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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 Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, although, like many in the chamber, I wish that we did not have to have it. I find it deeply regrettable that we are in this situation. That our situation is regrettable was underscored for me yesterday when I visited St Benedict’s high school in Linwood, in my constituency. The young people I saw there are of a generation that will be deprived of opportunities and chances that my generation and preceding ones might have taken for granted. Nevertheless, when I engage with young people, I always seek to be positive and to discuss the future, regardless of the situations that we find ourselves in. Nothing affords that more than an opportunity to talk to a modern studies class.

Yesterday, when I spoke to the modern studies class in St Benedict’s high school, I was asked a range of questions, some of the which were about my personal background and some of which were about matters as trivial as the names of my pugs. However, one question floored me. I am often asked what the responsibilities of an MSP are and I am able to list them, but this time I was asked, “What is your biggest responsibility as an MSP?” That gave me pause for thought. What is the biggest responsibility of an MSP—we who are privileged to sit and stand at these desks in our national Parliament, who might be here for only a fleeting period?

I do not want to sound too grandiose in saying this, but I believe that our biggest responsibility is the duty to preserve and strengthen democracy, particularly as we find ourselves, at the end of this decade, in a world in which populism and even extremism are rearing their ugly features, whether we are talking about Trump in the United States, the Front National in France, Alternative für Deutschland or the regimes that are currently in power in Poland and Hungary and the groups that are menacing democracies elsewhere across the continent.

When members of all parties speak of the importance of respecting the result in 2016, I take that very seriously. It is a well-made point. However, it is also a point that requires further discussion and debate. First, we have to ask ourselves why people voted to leave. Why did more than 17 million people in the UK—a majority in England, a majority in Wales and more than a third of our fellow Scots—choose to vote leave? I think that people did that for a number of reasons, but I suspect that only a very small number did it for ideological reasons in that they imagined the UK taking the role of a Hong Kong on steroids in the mid-Atlantic, as a buccaneering free-trade state. I also think that only a very small minority voted leave because they thought that regulations that are made in Europe impinge on their lives in a negative way. Rather, I believe that the driver of much of the leave vote, particularly in many communities in England, was the gross and entrenched economic and geographical inequalities that exist throughout the UK, with jobs lost over decades to globalisation and automation. There was also the persistent scapegoating of immigration by the right-wing tabloid press.

Legitimate and genuine sentiments of anger and frustration were hijacked and manipulated by a class of—frankly—Tory ideologues at Westminster, who have never reconciled themselves to the loss of an empire that predates their own births. That idea has been brilliantly explored and written about by the Irish writer and commentator Fintan O’Toole. What were people voting for if not for ideological purity or for the return of empire? I believe that, for many, it was about frustration. They wanted to send a message that they were tired of the inequality that persists in many parts of the UK and wanted something different. For those people, it was a vote for hope, as was the case for people who voted for Trump. I disagree with those people and I do not think that their vote will deliver what they wanted, but I accept that it was a vote for something. If we fail to understand that, we are in danger of not being able to address the fundamental issues and drivers that led people to vote leave.