Today, the anniversary of the EURef, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on what was a rollercoaster year.
First published in The National, 23 June 2017
Best of times, worst of times. I’ve been tested like never before and have gone through every emotion possible but mainly I just feel quietly determined. It has been a horrible, shrill, nasty year. Pandora’s box is open, politics has never been more in flux. There’s a poison in the air that I don’t think has been drawn yet. My views on Brexit have not changed one iota since the Newcastle and Sunderland ballots early on election night when I realised it was lost in England. This is mince. I’m not going to be complicit in an act that will harm the interests of the people I serve. Brexit is built on sand, and I’m going to knock it down.
I spent more time than most working on the EU campaign. Forty meetings up and down the country, from Shetland to Castle Douglas. To say the reaction from the party was, in parts, lukewarm would be an understatement. The overwhelming reaction was “Gies peace son, aye OK we’ll vote but we’re tired, this isn’t our fight”. There were constituencies I was turned away from because “the membership’s split and we’ve decided to just let sleeping dogs lie”. We saw all sorts of arguments about what happened in Greece, or the old arguments about red tape and lack of democracy, or indeed the impact of the EU on the catching element of the fishing industry. It staggered me to think people would throw so much away and give it all to the Tories for the perceived interests of one part of one industry. Where we took the argument on, we won Shetland, the most fisheries-dependent constituency in the UK by a country mile, as it voted to remain. Where we allowed a vacuum to exist the Tories and Ukip filled it with their snake oil.
But we still won: Scotland voted to remain and that has been my instruction since. Indeed, we’re all born-again Europhiles and Euro-experts. I’ve never had such interest in the EU since the vote. And Brexit has not begun to start yet. The opening of talks, such as they were, on Monday was a farce. The UK still has no coherent plan and expectations are massively out of touch with reality. The EU side is organised, united and quietly determined. This is going to be ugly.
But, leaving aside from the daily twists and turns about Brexit, let’s remember the big picture and SNP values. EU membership is absolutely core to our vision – let’s be a bit more full-throttle about that. The SNP is an internationalist party, and of course there’s things about the EU we would change on particular policies but let's remember the big picture. The EU is international solidarity in action, and a platform Scotland can shine on. It also represents vision in a pretty vision-less political world.
Independence in Europe as a political platform changed the fortunes of the party. I wasn’t a member then but a positive vision of what sort of country we want to be was so much more attractive than a negative vision centred on a Westminster we don’t want. That is still true, and even more true as Brexit unfolds. We’re going to, eventually, maybe soon, have to choose about what sort of country we want to be. Our attitude to the wider world will be integral to that choice, lets make sure we’re vocally and convincingly on the right side.
We’ve also got goodwill in spades up and down the European continent, with people in all the capitals ready to help once we make the choice. I’ve shown that myself. In 2014 they didn’t get us, now we’re the good guys, the internationalists, the country that wants to co-operate and work with our friends and neighbours. All this while the UK is poisoning its own image and calling it sovereignty, all the swaggering drunken bravado of a lager lout singing “No one likes us, we don’t care”. Scotland can do better, but if we dilute our values to some sort of half-hearted EFTA or EEA or whatever, we lose that goodwill and interest, and our USP. There may well be halfway houses as we move towards our goal, but let’s be vocal about what our goal is.
I’m going to be closely involved in the talks as they go forward. I’ll have a vote – assuming we get there – on the eventual deal. But I know there’s also an argument to be won in Scotland on the benefits of EU membership. I’m up for it. Diary permitting, I’ll go to any meeting, anywhere, that asks me. I’m in the process of revamping the scotlandineurope.eu website and working on a pamphlet for publication in the autumn. The European question is going to be fundamental to politics on these islands for the foreseeable future, and integral to our vision of an independent Scotland. Let's get in about it.