The historic Holyrood Brexit debate was a good day for Scottish democracy

WITH little of note happening on the Brexit front in Brussels this week, I am in Scotland catching up with people and seeing what is happening. I was privileged to be in the gallery at Holyrood on Tuesday to watch the EU debate. It was a set-piece occasion and pretty much everybody rose to it. It was historic because it was the first-ever joint motion presented in the name of almost all the parties in our national Parliament and also the National Assembly for Wales, the Senedd. Scotland’s SNP government and the Welsh Labour government have been working hand in glove on Brexit since the stramash was visited upon us, and it is testament to our outstanding Scotland in Europe Minister Michael Russell that we have such a strong joint position.

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First published in The National, 7 March 2019

It was a genuinely illuminating debate. It really did give a good indication of where all the parties are. Or indeed where they’re not, but I’ll come to that.

The chamber was full, of course, and the debate was started off by our First Minister with a typically intellectually robust speech. Next up was Tory acting leader Jackson Carlaw, with a speech I can only describe as curious. I remember doing a public meeting during the EU referendum campaign with him, at Glasgow University I think, where we were on the same side. He believes Scotland’s interests are best served in the UK and in the EU and he was very convincing. He was less so on Tuesday, with a speech so full of straw men it was a fire hazard.

The Tories stuck to a few points and did not waver from them. I was struck how many used the words: “I voted Remain but … ”

And on some levels I feel for them. They know that Brexit is damaging and against the clearly expressed wishes of the Scottish electorate, but because the UK voted Leave they need to thole it as they think the UK is more important than the EU. To a point I respect that. To a point. But the Scottish Tory MSPs, and their Scottish Tory MP colleagues, could have had immense power over Brexit’s direction.

Look at the influence the DUP has had over a weak Prime Minister. If the Scottish Tories had been a bit more Scottish and a bit less Tory they could, genuinely, have set the tone at Westminster. But they didn’t. They chose, consciously, to play the role of human shield rather than critical friend. Underling rather than equal.

So there was only so much they could say. The speeches were all about diversion and displacement, trying to create a parallel universe which I’m pretty sure not a one of them (other than possibly Murdo Fraser) believes is reality.

They know that the Scottish Government deplores Brexit and wants to remain in the EU, but nonetheless has put forward umpteen potential compromises, on the single market, customs union, a differentiated solution for Scotland, a second referendum. These are all big compromises for us given our policy and Scotland’s vote, but made, nonetheless, to try in good faith to help a UK administration that doesn’t seem keen on helping itself. All rejected, ignored, belittled.

Yet the Tories on Tuesday tried to present this as the SNP shifting positions and as seeking grievance and using Brexit as a pretext for an independence referendum.

I’ll confess I take personal offence at this. I’ve sat through the countless meetings where we’ve had to bite on hard reality – we’re not independent and we can’t wish Brexit away – and thrash out compromises about how we could salvage the naximum possible. I’ve written extensively in Scottish and other European media about how Brexit is absolutely not about independence. All ignored by a group of people so desperate to deflect attention from their own disaster that they’ll try anything to distract folk. And the tragedy for them is I’m not sure it is working.

Here was the entire Parliament united, against them, and instead of seeking compromise they doubled down on the base. They’re barely speaking for 20% of the Scottish population, and alienating the rest.

They also tried to claim that the Leave vote in Scotland has been ignored. Again, flatly untrue. There are to be sure folk who voted Leave, I’ve done more to reach out to them than most, and even they are massively changing their mind now that circumstances have changed and all the airy promises the Leave campaign made have been shown up as hopelessly reckless if not outright lies. I noted not a single Tory mentioned the now entirely debunked “Sea of Opportunity” nonsense – cracking slogan, nonsense policy.

And then on to Richard Leonard for Scottish Labour. It was genuinely, the best speech I’ve seen him make, though to be sure I’ve not seen many. He was passionate, committed, grown-up and consensual. It probably helped that his Welsh Labour colleagues were signed up down in Cardiff, but here’s the Scotland I want to see. Of course there are disagreements, but sometimes we also need to put the badges to one side and focus on what unites us. That Scottish Labour have signed up to a common position with the SNP is a major achievement, brave, and good on them for it.

There were a number of great contributions. I’m biased but the SNP and Greens were all outstanding. The Labour speeches were good on content, and the Liberals were onside as well. It was a good day for Scotland’s democracy.

There’s a place for knockabout and drama, but I think in these days we’re living, where at Westminster we’ve seen the death of shame and the death of reason, folk want to know that their politicians are at their posts and working hard. The MSPs rose to it. The coming weeks are going to be tough but I came out of the Holyrood debate a lot more hopeful for Scotland’s future than when I went in.