Scotland’s Brexit Minister Michael Russell’s address to SNP conference

Below is the full speech given by Scotland’s Brexit Minister Michael Russell to the SNP conference in Aberdeen. Check against delivery. 

Let me start with a word for some people in this audience – and there will be some – who either voted for Brexit two years ago, or who felt some sympathy for those who chose to do so.

Particularly important that we as a party understand that some of our fellow party members did so and particularly important here in the North East.

Knowledge of how people see us and the issues we are passionate about very important in producing change, and especially the changes we seek in order to make Scotland a normal national again.

Of course, some of those who supported Brexit in 2016 have already changed their minds. They are, we know, united with previous Remainers in horror as they watch the idiocy, the incompetence, the duplicity and the disarray of the so called “leading Brexiteers” like the sleekit Gove.

They now know – as we all now know – that the last thing it could or would do is deliver benefits for the ordinary people of Scotland.

But we should – and indeed must – recognise that even despite the dawning of cold, clear reality as the Brexit process has continued some people still believe that leaving the EU can produce benefit despite the chaos.

And some are reasonable people…though you would never use that description for Boris Johnson. They want, for example, the absolute and complete control of our fishing waters to be delivered. They have been told that the abolition of state aids will produce more help for failing industries and they want that too. And the think that the relaxation of environmental rules could produce more jobs and opportunities in rural areas, though the opposite is true.

They continue to be assured that there is a pot of gold at the end of the trading rainbow, wherever that might be. And – most amazingly of all – that there is, despite all the evidence, some plan which can in the end produce that nonexistent thing, a “good Brexit”.

But fellow delegates, here is the truth…. there can’t beans there isn’t such a thing. Because Brexit is bound to cause damage to our economy, to our society and to our countries. The only real issue is the scale of that damage and how much it can be mitigated.

And “good Brexit” couldn’t ever be delivered by anyone even if – as the Tories desperately want – the Scottish Government gave up on its principled support for European co-operation or abandoned its defence of the Scottish Parliament, or even if I could, in the words of a journalist recently just get over my “Euro fanaticism”.

The ability to have a “good Brexit” is a fiction that the Tories want you to believe. It is as impossible as a vow of silence from Boris Johnson.

But fellow delegates, you don’t need me to tell you that when the Tories want Scotland to believe something alarm bells should start ringing in your head very loudly indeed.

Because the only people who will benefit from what the Tories want, is the Tories themselves.

Have no doubt that making Scotland flourish isn’t in their interest. It isn’t on their agenda. And it isn’t going to happen with them in charge.

Because Brexit isn’t about Scotland. It isn’t even about Britain. It is about the Tories. And it is being used by the Tories – north and south of the border – to attack Scotland and our vision of Scotland – a civic, constructive, positive, outward looking vision.

Brexit is now all about keeping the Tories in power, no matter what it takes. It is about their desire to take back control – for themselves.

Control not just of their borders, and their money and their laws. Control also of our borders, our money and our laws.

Control of our Parliament too – indeed handing control of our Parliament over to a minority in that Parliament, the Scottish Tories who could, and would, veto what the elected government and the overwhelming majority of that Parliament actually wanted.

For that is where we are heading. To a situation in which no matter how Scotland votes it is the Tories who get to decide.

Convener, Devolution has always been a delicate compromise that tiptoes round that particularly English legal view. Clearly, I would rather – and we would rather – live in the real modern world in which the people are sovereign; the world that not only reflects the Scottish legal tradition but the demands of democracy.

But until we move to that state of modern independence, we must be able to administer & operate the compromise of devolution. As, to be fair, all the parties the Scottish Parliament have done.

Now however, the Tories see that as a both a challenge and a threat, the more so because most of them in Government at Westminster don’t understand how it works and can’t be bothered to learn.

They just want to ignore it, as the Prime Minister did when she said in that constitutionally illiterate mantra “We joined the EU as one UK and we will leave as one UK” – ignoring 40 years of constitutional change and the existence of four nations within these islands.

But – perhaps even more importantly – to the Tories Devolution is also a barrier to the type of relationship with the world they desperately need post Brexit. One in which they can find at least a few countries with which to trade – to provide a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of having willfully and willingly left the world’s biggest free trade block and walked away from over 50 free trade treaties.

Convener, the Irish nationalist, writer and mystic George William Russell, AE as he was known, once observed that there was what he called a “Fundamental proposition” which stated that “whoever controls the taxation and trade policy of a country controls its destiny and the entire character of its civilization.”

The UK needs to control Scotland’s trade policy in order to ensure that treaties can be entered in areas which are vital for any potential trading partners; agriculture, fisheries and the environment in particular.

They are terrified that the devolved administrations will expect – and indeed demand – a legitimate say over those treaties and what it’s in them, as they must when such treaties may contain proposals that will undermine our agriculture, despoil our countryside and sideline our industry.

