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Since Brexit is close enough now to qualify for its own grim advent calendar, let me put this as nicely as I can to the Tories: Brexit is now just 24 sleeps away.
After almost three years of self-evisceration, the UK Government will now ask Westminster to back a damaging deal—an astonishing 17 days before Brexit is scheduled to happen. To use a vivid Scots expression, Theresa May’s deal has been sewit wi a het needle an a burnin threid.
Article 50 must now be extended to prevent a no-deal departure and bring the issue back to the people. No deal—which some Brexiteers still talk of as if it can be briskly and harmlessly achieved by gunboat—would have consequences across Scotland, not least in my constituency. As much as 24 per cent of the workforce of the Western Isles is employed in sectors that are considered to be most exposed to the effects of no deal.
Analysis from the chief economic adviser to the Scottish Government shows that a no-deal Brexit would lead to a 10 to 20 per cent drop in exports, £1 billion less investment in 2019 and a 10 to 30 per cent depreciation in the pound. The UK Government has failed to offer a single meaningful assurance to any of those businesses.
As the First Minister said today, the Scottish Government has sought to find compromises to protect Scotland’s interests all the way through this sorry process. It was depressing to hear again today the idea of compromise being dismissed by the Conservatives. There is an obvious lesson about what happens when another Government makes Scotland’s decisions for it—and there are, of course, obvious remedies.
In my constituency, a restaurant owner has been in touch to say that rising food prices are already impacting on his business, an artist has written to me with concerns about customs arrangements and how they will affect exhibitions, and a cafe owner has expressed her worries about the costs that she could face in importing materials. Then there is the seafood industry, which is a major player in the Hebridean economy. The threat of post-Brexit export tariffs and border delays is causing very real concern for an industry that depends entirely on getting live shellfish to its primary export markets in France and Spain. Many crofters in my constituency ask me for the UK’s plans on agricultural subsidy beyond 2020. With barely three weeks to go to Brexit, I wish that I could write back to my constituents to give them reassuring answers to all those questions about what the UK Government’s plans are, but I cannot.
Last year, the Scottish Government made a series of modest proposals on immigration, which is another issue of vital importance to our economy and our society. The proposals were designed to overcome the risks posed to Scotland by our unique demographic situation. The memorable response from the UK Minister of State for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, was that she was not prepared to give the Scottish Parliament any powers that were not enjoyed by Lincolnshire County Council.
EU nationals should never have been asked to pay a fee to stay in the country that they have made their own, and it is welcome news that the UK Government has finally listened to that. However, EU nationals should not be asked to apply for the rights that they already have anyway, and we now need clarity on whether the unrealistic deadline for those applications will also be scrapped. That entire story underlines exactly why Scotland needs the power to create a fairer immigration system.
I come back to my constituency. The Western Isles is a diverse and vibrant place. European nationals have settled there and made the islands their home. They have made an immense contribution to our culture and to our economy, and the uncertainty that they have been put through by the UK Government is scandalous. Removing freedom of movement will have an adverse effect on Scotland and, in particular, on island communities.