“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” – a famous quote from the famous Winnie Ewing, the former MEP whose constant championing of Scotland’s interests on the global stage earned her the sobriquet Madame Ecosse.
First published in The National, 22 March 2017
But those words didn't initially ring out in the corridors of Brussels. Instead, this was Ewing's battle cry as she won the Hamilton Westminster by-election for the SNP back in 1967, sailing to victory with 46% of the vote in a constituency the party hadn’t even contested in the general election a year earlier.
Ewing’s victory was heralded as a seismic landmark for the cause of Scottish independence, a clear sign that it was a viable alternative to the union.
Fast-forward a few decades and it’s once again ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on!’ In the wake of a Brexit path that, no matter your political persuasion, is a poorly-planned, intellectually-bankrupt boorach littered with petty bigotry and dogwhistling, Scotland must find an escape route. Otherwise the Westminster Government, obsessed with preserving the Conservative Party, will take us over the cliff with it. Even Leave voters who have contacted me are adamant that this isn’t the kind of Brexit they wanted.
At the time of writing, Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that she will invoke Article 50 on Wednesday 29th March. In the spirit of true egalitarianism, the Prime Minister did not appear to see fit to inform the devolved governments ahead of the official announcement. It looks like even our own Michael Russell, Minister for UK Negotiation on Scotland’s Place in Europe, found out via the BBC News!
While we did indeed know that the Prime Minister would trigger Article 50 by the end of March, my concern is that the arrogant display here is a clear indication that the devolved nations will be told to whisht and let Westminster get on with it. ‘Shut up and eat your cereal’ writ large.
The notion of a UK-wide approach to Brexit has been broken beyond repair, and more and more of us are coming to the conclusion that the UK Government simply doesn't know what it's doing. For instance, I had hoped that the apparent ignorance of all things Northern Irish was part of some geopolitical gameplay, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly apparent that Westminster simply doesn’t care.
It’s time for Scotland to roll up its sleeves and make its own moves. We need to speak with our own voice on the global stage. Last week, I addressed the European Parliament, President Tusk and President Juncker and told them that, just as the EU will not be intimidated by threats from the London government, neither will Scotland. It is only right that today our national Parliament in Edinburgh debate, and decide, on Scotland's interests. What self respecting Parliament or government wouldn't? We will not be passive bystanders as the Tories steer the ship towards the rocks.
And it is not just politicians who are mobilising. In a significant development, today also sees the launch of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, an independent and unaligned think-tank. While quite rightly not taking a position on independence, SCER will be looking at all options for Scotland in or out of the EU. David Martin MEP and I will be on the Board of Advisors, making sure that Scotland’s voice won’t be ignored while Brexit rumbles on. Think tanks, universities, and despite the boneheaded derision from the likes of Michael Gove, experts all have a part to play in unpicking the tangled mess we find ourselves in. Scotland has options, of which independence is one, and we need to explore all possible alternatives on pragmatic grounds. Personally, I like the sound of an independent Scotland in the EU, playing a full and equal part in the running of the biggest war-avoidance mechanism ever invented, where we seek common solutions for global issues bigger than any one country. But that's just one option, there are others.
Because make no mistake, Europe is interested in Scotland. We are a good news story for Europe, and our First Minister really made our European neighbours sit up and take notice when she used her first speech after the Brexit result to reassure EU nationals living in Scotland. "This is your home: you remain welcome here and your contribution is valued." Simple words that resonated strongly.
This week, I’ll be in Rome for the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, a historic document that led to the creation of the European Economic Community. Thousands of us will gather in the Piazza di Spagna to argue the case for Europe, because the ingredients for Brexit exist in every European country. Scotland's precise relationship with the EU remains to be seen, but I'll be in Rome to underline we assuredly do want a relationship.
Right now, we face the prospect of being removed from our European family of nations against our clearly expressed and democratic will, without even a token gesture to indicate that our opinion has counted for anything. That’s not how to do politics. After all, it's not a game.