So “taking control” of those matters is a necessity for them if they are to be able to deliver any type of new relationship, no matter how poor and threadbare.

But “taking control”, as George William Russell rightly said, is about more than trade. What the UK Government wants to do is to oversee not just our present, but our future too. To take control of not just where we are, but where we want to go

And that is at heart what our dispute is all about. Not just the present difficulty with an EU Withdrawal Bill that is profoundly anti-democratic and which undermines the whole basis of the constitutional settlement. But about what happens in the future – what type of country we want to become.

About who we are and who we want to be.

Convener, fellow delegates: When you talk to those involved in the EU side of the negotiations you always hear the same thing. They are struggling to negotiate with people who know what they don’t want, but don’t’ know what they do want.

Who, in the words of the former Luxembourg Prime Minister “when they were in, wanted lots of opt outs but now, when they are out, want lots of opt ins.”

The UK has made a mess of its negotiations largely because they want the world to change so that they can stay the same. But the world does not work like that. I find the same in my negotiations with the UK.

The problems they create they are convinced are being created for them by others – ourselves in particular. Their repeated failure to consult is, they think, much less important than us refusing to go along uncomplainingly when we finally find out – usually through the media – about what they are doing.

And their refusal to compromise is projected onto us, though we have offered compromise after compromise in an effort to find a way forward. But there are somethings you can’t compromise on. And some people you can’t’ compromise with.

We can’t compromise if irreversible damage is to be done to Scotland and all the people who live here. We can’t compromise if the outcome would be damage to our country and its democracy. And we can’t compromise with those who do not care about our future, but only about their moving backwards into an imaginary past.

Convener the Scottish Government will continue to defend Scotland’s Parliament. not because it is the best it could be, but because it is the best we presently have – and only with it in place can we make it better.

We of course want to continue the journey of Scottish democracy, to be honest to that description – from Donald Dewar himself – of our hard-won new Parliament as a process, not an event, but we will not turn away from those who have a different view of the end point.

And we will behave in the same co-operative and collaborative way with those in the other devolved administrations when our shared rights are threatened.

But we will also articulate – always articulate – what we believe is best for Scotland.

In this case that is continuing membership of the EU. That is what Scotland voted for in 2016, and what it would vote for again in even greater numbers if – and when – it is asked.

But if we cannot achieve that in the short term, then the only possible alternative – the least bad alternative – is for continuing membership of the single market and the customs union.

That can be campaigned for, and won, not just in the run up to next March but during transition as well. And we will be building our campaign for that in the next few weeks as the June European Council looms.

The focus at that Council will be on Ireland and on the customs union but we hope that it will also focus on the need for a wider settlement, one which maintains, for example, the freedom of movement which is so vital to Scotland. Which protects human, employment, civil and environmental rights. Which preserves our place in key European research, scientific, educational, nuclear and medical institutions and projects. And which keeps us in step with the developments across our continent in data, in business and in communications.

Convener in the last 22 months, when I have been trying to do this job, I have come to the conclusion that the challenge of Brexit ranks amongst the most severe that Scotland has faced in my lifetime. But I have also come to the conclusion that we can work our way through it if we have confidence and determination

Because, Convener, as a nationalist of 40 or more years standing, I believe not just in the rights of Scotland but also in the abilities of Scotland.

The most rock-solid argument for constitutional change is the one that says that any system that prevents the voice of the people being heard is not a democratic system at all. The argument that says that whatever the constitutional settlement is, it has at its heart to be one that values the votes of a nation – the vote of every individual.

In June 2016 every part of Scotland said it wanted to remain in the EU. Even though the votes of the UK as a whole narrowly said something else.

A sensible, democratic Government in a sensible modern democratic state would pay attention to that. It would work to ensure that this view was folded in to it’s over all plan. It would try to find compromise.

It would not refuse to engage sensibly, refuse to listen, refuse to acknowledge concerns, and even refuse to sit down and talk to the parties in the Scottish Parliament when, for the first time ever, that Parliament by a massive majority rejects their legislation.

That is not democracy. And that – EU take note – is not even constitutional. Faced with such intransigence we have behaved with moderation, with calmness and with intelligence. We will go on doing so. But we have also shown determination – and we will go with that too.

Determination to protect the democratic settlement and structures we have Determination to preserve our links with Europe in the least damaging way possible Determination to support and assist – as much as we can – those who will suffer as a result of the actions of the UK Government

Convener I am honoured – if sometimes a little overwhelmed – to take forward the task of making the case for Scotland here, in the rest of the UK and in Europe. That case is solid one. One built upon the firm foundations of democracy and fair dealing.

I am determined to go on making it for as long as our country needs to have it made. Making it until that time when we finally get to choose between a backward-looking isolationist Tory Brexit and an outward looking, inclusive, independent European future in which Scotland will stand on equal terms, peaceful and prosperous, with all the other countries on our continent of Europe.

And then moving forward with them.