Protecting Scotland’s interests: response to the outcome of the meaningful vote

Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, following the UK Parliament vote on EU Withdrawal Agreement.

Those with an interest in the ironic might remember that five years ago this very week, the UK Government released its latest paper in its Scotland Analysis series – a series devoted to attempting to undermine Scotland and the case for independence.

Entitled “EU and International Issues” the paper extolled what it claimed were the many benefits to Scotland of the UK’s membership of the EU.

It said this: “The UK uses its influence within the EU to Scotland’s advantage on a whole host of issues of particular interest to people and businesses in Scotland, such as budget contributions, fisheries, agricultural subsidies and Structural Funds. Scotland benefits from this and from the UK’s strong voice in Europe, where it contributes to and participates in discussions and negotiations from its position within the UK.”

What a difference five years makes.

Well it didn’t. And as we all know we are now imminently threatened with not being members of the European Union.

Presiding Officer, this government was elected in May 2016 on a manifesto which said that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another independence referendum if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.

But this is not just about the constitution. There are real losses which everyone of us would experience and for which we have never voted. Brexit, if it happens, will remove all the claimed benefits of EU membership.

Now there are actions that we believe the UK Government should take immediately to stave off complete disaster.  

I shall come to those in a minute but let me first pause to reflect on the enormous dangers we are now in, and how they have come about.

Last night was not just a defeat, it was a rout. A Prime Minister who had spent two and a half years negotiating a withdrawal agreement had that agreement defeated by a historic margin.  

A margin never seen before at Westminster.

And in part caused by one of the biggest revolts within a political party that has ever taken place there.

And no wonder it went down to such a heavy defeat.

The Prime Minister’s deal would make people poorer. It would drag Scotland out of not just the EU, but also the Single Market and Customs Union. It would put Scotland at a competitive disadvantage against Northern Ireland and far from bringing stability, it would open the door to many more years of difficult negotiations, disputes and inevitable uncertainty for citizens and businesses.

In a normal political world, with normal, accountable, self-aware politicians the scale of this defeat would have led to the immediate resignation of, if not the Government, then at least of the leader of that Government.

But instead the Prime Minister behaves as if this is all somebody else’s fault.  

The EU is clear. Ireland is clear. The deal can only change if the red lines change. And if the Prime Minister will not change her red lines, there can be no change to anything that is on the table.

No change to the backstop. No change to the financial arrangements. No change to the need for regulatory alignment if there is to be tariff concessions.

There is stalemate in that crumbling palace beside the Thames. And that stalemate, exacerbated by the delays that the Prime Minister has been solely responsible for, is costing business, EU nationals and, indeed, all the rest of us very dear.

So what needs to be done now?

Well, fortunately, despite genuine differences of opinion on the question of independence, there has been general consensus on the steps that should be taken to protect Scotland and mitigate for the whole UK the damage of Brexit.

And in these worsening circumstances with the UK Government, such a plan is required more urgently than ever.

Presiding Officer last night the First Minister spoke to the Prime Minister. Today she is in London.  

She and the First Minister of Wales have also sought an urgent meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee at Plenary level and she has written to the PM regarding that, and about the best way forward.

The first part of the plan must be to rule out No Deal.

Last week the House of Commons began to demonstrate the force which they are prepared to put into frustrating the UK Government should it choose to pursue a no deal outcome. That is good but more is required, and more of the UK Government in particular. They can and should rule out “No Deal” now and for ever.

But until that happens it will be necessary, if regrettable, for the Scottish Government to go on with, and indeed intensify, our work to prepare as best we can for that eventuality.

To that end we are continuing to engage with the UK Government on our planning and preparations for a potential no deal outcome.

We are making every effort to ensure that the vital importance of getting the information we need is recognised. The Scottish Government Resilience Committee is now meeting weekly to manage and escalate matters as needed, supported by a “rapid response” group of officials which will grow as need requires.

We have a public information campaign in the final stages of development and we are making initial decisions on issues such as medicine, medical devices and clinical consumables stockpiling, emergency transportation, support for supply chains, diversion of local produce and a host of other issues.

All of this activity has become a significant focus of our resources and efforts, as it has to be for a responsible government. However, it remains something the UK Government could – and should - choose to remove as a risk and a cost today.

Secondly, the Prime Minister must write to the EU immediately, requesting an extension to the Article 50 process.

This will require unanimous agreement among the EU 27. But, given the scale of the defeat last night it surely must be inconceivable for the Prime Minister to simply attempt “one more heave”.

More time is needed but that time has to be used to a productive end, not just to try and save the PM’s face once again.

However if that motion fails then we will immediately step up our support for a second EU referendum.

The Scottish Government is clear that the best outcome is to remain in the EU. A second referendum with “remain” on the ballot paper is an opportunity for that to happen and for the wishes of the people of Scotland to be respected.

And the third key step is for the UK Government, or a Parliament now controlled by its members, to bring forward a proposal to legislate for a second EU Referendum.

Preferably that should be the motion that the UK Government brings forward by next Monday.    

As UK parliamentarians cannot agree on any outcome of the Brexit process which would be best for the country, they must, as a matter of democracy, return to the people. And if that return cannot be in the form of an election, it must be in another referendum, and one based on the full knowledge of what leaving the EU actually entails and rigorously policed against over spending and illegal interference.

Holding a second EU referendum will take time. Legislation would be required in parliament, alongside consideration of the question and preparations by the electoral commission, before a formal campaign period takes place. And the interaction with the European Parliament elections in May will need to be addressed.

The First Minister will be making all these points today. She will make them to the Prime Minister at a JMC Plenary, if the PM calls such a meeting.  

Finally, Presiding Officer, I want to conclude on a more positive vision of the future. Because through all the chaos and uncertainty there is in Westminster now, there is also an opportunity to shine a light through that and persuade the country of a better, brighter, alternative.

Scotland has for many centuries enjoyed a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with our European neighbours. A proud European nation, for the past four decades we have been an active and committed member of the European project. 

Membership of the EU has enriched Scotland and indeed the whole of the UK.

Individuals, businesses and communities have gained from the ability to live, study, work, trade and travel across the 28 Member States, and membership of the world’s largest single market – extending to 32 countries - is a fundamental part of our economy.

Let us not forget, that at 500 million people, the single market is eight times the size of the UK.

In return, we have shared our expertise and leadership in areas ranging from progressive social policies, which improve the wellbeing of citizens, to innovation, contributing to world leading efforts in science and technology.

Free movement of people, particularly important to Scotland, helps address skills gaps and deal with an ageing population.

In total, more than 230,000 people from other countries in the European Union now live, work and study in Scotland. They contribute to the diversity of our culture, the prosperity of our economy, and the strength of our society.

For, Presiding Officer, the EU is not just about jobs and the economy. It is not merely an “economists club”.

Membership of the EU is about solidarity and shared values. We have seen that in how Ireland has been buttressed and supported by the other member states in its essential demands .

We on the other hand have been left isolated and ignored by the other member of this so called “precious union”.

I am ready to make that case passionately and proudly in a second EU referendum, and to contrast it with the Prime Minister’s deal which will only leave this country and its people impoverished.

So in closing let me call on all parties in this chamber – each of which campaigned to remain in 2016 – to hold to their principles and first of all to support the plan laid out by the First Minister and then to join with her and me and this Government to make the positive case for EU membership for Scotland .


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