Scotland seeks a life raft in Brexit's stormy seas

The unwillingness of the UK government to compromise on Brexit may leave Scotland with no choice but to seek independence, writes Stephen Gethins.

Scotland seeks a life raft in Brexit's stormy seas | Photo credit: Flickr

By Stephen Gethins

17 Feb 2017

Earlier this month, UK law makers looked into the Brexit abyss and decided to jump in. In an act of extraordinary foolhardiness, the UK Parliament decided to hand the British government a blank cheque for its forthcoming negotiations with the European Union.

The refusal of the legislature to hold the executive to account was striking. The final vote earlier this month to approve the bill triggering article 50 sailed through the Westminster Parliament - without amendment - just two weeks after it had been introduced. 

As one of my Scottish National Party colleagues pointed out, no bill has received less parliamentary scrutiny since the defence of the realm act was passed in 1914, giving the British government wide ranging powers during World War One. The irony appears to have been lost on the government.


The decision to take the UK out of the European Union is the worst political decision in generations. 

There is little solace to be gained from the good people of the United States deciding to save the UK's blushes by perhaps making a worse political decision in 2016 - though of course they can change their minds in four years' time. 

However, as with the failure by Labour and Conservative MPs to scrutinise the UK government last week, the blame for the decision to take the UK out of the EU rests not with the people, but with the Westminster political establishment.

The EU referendum campaign was narrowly focused on generalisations rather than serious debate and was often backed up by false information.

The UK public has had 40 years of UK politicians, of all political colours, describing the EU institutions as ones to be fought against in the national interest rather than praised for their successes. It is difficult to overturn that culture in the space of a short campaign. That should be a lesson for everyone in Europe.

I was proud that it was against this backdrop that 62 per cent of people in Scotland voted to remain part of the EU - a healthy margin in most EU states. Our commitment to the EU has been reinforced by 98.5 per cent of Scotland's Westminster MPs voting against triggering article 50 and the Scottish Parliament voting three to one against the move.

In spite of this Scottish pro-EU consensus, the Scottish government, just before Christmas, attempted to reach out to the UK government with a compromise solution in its publication 'Scotland's Place in Europe' which, while accepting the UK would leave the EU, envisioned the UK remaining part of the single market, much like Norway. 

That deal also sought to secure the rights of the millions of EU citizens living and working in the UK who contribute so much to our society.

That would have respected the vote of the UK as a whole to leave the EU, while giving some comfort to the 48 per cent who voted to remain (as well as to the large majorities to remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland). 

Despite the Scottish government's offer of a compromise, the least worst option, the UK government appears set on a disastrous 'hard Brexit' to appease the Conservative right and Ukip; both being, at best, fringe elements in Scottish politics.

The unwillingness of the UK government to compromise may leave Scotland with no option but to seek an independence referendum and restore sovereignty. That is not a decision that would be taken lightly, but one that might need to be taken to avoid the disastrous situation we would face outside of the EU. 

The Fraser of Allander Institute, based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has estimated that a 'hard Brexit' could cost 80,000 jobs in Scotland alone and estimates suggest Scots would more than €2000 a year worse off.

Leaving the EU is a self-inflicted wound on our economy and society which disrespects the constitutional set up in the UK. Unsurprisingly, independence is becoming increasingly attractive for many Scots, of all backgrounds.

Scotland has always had a close relationship with the rest of Europe. Back in 1296 when Scotland regained its independence, the first act of then-leader William Wallace was to write to members of the Hanseatic League, the EU of its day, informing our European partners that the nation was once again open for business. History has a habit of repeating itself.

Indeed when a Conservative colleague of mine at Westminster argued that "Brits never got Europe in the heart", I disagreed, highlighting that those of us in the north of the UK always have. The difference is we get Europe with both our heads and our hearts.