The lessons of the last 12 months

When anniversaries come around, the temptation is always to look back.

One year on from the EU referendum it is right to reflect on everything that’s happened. But the most important thing for the people of Scotland, now, is to look forward.    


The lessons of the last 12 months, can provide some guidance on how we should approach the future.

The campaign itself was disfigured by ugly anti-immigration rhetoric and the infamous, dishonest claim that an extra £350 million a week would come to the NHS after Brexit.

But the period since the campaign has raised troubling issues not just about our future relations with the EU but about how power is exercised within the United Kingdom itself.

Theresa May once spoke of the UK as a partnership of equal nations. But it seems every action her Conservative government has taken has been designed to disprove that notion.

The fact that people in two of the four nations of the UK voted to remain – by a 24-point margin in Scotland – has been disregarded.

Instead there has been a reckless drive to impose an extreme Brexit, no matter the narrowness of the vote in Britain as a whole, or the majority views in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I, and colleagues from other devolved governments, have often been left frustrated by high-handed actions of Whitehall ministers who seem unwilling to accept there are now four national governments in the UK.

In December the Scottish Government published detailed compromise proposals to keep Scotland and the UK as a whole, inside the Single Market.

Just weeks later the Prime Minister, with no consultation or warning, rejected that compromise out of hand.

Following the general election, the UK Government must now recognise the reality of devolution and meet its constitutional obligations.

As a first step there should be a meeting of the UK and devolved governments to decide objectives before the next cycle of negotiations with the EU in July.

And there must be a commitment to take seriously and act upon, the interests of Scottish businesses, universities and a range of other groups becoming increasingly alarmed at the way Brexit is being handled.

There has been genuine astonishment from EU partners that the UK Government had not consulted Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland before publishing the Article 50 withdrawal letter.
This kind of attitude needs to change and I hope it will.

The Scottish Government is continuing to promote the proposals we published in December. Conservative ministers and politicians are jockeying for position, sensing a leadership vacuum at the top of their party.

But this is not the time for vague terms such as “softer” or an “open” Brexit. It’s time to speak up unambiguously to keep Scotland and the UK in the Single Market. If there’s the slightest chance of building a coalition to make this happen we must take it.

The consequences of leaving the EU, and in particular the Single Market, are already starting to be felt.

There’s been a huge drop in the number of EU nurses applying to work in the UK. Businesses are becoming increasingly concerned about retaining and attracting talent.

Prices in the shops are rising and economic growth is slowing. Last week the Governor of the Bank of England warned of a “hit to incomes”.

Combined with the UK Government’s net migration target, leaving the EU and ending free movement of workers means the working population of Scotland, and therefore the number of tax-payers contributing to public services, could start to fall.

But the danger is not just losing what we have, but missing out on the huge opportunities available in the future.

We live in a world undergoing technological and economic transformation at a pace we haven’t seen before.

Scotland, more than most countries on earth, has the potential to take advantage of this transformation.

We are world-leaders in industries of the future such as life sciences, financial services, and financial technology, creative industries and sustainable tourism.

Our natural resources, our long-standing reputation for innovation and our educated workforce give Scotland a head-start.

The European Single Market, already the world’s biggest, represents a massive opportunity for these areas of Scottish strength: in the digital economy, the services sector, energy, retail, the green and knowledge economy.

The Single Market is still a work in progress, with great potential still unlocked.

That means a huge, potential economic prize for Scotland and a new world of opportunity for our young people.

Let’s not turn our back on that opportunity – let’s grasp it.