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European Union Withdrawal Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

We now know that the Scottish Conservatives will be fighting the next election under the slogan “Obey Mrs May”.

That may not do them much good, but it is the only thing that works for them. I look forward to seeing that slogan on endless posters, perhaps with a picture of a Dalek. That would go down particularly well.

The bulk of the debate has been a very useful contribution from the Scottish Parliament, and there has been a very useful contribution from the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. Its debate is just coming to an end, as well. I am glad to say that, this afternoon, Mark Drakeford sent me a message that he wanted me to use at the start of my contribution. I shall do so. He said:

“We have seen many remarkable days in the last three months, but today is another one. It is the first time in the 20 year history of devolution that two Parliaments—ours and yours—are simultaneously debating the same motion.

This is a sign of the seriousness of the threat which faces Wales, Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom. The threat of a no deal outcome after nearly two years of painful and—on the UK side—incompetent negotiations. We must together send an unequivocal message that this threat can and must be averted.”

As the Parliament and the Assembly have been debating that unprecedented threat to them, there has been the leak of a letter in Northern Ireland from David Sterling, the head of the Northern Irish civil service, who has warned the parties in Northern Ireland of “grave” consequences that could have a “long-lasting” effect on society in the Province.

In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is an acute sense of the pending disaster that is Brexit, and members have reflected on that in the debate. There have been many good contributions, but I want to mention that of Jenny Gilruth, who reminded us of Edwin Morgan’s poem in 2004, and Daniel Johnson’s passionate defence of Europe. Like him, I am motivated by a strong pro-European sense. I identify as a European, as he does. He brought that to the chamber. Alasdair Allan gave a customarily original speech. I also want to mention the contributions of Keith Brown and Bob Doris, who referred to the European reference networks. I have met representatives of those networks, and they are very worried about the effect on rare disease research and co-ordination right across Europe. I know that my friend the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has written to the UK Government about that particular issue.

I do not often quote Neil Findlay with approval, but I will do so today. He made the point very effectively to Jackson Carlaw and his colleagues. I will paraphrase what he said: what will happen with Brexit is what often happens—the rich will take the profit and the poor will take the blame. Jackson Carlaw will not be queuing up for medicines; it will be our constituents.

This afternoon, we heard—certainly from one party—a most extraordinary defence of the indefensible, and I will spend a little bit of time examining why. I find it hard to understand the position of the Scottish Conservatives. When they look at the evidence around them, what do they think is actually happening? Businesses large and small are saying that Brexit is a disaster. This very afternoon, Willie Walsh, the head of British Airways, said that the way in which the UK Government has behaved on Brexit has been “shocking”.

EU nationals are in distress. Jackson Carlaw mentioned Mrs Macdonald, but an endless number of people who are in real distress about this situation come to my surgeries. We heard similar accounts from Jenny Gilruth and others. We know of UK citizens living in other countries who are in equal distress.

We know that medicines are being stockpiled and that there are threats to food supplies. As the First Minister said in her opening speech, preparations are being made that are unprecedented in peacetime.

We know, as Alex Cole-Hamilton said, that the UK Government is an international laughing stock. Indeed,

The New York Times

, reflecting on Chris Grayling, said that he even exceeded the norm in what it described as “a golden age” of ministerial incompetence—that is a leading American newspaper commenting on the Conservatives in Government.

We know that the economic projections are all bad. We know that the House of Commons is paralysed and that the Conservative Party is deeply split. We know that there is unprecedented co-operation between the Parliaments of these islands and even between the parties in this chamber. Again and again, the Conservatives are isolated.

We know that the EU27 are refusing to budge on the withdrawal agreement—that is obvious. When the Attorney General arrived in Brussels this afternoon, he said, “there’s always hope”. That is not much of a negotiating stance, is it?

We need only to have the evidence from our own eyes to know that the Scottish Conservative members are deeply uncomfortable. They are trying to justify the unjustifiable. We heard all those fine words about democracy, but they are not trying to preserve democracy; they are trying to preserve their party.

Donald Cameron upbraided me for quoting Burke and claimed that, in quoting Burke during a previous debate, I rejected the people’s vote and its result. I suggest that Mr Cameron might want to go back and read Burke. He probably reads him more often than I do, because Burke was a leading conservative theorist—indeed, the latest book on his political thought comes from a Tory minister, Jesse Norman.

Burke always argued that representatives are more than ciphers. I thought that that was a Tory position, until the Tories got hung up on the Brexit referendum. In 1774, when Burke wrote his letter to the electors of Bristol—which contained the quote that Mr Cameron objected to—he was about to become their MP. In 1779, five years later, Burke was about to stop being their MP, but he continued to reflect on his duty. In his final letter to the electors in Bristol, he said that a representative

“is in parliament to support his opinion of the public good, and does not form his opinion in order to get into parliament, or to continue in it.”

The latter is what we have seen with the Conservatives. They backed a referendum because they want to stay in power in London, no matter the cost.

Why are the Scottish Conservatives defending the indefensible? From what I have seen over the past few years, I suggest that there are three things that the Scottish Conservatives are trying to avoid. The first thing is their own powerlessness. Just as the Prime Minister and her cabinet have no respect for this chamber, they have no respect for the Scottish Conservatives. The Scottish Conservatives do not reckon in the annals of conservatism elsewhere, but they do not want to recognise that, so they shout all the louder for Brexit.

The situation also makes them confront an uncomfortable truth about what has happened in devolution. What has happened in Scotland and in Wales is a divergence. There has been a political divergence between the way in which Scotland and Wales operate and govern and what is happening in the complete mess at Westminster. They do not want to confront that, because many of them still aspire to go to Westminster—we have seen them come and go here. They are elected into the Scottish Parliament and the noblest prospect that they see is to go somewhere else. They do not want to confront that. [


.] I notice a number of them shouting that that is not the case. They are the ones—