless act of gross narcissism, as self-indulgent as it is petty. Built on a backward-looking delusion of British exceptionalism, political cowardice and complacency and no small amount of lies. 

But it is also, let’s be frank, a slap in the face of anyone who thinks the EU is doing well in the eyes of the people the EU serves. I see exactly the same ingredients of Brexit in all EU countries. We can’t just dismiss uncomfortable arguments or criticism as ignorant populism. 

Multilateralism and co-operation must be explained, justified and defended, because – make no mistake – they are under threat. 

Now’s the time to pick a side.

I’ll talk today about Scotland, and answer how I can be so strongly, as you might have gathered, in favour of multilateralism and European co-operation, but so equally in favour of my own country’s independence. I’ll also put Scotland in context, and how I believe we can be a good news story for a troubled Europe. 

But first, a brief history lesson. It was here in Natolin I learned the true value of Winston Churchill’s quote, if we do not learn the lessons of history we’re destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our present is built, for better or worse, on our past, and it’s important to know where Scotland is coming from. 

Founded as a Kingdom in 843, Scotland is one of Europe’s oldest nations. We’re a gathering of over 600 islands around the top end of an island we share with the English and Welsh. Our borders, being largely sea, haven’t changed since 1482 when the town of Berwick was captured by England. We have one of Europe’s, and hence the world’s oldest national flags, the Saltire, our national symbol since the battle of Athelstaneford in 832.

We have a clear sense of our own identity, our place in the world. We have always, despite geography, been European in outlook.

In 1297 William Wallace was appointed as Guardian of Scotland, and his first act was to write to the Hanseatic League the letter of Lubeck, proclaiming that Scotland was open for business and wanted to trade with them. One of our founding constitutional documents, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, was addressed to the then Pope asking his support for Scotland – or more accurately, the Barons and nobles of Scotland – to live free from interference from their English neighbours.

We have of course, been part of another political project that predates the EU. First, by hereditary fluke a Union of the Crowns in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became also King James I of England, and promptly moved to London. And since 1707 when, by international Treaty, the nobles of Scotland voted by a majority, as democratically as you could get by the standards of the time, to merge with England and Wales to form Great Britain. 

There were riots in the streets of Edinburgh and many other Scottish cities, but the Union stuck, and Scottish distinctiveness was recognised and guaranteed even in that Treaty. There were mutual advantages to the elites of the time. There followed the establishment and growth of the British Empire, and we cannot deny Scots were enthusiastic in taking advantage of the opportunities Empire brought us. 

And we remain, 310 years later, part of that project, but also still very much a distinct, recognisable thing, with a different law, educational system, churches and, I would contend, international outlook.

The question of independence for Scotland remains a live issue in Scottish life. We had, of course, a referendum about that in 2014.

Now, there are three facts I want you to remember about that because I think they’re very indicative of where we’re coming from: 

First, our definition of Scottish is - “Do you live in Scotland?” If you do, you’re in. We reject any idea of ethnicity, religion or history in our national identity, we’re a proudly mongrel nation, and if you’re in Scotland you’re part of our community now and welcome to be part of our community's future. So all EU citizens resident in Scotland had a vote in our independence referendum. All English-born people resident in Scotland had a vote also.

We also opened the vote, as we have with all votes, to 16 and 17 year olds because that’s the progressive thing to do.

Second, we had a lively discussion based on facts, plans and ideas. We published a White Paper, 650 pages of it, setting out our prospectus for independence, our plans for what we wanted to do. So people could argue about ideas, and test those ideas about the merits of the status quo. The future is unknowable, but to the extent that we could we set out what the choice actually was, we tried.

And finally, EU membership was a central argument in our proposition. Our contention was that, given the Treaties are silent, by far the most logical outcome was that we would negotiate with the UK and the other EU states to accede to full membership from within. Obviously there would be an accession process, but given we were already part of the EU, even if not a member in our own right, there were no major points of argument over incorporation of the aquis communitaire. It was housekeeping. I remain entirely convinced, that this would have been the outcome. The EU is an expansionist organisation; nobody seriously wanted, or wants, to lose us.

But, we’ll never know. The outcome of the vote was an unprecedented turnout, record voter engagement, and 55% to remain with the UK, 45% independence. People voted Yes or No for a million different reasons, but there is no question that a great many people were swayed by the argument that in order to guarantee EU status, we needed to stick with the UK. EU membership was a material factor in the outcome of the vote, which we do, of course, being democrats, respect.

So, so much is history, the world moves fast these days. In 2015, David Cameron won, rather unexpectedly, a majority in the UK general election. The SNP won 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster making us the third biggest party at Westminster.

David Cameron, in a sop to the anti-European element of his own party, had a line in his manifesto promising a referendum on EU membership. He was obliged to carry it out. 

He goes through a nine month excruciating re-negotiation of UK membership, and a visible learning curve about how the EU actually works and the limits of a special deal within a Single Market. That deal is then put to the people of the United Kingdom and ignored entirely. Our SNP guys at Westminster tried to amend the legislation enabling the referendum to include EU nationals, 16 and 17 year olds, and a double majority to the effect that there had to be a majority within each of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as well as across the UK as a whole for the referendum to take effect. All attempts were dismissed by the Conservative government.

