Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
28 March 2017
The debate has been about leaving the European Union and leaving the United Kingdom, about the will of the people and majorities in Parliament, and about the accountability of ministers, here and elsewhere. As far as Europe is concerned, Alex Neil’s contribution is a good place to start. I do not share his constitutional objectives, but he demonstrated a clarity of analysis that has been largely missing from his party’s front bench contributions. He said:
“A yes vote in an independence referendum cannot be interpreted as a dual mandate for independence and for an independent Scotland to join the EU.”
Equally, a vote to leave or remain in the EU tells us nothing at all about a voter’s views on Scotland leaving the UK. It may be an obvious point, but it is not the approach that SNP ministers have taken in the debate. Fiona Hyslop was typical. She said:
“The people of Scotland were told in 2014 that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote against independence. They were later told to vote remain to achieve the same outcome.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2017; c 23, 18.]
The truth is that people did not vote in two quite different referendums, on two quite different questions, in order to “achieve the same outcome.” It may be too painful for some in the SNP to contemplate, but the largest democratic vote in Scottish history was not on the issue of membership of the EU, explicitly or implicitly. It was a vote to remain in the UK, plain and simple. To imply otherwise, as the Scottish Government has done, seems to me to be neither honest nor transparent, and it does not respect the sovereign right of the Scottish people to reject independence, inside or outside the EU, as they have already done.
Much has been said about the Scottish Government’s proposals in “Scotland’s Place in Europe”. It is important to stress that those proposals were not endorsed by the Parliament or by any committee of the Parliament, despite comments that were attributed to a Scottish Government spokesperson in the press at the weekend. MSPs did not vote in favour of market-sealing measures to limit trade within the UK or for rules of parallel marketability that were inspired by the relationship between Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Those suggestions were endorsed by the SNP alone.
We did vote for Nicola Sturgeon to seek agreement with Theresa May on a common approach to Brexit, to protect Scotland’s interests, and many of us were dismayed when the UK Government made a unilateral decision to walk away from the single market and the customs union. Then, two weeks ago, the First Minister took her own unilateral decision, which was to write off her proposals for Scotland to stay in both the UK and the single market by demanding a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom instead.
So much for seeking to influence the article 50 process. So much for any serious alternative to Britain leaving the single market. So much for the First Minister’s mandate from the Parliament. The SNP’s vaunted commitment to the EU is relegated to second place and cast into doubt.
Last week, I asked Stewart Stevenson whether he would be urging fishermen in Banffshire and Buchan Coast to vote to leave the UK in order to rejoin the European Union. In his answer, he pointed to paragraph 127 of “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, which says:
“we would not remain within the Common Fisheries Policy.”
That is a fair point of view, which I understand entirely, but leaving the common fisheries policy means not joining or remaining in the EU. There are no circumstances in which a Scotland that refused to be part of one would be able to be part of the other. To pretend otherwise would not be honest or fair.
Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):
In the spirit of consensus that applies to some of the debate, I congratulate the Labour Party on not joining the Tories in seeking to delete from the motion the words
“acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”.
The Labour Party clearly supports that. Will it be voting for the Tory amendment, which seeks to delete that from the motion?
Lewis Macdonald :
We will not be voting for the Tory amendment, and we will not be voting for the SNP’s proposition. We respect the sovereign right of the Scottish people to make such judgments, and the Scottish people have already made precisely such a judgment, in 2014.
A few days ago, Alex Salmond extolled the virtues of the SNP’s strategy on Radio 5 Live. He said:
“The idea is to have continuous membership of the European Economic Area. That is a lot easier to achieve very, very quickly. It’s not something that has anything like the difficulties of securing full European Union membership.”
If that is indeed the SNP’s strategy, the debate is not about finding a way for Scotland to get into or to remain in the EU, because Alex Salmond says that now is not the time; it is about a decision to call for a second referendum on leaving the UK, regardless of the consequences in relation to Europe.
As we have heard, Nicola Sturgeon wants to have that vote in the next two years. She said earlier that Britain’s future relationship with Europe will be clear by then, but the only person she can quote in support of that view appears to be Theresa May. Last week, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that all the terms of the UK’s withdrawal must be settled before trade talks can even start, and Pascal Lamy, a former director general of the World Trade Organization, said:
“I don’t think it can be done within two years.”
A few weeks ago, the former British ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers summarised the view in Brussels, which is that agreeing a trade deal with the UK may take
“until the early to mid-2020s.”
I suspect that Michel Barnier, Pascal Lamy and Sir Ivan Rogers are more likely to be proved right than Nicola Sturgeon or Theresa May.
We cannot yet know what Brexit will look like, and we do not know what the SNP’s prospectus will be for leaving the UK. As we have heard over the past two weeks, the SNP has no answers on Europe, the currency, the economy or the fiscal deficit. Instead, it insists that a vote in favour of a choice between two unknowns will represent the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. Most people would assume that the phrase “democratic will” had something to do with the will of the people but, when they were asked, neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Patrick Harvie could point to any evidence that another referendum is what the people want. All the available evidence says that it is not.
Will the member acknowledge that, throughout the debate, the Greens have acknowledged not only the contradiction between the result in 2014 and that in 2016 but the fact that none of us—however we voted in either referendum—should be here, because the UK Government has taken the result of the UK-wide EU referendum as a mandate for something that it was never supposed to be a mandate for?
We are here to implement the democratic will of the Scottish people, and we need to listen to the Scottish people. I am listening hard, and I am picking up no demand at all for another independence referendum.
In the heat of the last independence referendum campaign, the First Minister promised to respect the result, but she now says that it is trumped by a reference in her party’s manifesto. The Greens’ manifesto said that a new referendum should
“come about by the will of the people, and not be driven by calculations of party political advantage.”
It is a pity that they chose to abandon that view once the election was over. I expect that there will be a parliamentary majority in favour of another referendum that the people of Scotland do not want on a question that the Scottish people have already answered. The use of that majority for that purpose is a party-political choice and it should not be dressed up as somehow representing the people’s democratic will.
We would all wish votes in this place to be treated with respect, even when we do not agree with them, but it is surely for Scotland’s Government to lead on that by example. Speaker after speaker in the debate has asked the First Minister why she has chosen to ignore parliamentary majorities on issues as important as health, education, Highland control of Highland development and university funding. She will not respond to that, yet she expects others to treat this evening’s vote as an expression of the will of the people of Scotland, when there is no evidence that it is what the people of Scotland want. I therefore encourage the First Minister to listen to the people of Scotland, to treat all votes of the Parliament with equal respect and, above all, to spare the people of Scotland an independence referendum that the people do not want.