Alyn Smith: My entire day job is Scotland in Europe

Alyn Smith discusses the implications of Brexit, why he wants to become deputy leader of the Scottish National Party and why it's important that Scotland has eyes and ears in Europe.

Alyn Smith | Photo credit: David N. Anderson

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

27 Sep 2016

One of the most fascinating and constitutionally intriguing things to emerge from the UK's Brexit referendum in June was the result in Scotland. 

With 62 per cent of Scots voting to remain in the EU, Brexit may mean Brexit to those living south of the English/Scottish border, but in the post-referendum debate in pubs and cafés across Scotland, Brexit has taken on a more opaque meaning. 

"I think the UK is heading in a direction that Scotland just doesn't want to go in," says veteran Scots MEP Alyn Smith, adding,"I think that's terribly sad for the people of the UK."


The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) deputy, who just days following the Brexit vote received a standing ovation from MEPs after calling on them to, "not let Scotland down", has thrown his hat in the ring to become deputy SNP leader under Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Smith says he considered standing for the post, only after the Brexit result. 

"As the implications of what Brexit actually means emerge from the fog, I think there will be a lot of people in Scotland, particularly those of us on the left, who will conclude that the best way we are going to remain part of an internationalist and progressive set up such as the European Union will be as an independent Scotland."

For Smith, the "utterly flawed premise" of the Leave campaign that the UK will rip itself out of the single market, that freedom of movement is a problem "is simply a politic that I reject". He says the idea that the people of Scotland face being taken out of the EU against their will astounds him. 

"I'm agog on a daily basis at the extent to which they don't seem to have been prepared or have any knowledge of the proposition that they put before the British electorate. Regardless of Remain or Leave, the numbers are massive on whether you think the people of Scotland should decide this or whether the people of the UK should decide it."

But can Scotland, a constituent part of the UK, actually negotiate a separate deal to remain within the EU? Smith thinks so. "The myriad of constitutional issues within the UK that have been thrown up into the air by Brexit are only just starting to become apparent. There's only so much clarity that Edinburgh can give in this. 

"We've worked out what our interest is; it's to remain within the single market, all the four freedoms, that's our starting point, so let's look at the proposition that London will eventually put forward, and see if it works or not. I think all things are possible. 

"Short term we need to remain engaged, we have to remain vocal, we need to make sure that Scotland does not go silent and we need to make sure that everyone remembers that Scotland wants something different out of this process, now what that something is remains to be seen but we are going through the gears on this. We are looking at European status; we're looking at one state, two systems."

With a possible second independence vote for Scotland looming on the horizon, Smith says he believes that what was missing from the narrow 2014 referendum defeat was a focus on Europe. 

Too much of the focus of that campaign came through the prisms of London and Edinburgh, he believes. "One of the reasons I'm standing for the deputy leadership post is to underline the fact that the duopoly within politics is not Westminster and Edinburgh, it's Westminster and Brussels and Holyrood. 

"We want to see Scotland in Europe, not Scotland in the UK, but in 2014 there were a lot of people across the EU who didn't get the why of Scottish independence and we need to better prepare the ground for whatever is going to be in Scotland's future. That may be independence; that may be an enhanced status within the EU; it might be all sorts of things."

Smith says that he and his SNP colleague, Ian Hudghton are reaching out to "friends" within the European Parliament.

"Scotland is expecting something different from the Brexit process and we need to prepare the ground for that. We need to explain what's going on in Scottish politics to our European friends, not via London."

So how important is it for Scotland to have eyes and ears outside of the UK at this moment in time? "I think it's a game changer and for me it's the big lesson of the 2014 independence referendum. 

"We put forward an absolutely bullet-proof European scenario, but we didn't get out to the member states to explain it. That's an admission of failure on my part as well, as I likewise took the view that the primary argument was domestic."

This is why Smith says he's offering his services as deputy SNP leader, to act as a free roaming ambassador for Scotland, to go out and explain to Europe's media, politicians and decision-makers at individual member state level. 

"To talk about what Scotland is actually looking for and what Scotland is all about. It was one of the weaknesses of the 2014 campaign that there were few people we could point to as being supportive. 

"We need to invest time and energy and I can maintain that focus in reaching out to and speaking to member state capitals, to explain that a European Union with Scotland could actually be a good news story."

Smith adds, "Is it entirely beyond the realms of possibility that England and Wales could move to say some sort of Channel Islands scenario, while Northern Ireland (56 per cent supported remaining in the EU), Gibraltar and Scotland remain more or less where we are. It's not going to be pretty but I think there are solutions to be found."

And he argues smaller states do well on international law, multilateralism and international development, "because we lack the delusion that bigger states have that we can somehow go it alone. 

"Scotland would fit right into an axis of cooperation that goes from Ireland to Iceland to Norway and Sweden and to Denmark and Finland. There's a clear axis into which Scotland fits. There is a democratic mandate for some sort of different outcome for Scotland, whatever that is going to be."

The result of the SNP deputy leadership election will be announced on October 13 at the party's conference in Glasgow. With 43 hustings nationwide, the Scottish public have certainly seen and heard plenty from the 43 year old. 

"By the end of the hustings process I'll probably have spoken to the best part of 5000 people. But I love the out-and-about aspect of the job and I do think this is a unique moment. 

"Were it not for the position of where we're going to be with Brexit I wouldn't be putting myself forward because I don't think I would have had a unique selling point, but I do think that for the challenges ahead I do have a distinctive proposition."

Smith says his "pitch" is that for now the European question is so fundamental that making him the party's deputy would demonstrates to the people of Scotland that the SNP are taking the European question seriously. 

"As we contemplate whatever Brexit is, my entire day-job is Scotland in Europe. My entire day job is representing Scotland within the wider world, my entire constituency duties are Scotland in Europe, so I'm not tied to a particular constituency or to any institution in Scotland, so I can travel the length and breadth of the country. 

"I've done more work with the grass roots in more places than pretty much anybody given that my constituency is the whole of Scotland. There's not that many of us with the role that I have."

He says his time in Brussels places him in a unique position. "In terms of explaining to the EU, in explaining to member state capitals what's going on I am in a position to travel in a way that others aren't, I'm in a position to reach out to MEPs, to the institutions within Brussels in ways that few others can and I think that is what the cause of Scotland and the party needs right now. 

"The 751 MEPs are a formidable network that we can call upon for introductions and advice. There are also the contacts that I've built up over 13 years in the European Parliament, I know a lot of people and I'm in a position to promote Scotland's corner. 

"We don't know what Scotland's future is going to be, but we do know that Bratislava, Ljubljana, Lisbon and Tallinn are all going to have votes on whatever it is, so if we are looking for a different status, something else beyond Brexit, then we need to make sure we have our European allies on side."