SNP is fighting to stop Brexit – but protecting Scotland’s interests

IT has already been a busy time back in Brussels but I was able to read Tuesday’s National column by the excellent Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the much-needed Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), our newest independent think tank. Her piece The SNP Is Opposed To Brexit, Why Aren’t They Fighting It? sets out some challenges that I think deserve to be answered properly. For transparency, I’m a member of the SCER advisory board but did not collaborate with Kirsty on her piece – she is an independent commentator and has quite properly set us some questions.

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First published in The National, 11 January 2018.

I’ve written in these pages before of my frustration over Brexit. I’ve been clear that EU membership, as an independent state but even as part of the UK, is in Scotland’s best interests. In the EU referendum Scotland voted to remain. This is our starting point, our position is clear. Had Scotland voted Yes in 2014 we would currently be in an incredibly strong position – a concerned neighbour with a direct interest and, crucially, a seat at the EU top table and with the solidarity of the other EU states at our back, the same as Ireland is now.

But Scotland voted No. So we’re not, and wishing does not make it so. Our responses need to explore all the options and fight on all fronts, working across a varied UK political geography we are not in charge of. The Brexit pretext is being used by the Tories as grounds for an unprecedented assault on devolution. Even yesterday we heard confirmation that the disastrous EU (Withdrawal) Bill will not be properly scrutinised at Westminster. There’s a lot of moving parts to this.

Kirsty properly sets out the range of possibilities the party has put forward, and rightly suggests that 2018 is the year to stop Brexit. I agree. Now that the talks move on to the granular line by line, I think the Brexit promises will all be shown up for what they are: a series of wilful or negligent lies. But where she queries why we are not committed to “stop Brexit”, she touches on some fundamental differences of objective.

Firstly, we take referendums seriously. Our own cause, independence in Europe, is underpinned by a commitment to the popular sovereignty of the people of Scotland, and we are not going to do anything to undermine it. Persuasive arguments can be made that because of the lies told in the EU referendum the reality of Brexit will not be what people voted for, therefore perhaps the people should have a choice on the final deal. For that to be the case we must see the final deal before Brexit – something that is not possible yet. At best we will have a statement of intent about the long-term relationship that the UK intends to seek. I have previously said in this column that all options, including no Brexit, must be left on the table, but this must be done in the right way and asking the same question is not that.

Secondly, I accept that Scotland has no democratic right to tell England not to Brexit. I’d gently suggest that the converse should also be true, but that is the hard reality of the UK constitution and the result of the 2014 vote. The SNP MPs at Westminster put down “double majority” amendments to the EU Referendum Bill whereby the result would not have had effect unless there was not just an overall majority, but a majority in each of the four countries of the UK too. It was rejected by precisely the same Tory arrogance we’re seeing now. Scotland is a junior partner in a Union going in a direction we fundamentally do not want to see. Indeed, this is not the Union a lot of Scots voted for in 2014.

Thirdly, I’m not sure the SNP adopting the tactics Kirsty suggests would actually move the debate in a positive direction in England. Actually, perhaps quite the reverse. The English voters who voted Leave, and remain keen on it, are not exactly enamoured on Scots either, and a likely anti-Jock reaction could entrench views rather than open up a big tent. So our focus on the single market seeks to open a space that we can bring people into in order to move the debate in the right direction. It does not mean we’re any less opposed to Brexit.

Fourthly – and this is the trickiest – we need a sustainable, long-term solution, and I’m not sure that much of the thinking in the “stop Brexit” camp has gone that far. The LibDems at the last Westminster election bet the house on a “Remain bounce” that did not materialise in England, and I’m not sure there is one in evidence yet. If there was a feeling in England that the Brexit vote was somehow stolen, especially by a liberal elite aided and abetted by the Scots and the Irish, then it would put rocket boosters on the next iteration of Ukip, which would be more like Britain First and we would be back here again in a few years’ time.

I fear the UK has a lot of heartache ahead of it yet before the penny drops that the Empire is no more and the world does not owe it a living. Of course, Scotland has other options. Independence remains on the table, much as the timetable has quite rightly been reset given the many moving parts. Our job is to do what is best for Scotland.

The European question is fundamental to whatever is in Scotland’s future. There is an argument to win at home, as well as a ground to prepare abroad, and that is why I have published Scotland in Europe at www.scotlandineurope.eu and will shortly begin a nation-wide tour. Open and honest debate – like Kirsty has been at the forefront of – will be vital to that process.