- 28 Mar 2017
Last week this debate came to a halt in the worst of circumstances.
Almost one week on, our thoughts remain with those affected by the London atrocity.
It is worth reflecting today perhaps how we all felt last week.
In our shock and sadness, we were reminded of our common humanity and the core values that unite us.
And we came together to proclaim our commitment to that most cherished principle of all – democracy.
Today's debate – at its heart – is about democracy.
It is about the right of people in Scotland to choose our own future.
And, in itself, it is a demonstration of democracy in action.
Elected representatives – with different but passionately held views – expressing those differences through robust, sometimes very robust discussion.
Ours is a privileged position.
We have a responsibility to rise to it.
It is the example we set here in this Chamber that many across our country will follow. So let us make sure it is the right one.
Let us recognise and accept that we are all sincere in the opinions we hold.
Let us always remind ourselves that the person on the other side of the debate is not an enemy – simply someone with a different but still a valid point of view.
None of us come to this debate with anything other than the best of intentions and best of motivations.
We all want the best for Scotland.
So let us today, as we resume this debate, heed the words of the Church of Scotland when it tells us that there is nothing inevitable about this debate – or any debate – being divisive.
That depends on how we conduct it – not just today, but in the months ahead.
The Church called for a debate 'which informs and inspires, and not one which derides and dismisses'.
My resolve – in seeking to lead by example – is to conduct myself in a spirit of openness, honesty, respect and understanding.
I hope others across the Chamber will join me in that.
Presiding Officer, it is not my intention to rehash all of the arguments I made in opening this debate last week.
There are however two points I do want to make.
Firstly, I want to remind us why this debate matters.
Scotland – like the rest of the UK – stands at a crossroads.
When Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered tomorrow, change for our country becomes inevitable.
We don't yet know the exact nature of that change. Much will depend on the outcome of the negotiation that lies ahead.
But we do know that the change will be significant and profound.
It is change that will impact on our economy – not just in the here and now, but for the long term.
It was the UK Treasury, ahead of the referendum last year, that said Brexit would make the UK 'permanently poorer'.
There will be an impact on trade, investment and on living standards, and on the very nature of our society we live in.
Much that we have taken for granted over most of my lifetime – the freedom to travel easily across Europe, for example – is now up for negotiation, with outcomes that are deeply uncertain.
My argument is simply this:
When the nature of the change that is made inevitable by Brexit becomes clear, it should not be imposed upon us.
We should have the right to decide the nature of that change.
The people of Scotland should have the right to choose between Brexit – possibly a very hard Brexit – or becoming an independent country, able to chart our own course and create a true partnership of equals across these islands.
If we accept – as I hope we all do – that Scotland has the right to decide our own future, the question then becomes one of timing. When is it best to make that choice?
We are all agreed that now is not the time.
In my view, the time to choose is when the terms of Brexit are clear – and can be judged against the challenges and opportunities of becoming an independent country.
The Prime Minister was crystal clear with me yesterday that she intends the terms of Brexit, both the exit terms and the UK's future relationship with the EU, to be known before the UK leaves and in time for ratification by other EU countries – in other words, sometime between the autumn of next year and the spring of 2019.
I am equally clear about the responsibility I have to ensure that the detail of independence is set out well in advance, in order that the people of Scotland can make a truly informed choice.
To enable that choice, the Scottish and UK governments require to make certain preparations now.
Which leads me, finally, to the question of how I intend to respond should Parliament pass the motion later today.
It is not my intention to do so confrontationally. Instead, I only seek sensible discussion.
In recognition of the importance and significance of tomorrow, I will not do so until later this week – after the triggering of Article 50.
Yesterday, I wished the PM well for both tomorrow and the negotiations that lie ahead. And I assured her that the Scottish Government will play as full and constructive a role as she is willing to allow.
Let me be clear. I want the UK to get a good deal from these negotiations – whatever path Scotland takes in the future – that is in our interests.
I simply want Scotland to have a choice when the time is right.
So, I hope that the UK Government will respect the will of this Parliament.
If it does so, I will enter discussion in good faith and willingness to compromise.
However, if it chooses not to do so, I will return to Parliament after the Easter recess to set out the steps the Scottish Government will take to progress the will of Parliament.
Presiding Officer, when the Prime Minister formally starts the process of leaving the European Union tomorrow, none of us should be in any doubt about what is at stake.
The next two years will determine what kind of country we are going to be.
The European Commission, the European Parliament and 28 governments, informed by their national parliaments, will all have a say.
The people of Scotland must also have their say.
Scotland's future should be in Scotland's hands.
That is what this debate is about – the future of our country.
How we best harness our potential as a country and overcome the challenges we face.
It is a debate that should engage all of us, whatever our views.
So let us start today as we mean to go on – positively, passionately and respectfully.
I commend the motion.
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The Scottish Government
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