THERE was an old Sunday newspaper column by a fictional MSP that always began with “What a week!” I feel like that and as I write it is only Wednesday.
First published in The National, 14 March 2019
I have a different perspective on what is happening this week, sitting as I am in Strasbourg, close to SNP things but independent from Holyrood and Westminster.
Now that we’re in the Brexit endgame I think it’s time to float a few ideas. Some of them are not SNP party policy but things are moving so fast right now I’m happy to play outrider and throw some new things into the mix. We have just had a debate in Strasbourg on Brexit and the shambolic spectacle of Tuesday night at Westminster. Not a single pro-Brexit UK Tory spoke during our debate. Not one. There was Nigel Farage, of course, and Ukip, and assorted others, including one who even claimed God is on their side.
We’re being played folks, the UK is run by a Tory party running for cover from these bad guys instead of facing them down and I fear the chaos we’re in is helping the worst people. It is time to tell a few truths now folks might be starting to listen.
First, Scotland voted to remain. The SNP want to stop Brexit and we have swung behind the idea of a second referendum as a way to do that, much as there are some practical things to be worked out about how that would happen. Secondly, the Scottish Six court case, in which we took the European Court of Justice, proved it is open to the UK to revoke Article 50 at any time before it expires on March 29.
Thirdly, it is open to the UK Government to ask to extend the Article 50 negotiating period, but this must be agreed unanimously, by the other 27 member states. From the tone of the debate and the discussions I’m having over here, an extension cannot be taken for granted. It probably would be agreed, but it needs to be for a specific “thing”, not just another few months of empty drama.
Fourthly, if we are still in the EU, we need to ensure we participate in the European Parliament elections in May. There was a time when the idea of prolonging the existing UK MEP mandates for the period of an extension was on the table but I think that has receded. If we end up with a second vote, which I back, our European colleagues are looking at the same UK opinion polls as we are and have, to put it delicately, little faith in the UK’s ability to deliver. Why would they agree to another year or so of heartbreak to risk the same result? I am confident that Remain would win handsomely in Scotland (again) and that a referendum is winnable across the UK, but it would take leadership.
I am far from convinced that either the Tory or Labour party leaderships would be on the remain side – and if they are that they’ll be any damn use. I’m also concerned Mrs May would find procedural and logistical ways to stymie it until it is too late.
So, some new ideas, in no particular order, I’d suggest all run simultaneously. First, revoke Article 50. Whatever Brexit people voted for, this isn’t it and there’s no time to fix it. Revocation needs, under the terms of our ECJ judgment, to be genuine and sincere, stopping the clock, not pausing it. This would cause genuine consternation in a substantial element of the population, even in Scotland where we should not forget some people voted to leave.
Secondly, reach out to Leave and Remain voters with a commitment to a future referendum but under the proviso that our laws must be fit for purpose and there must be a clear understanding of the implications of each choice. This is where Mrs May’s deal fails – it tells us nothing about the future relationship.
Thirdly, recognise that only Scotland has a settled will on our relationship with the EU while England, especially, is deeply divided as is Northern Ireland. Absent an independent Scotland that remains our problem. Start a national conversation focused on citizens’ assemblies in all four home nations led by the Europe Committees of each legislature, involving all parties to reach a consensus on what each nation wants in its relationship with the EU, with that to be worked into a UK consensus – if one can be found.
If it cannot be found then that would be an honest discussion, one I would be confident would bring independence for Scotland and the reunification of Ireland to the fore.
Fourthly, there is clear evidence that the conduct of the 2016 campaign was dubious and that UK electoral, data protection and campaign finance laws are not fit for purpose. There should be a judge-led public inquiry, assisted by the police where there is suspicion laws were broken, which would recommend new laws, stronger powers for the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner if they are identified as lacking.
Fifth, once a consensus has been found it should be put to a future referendum, with safeguards that each of the home nations should not be removed from the EU against their will. If a consensus cannot be found then I guess we’re back to politics, but at least without the economic chaos we’re staring at right now. If the decision is to remain then little need change, if it is to leave then only once a pre-negotiated outline settlement with the EU 27 has been agreed should Article 50 be triggered.
Some of these ideas are not feasible at present, but I don’t see many other ways out if we’re looking for solutions that will last. Watch this space folks and buckle up, the next days and months are going to be bumpy.