The political and economic landscape in the wake of June’s Brexit vote is one that could scarcely have been imagined just a few short months ago. There is no doubt that the responsibility for the considerable uncertainty we now face lies with those who advocated a referendum, but who spent next to no time planning for the scale of the challenges and difficulties that a vote to leave the EU would deliver.
The situation we now find ourselves in demands cool heads and clear thinking. I have made clear that Scotland — which voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe — must be able to secure a continuing close relationship with Europe, including membership of the single market. The Scottish government will bring forward detailed proposals on how that might be achieved, and we will submit those as part of the UK-wide process to prepare for the triggering of Article 50.
At the same time, I have made clear that Scotland must be able to consider independence if it becomes clear that it is the best or the only way of protecting our interests. The draft referendum bill published for consultation last week is designed to allow that choice to be made, if necessary, before the UK leaves the EU.
It is worth repeating the political backdrop to Scotland’s place in the Brexit narrative: every single part of Scotland voted to remain in Europe, but a Conservative UK government, with just one MP in Scotland, is now threatening to remove us from the EU. That is not democratically acceptable so the approach I have outlined is aimed at ensuring Scotland’s voice is respected and its economic and social interests protected.
And, while I accept that there is a mandate to take England and Wales out of the EU, I do not accept there is any such mandate to take any part of the UK out of the single market. The manifesto on which the Conservatives won a majority at the 2015 general election could not have been clearer. It said: “We say Yes to the single market.”
The pursuit of a hard Brexit by some in the UK government is as unwarranted politically as it is ill advised economically. And the growing number of voices against this has opened the door to the possibility of a cross party coalition to avert a hard Brexit for the UK as a whole. The Scottish National party will be part of that coalition.
But, in addition to the discussion about hard and soft Brexit, a debate has begun about another variety: “flexible” Brexit in which different parts of the UK, or different sectors of the British economy, would take advantage of continuing single market membership and close association with EU trading partners.
The City of London has strong advocates determined that it should not lose its status as a pre-eminent financial hub — and, of course, the financial services sector is also hugely important to Scotland. Others argue that the car industry should have special arrangements to protect manufacturers like Nissan in Sunderland. The government has seemingly not closed its mind to such special deals, and rightly so.
But if it is prepared to countenance such arrangements for different sectors, there is no reason for it not to consider a flexible Brexit for different nations and regions, too, particularly for those parts of the UK that voted decisively to remain in Europe. It will be in this spirit that, in the next few weeks, I will put forward specific proposals to keep Scotland in the single market, even if the rest of the UK leaves.
These are just some of the issues I plan to raise with Theresa May, the prime minister, when I meet her on Monday, along with leaders of other devolved administrations.
Mrs May has already given me a direct undertaking, at a meeting in Edinburgh in her first few days in office, that she is prepared to consider any proposals we put forward to protect Scotland’s interests and our place in Europe. It is important that she keeps her word on that. She must recognise that Scotland is no mere consultee on Brexit, but instead a full and equal partner in the UK negotiations.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.