And think about that. The UK government decided we were going to have a debate and a vote about the rights of 2.6 million EU nationals living in the UK, but denying them a vote because “well, you're not one of us are you?” A politics that I and my party find offensive in every way. 

I did 40 public meetings up and down Scotland, arguing that Scotland’s best interests, even short of independence, are best served within the EU. But the campaign UK-wide was shrill and ugly, with few facts and even fewer positive visions of a future. Each political party ran its own campaign, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Both the Conservative and the Labour campaigns were deeply split, with most activists staying at home. The official Remain campaign was lacklustre, complacent, and to my mind actually accepted the central premise of the Leave campaign that the EU’s a bit rubbish, majoring instead that the consequences would be terrible if we left. Easily dismissed as scaremongering, much as it was true.

Meanwhile, the Leave side successfully tapped into the genuine anger that exists, we see it not just in the UK, discontent about the economy, out of touch elites, globalisation or automation changing how we work, immigration, you name it, the Leave campaign blamed it on the EU.

Our media, famously balanced and truthful when it comes to the EU, played a major part in the campaign, with even the BBC, in the name of neutrality, presenting both sides as equally valid, if anything over-representing the Leave campaign because they gave more drama, sound and light, and asking tough questions of neither.

And the result was, across the UK, 52% to Leave, 48% to Remain. 

The people have spoken.

Except, as Bill Clinton said, the people have spoken, we now need to work out what they meant.

And even at that, in Scotland the people spoke too. Scotland voted by 62% to 38%, across every counting area, to remain. Northern Ireland also voted by a majority to remain, and the star pro EU vote goes to Gibraltar, with upwards of 97% of the residents wanting to remain.

So we have a conundrum. A shared conundrum. I respect the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum, which was in part predicated upon continued EU membership that we now face the prospect of losing against our clear and democratically expressed will.

I respect, albeit through gritted teeth, the outcome of the UK referendum. 

Except there was no prospectus. 

There’s a mandate to Leave, that I acknowledge, but there’s no, zero, nada, mandate for what comes next. 

The Leave campaign threw up such a blizzard of promises and assertions they ended up saying anything to everyone. That we would Leave the EU but remain within the Single Market and Customs Union. That restricting freedom of movement could be done by us, but wouldn’t be done to us. That the EU would bow to our every demand, and I quote, “because the Germans will still want to sell us cars and the Italians need a market for their olive oil”. That the EU cost us £350million a week, and we would simply save that money to spend on the health service.

They lied and lied and lied, and that is why there is now chaos.

So we need to find solutions. But they need to be based on values. Remember, our definition of Scottish is anyone in our community, so I’m proud that my leader, our First Minister, and many of my party colleagues and to be fair Scottish politicians of other parties have been so vocal in reassuring people, people who have paid us the supreme compliment of making Scotland their home, that we celebrate freedom of movement, and you are and will remain welcome here. 

The Scottish government has also published a very serious options paper, setting out the circumstances we see as “less bad” than the hardest of hard exits the UK government seems keenest on. We want the UK to remain within the Single Market and are urging that, but if that is not possible, there is going to be an exceptional status for Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar, so we want a distinct status too with our preference being EEA membership for Scotland. Clearly, there are practical issues to be overcome in that, but, I firmly believe, nothing that cannot be overcome with sufficient goodwill.

And, as any College of Europe student knows, variable geometry is a reality already for millions of Europeans. Myself and David Martin, one of the Scottish Labour MEPs have jointly published an analysis of all the places that have different status across the EU. The UK is not one coherent bloc, it is only right that Brexit, whatever it is, respect that diversity.

So there are many options, countless scenarios that may evolve in this fast moving discussion. But we want to remain, and continue playing our part in our European family as much as we can. At a time when it is difficult to find many good news stories for Europe, we’re it. We had demonstrations across all our cities in favour of the EU, there’s not many countries can say that lately! 

And this discussion within Scotland and within the UK is not happening in a vacuum, reaction of our European friends is crucial. It is right and proper that they EU27 look after their interests, of course, but do not fall into the trap the Leave advocates are trying to set, that the UK is united against you, we’re not. Theresa May is the UK PM, of course, but she is a weak Prime Minister, hostage to her own extremists and the UK is a lot more diverse than the UK Conservative party.

And remember Scotland. We want to stay. We argued for Europe, we voted for Europe, and we’re trying hard to find solutions to the dilemma we all face. With our renewable energy, our oil and gas, fish, farming, banking and biotech, we want to remain part of the EU family, united in diversity. We want to play our part, and even short of independence I believe there are ways we can remain engaged. I said in the Parliament we’ll need cool heads and warm hearts as this goes forward. We still do, the future is not set, on Scotland, the UK, the EU, or anything else. But we’ll surely do better remembering what unites us instead of divides. Dziękuję