More Holyrood posturing, but no positive alternatives for Brexit

More Holyrood posturing, but no positive alternatives for Brexit

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 8, December, 2018

WHATEVER VIEW one takes of the Prime Minister’s agreed deal with the EU27 on Brexit, it is at least a substantial proposal which aims to deliver on the result of the EU Referendum, whilst maintaining important trading links with a major economic partner. Those who are against the EU Withdrawal Agreement are quite entitled to criticise it, but they really have to tell us what they would replace it with. And, given that the EU27 have clearly stated that it is this deal, or no deal, they have to be able to persuade us that their alternative could be agreed across Europe.

All these matters featured in Wednesday’s debate in the Scottish Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement. An unholy alliance between the SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens was formed around a Motion condemning Theresa May’s deal, and calling for “a better alternative”. But what became clear during the debate is that there is no consensus whatsoever on what this alternative should be.

The Liberal Democrats support a so-called “People’s Vote”, seemingly taking the view that if there is a referendum where they don’t like the result, it should simply be re-run until they get the result they want. That is neither liberal, not democratic.

Nor is it clear to see how, in practice, a second referendum would work. There are now at least four options on the table, it seems: the Withdrawal Agreement, a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, some other deal (as yet undefined), or cancelling Brexit altogether and remaining in the EU. How it would be possible to run a referendum to get a clear result where there would have to be at least four options on the ballot paper is a total mystery. 

Sadly, rather than try and answer these questions, the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament preferred to ally themselves with the SNP in a pointless exercise in constitutional grandstanding. So much for being Unionists.

The Labour position was little better. Labour MSPs were happy to act as Nicola Sturgeon’s little helpers, backing up the SNP in opposition to the UK Conservative government. But there is no clarity whatsoever what the Labour position is.

Listening to Labour speakers in Wednesday’s debate, not one was able to tell us where exactly the Labour Party stood. Only at the end of the debate did their Europe spokesman, Neil Findlay, offer some principles that would guide how an alternative deal would be framed, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this would be acceptable to the EU27.

Labour are simply playing politics with the issue, with a sole focus on trying to force another General Election. They seem happy to make alliance on the issue with the SNP, backing up the Nationalists’ grievance agenda, but have nothing positive to offer.

The SNP politicians have at least been clear, in that they would prefer if Brexit did not proceed. But the case has not been helped by their Constitution Secretary, Michael Russell, who has been less than sure-footed in his public statements.

Russell was denouncing the Withdrawal Agreement even before he had a chance to read it. Within 23 minutes of its publication, an impossible period in which to digest more than 580 pages of detailed legal text, the Constitution Secretary was denouncing it as a bad deal.

He was then claiming that the Withdrawal Agreement was a betrayal of Scotland’s fishermen, at the same time as the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation were making it clear that they had a different view, stating “the facts are these: under the Brexit deal as it stands we will be out of the CFP, we will become an independent coastal state”.

If that were not bad enough, Mr Russell then became the self-appointed defender of the interests of the people of Gibraltar, slamming the Withdrawal Agreement as a betrayal of their interests too. Curiously, and unfortunately for Russell, at more or less exactly the same time the First Minister of Gibraltar, Fabien Picardo, was issuing a statement welcoming the Prime Minister’s defence of that territory.

So we have an SNP Constitution Secretary who denounces a deal before he has even digested it, who believes that he knows better than Scotland’s fishermen what is in their interests, and who thinks that he is closer to the interests of the people of Gibraltar than their own elected First Minister.

The reality is that the SNP’s stance on Brexit is all about one issue: trying to stir up constitutional grievance, in an attempt to shift public opinion in favour of a second independence referendum. It is a pity that so-called Unionists in the Liberal Democrats and Labour have gone along with them.

In contrast there have been other voices across Scotland calling for support for the Withdrawal Agreement. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, the Scotch Whisky Association, and leading business figures like Sir Ian Wood, have all called for backing for the Prime Minister. I believe we should take our lead from them.

If MPs do what the SNP say, and vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, there is a real danger that this hastens us towards a ‘No Deal’ Brexit with all the consequences that will have for our country. And if we do end up in that situation, it will be the SNP, backed up by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who will have to take responsibility for that outcome. 

Political posturing is the stock and trade of the Nationalists, but on this occasion the consequences may well be severe.

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