– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

4. I was pleased that, yesterday, four parties in this Parliament put aside their differences in order to oppose Brexit. I was also pleased that this Parliament has backed the people’s vote. The Prime Minister’s deal faces certain defeat next week and I have never felt more confident that we can stop Brexit. Therefore, I was disappointed last night to see the Scottish National Party leader in Westminster arguing for the Irish backstop to be extended to Scotland—that is the discredited Irish backstop from Theresa May’s discredited Brexit deal. Can the First Minister assure me that that is not the policy of the Scottish Government?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Yet again, I will try in very simple terms to explain to Willie Rennie the Brexit position of the Scottish Government and the SNP. I say this more in sorrow than in anger, given that Willie Rennie and I agree on the issue of Brexit, but it is regrettable that he keeps trying to find points of disagreement when it would be more powerful for us just to come together and unequivocally agree.

Like Willie Rennie, I would prefer that Brexit does not happen. I want Scotland and the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. The only difference between us is that, if the rest of the UK decides to go ahead and leave the EU, I think that Scotland should still have the right not to be dragged out of the EU against our will, which, of course, is a right that we would have if we were an independent country.

However, with the responsibilities of Government that I have, I must also contemplate how we protect Scotland if the UK leaves the EU and drags Scotland out with it. That is why I have always said that, in those circumstances, if we are in the realms of looking for the least worst options, staying in the single market and customs union falls into that category. I have argued that case consistently for two years. That does not take away from the fact that I would much rather that the whole of the UK stayed in the European Union.

We know why the Irish backstop is in place. I hope that that backstop is not activated because, like Willie Rennie, I hope that we now have an opportunity to reverse Brexit. However, if it is activated, the worst possible situation for Scotland to be in would be for us to be at a competitive disadvantage with Northern Ireland. That is why we need to have at least the same relationship with the single market and customs union that Northern Ireland is going to have.

Anybody in any doubt about that only had to listen to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in Belfast at the end of last week, saying that the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal gave Northern Ireland—I think that I am directly quoting her here—an “unrivalled” advantage in attracting foreign direct investment. That is the risk to Scotland in a nutshell. To summarise—I know that I am taking too long, Presiding Officer—we want to stay in the EU but, if that cannot be achieved, we want to see solutions that do the least damage to Scotland. Surely Willie Rennie can agree with that.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The First Minister might want to try to explain all that to her Westminster leader. She should not try to ride both horses. We have the Conservatives on the run—even the Tories do not agree with the Tories in this chamber. We should not be hunting for a compromise that has already been discredited.

Every kind of Brexit will damage the economy. That is why we should be opposing every kind of Brexit. I am frustrated that I need to keep raising this issue with the First Minister. I know that she wants to be reasonable, but how is it possible to be reasonable when it puts jobs at risk? I plead with the First Minister to reject all and every kind of Brexit.

The First Minister:

Again, I say that I oppose all and every kind of Brexit. I do not want Brexit to happen; I want Scotland and the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. Where I would agree with Willie Rennie is that I think that there is a greater prospect of achieving that aim now than there has appeared to be at any other time over the past two and a half years, which is why the SNP will do everything that it can to bring that about. However,

Willie Rennie describes me as riding both horses but—do you know what?—when you are First Minister, you work out how to protect Scotland’s best interests in all possible circumstances. If we cannot keep the UK in the EU, I have an obligation—which I accept that Willie Rennie does not have—to look at what will then best protect Scotland’s interests. If he cannot see that, that is perhaps a very good reason why everybody hopes that he will never be standing here as First Minister.

Finally, it surely cannot escape Willie Rennie’s notice that the only reason why we are standing here at all having these discussions is that Scotland finds itself possibly being taken out of the EU against its will. That would not be possible if Scotland were an independent country. Whatever the outcome of this Brexit process—and we both hope that it ends with us staying in the EU—if Willie Rennie wants to make sure that Scotland never faces this prospect again, the sooner he backs independence for Scotland, the better.

The Presiding Officer:

There are still a number of supplementaries. We are probably not going to get through very many, but we will try.