On Wednesday, I was down in the Borders and lucky enough to hear Mike Russell MSP speak on the vexed topic of Brexit to a crown of over 200 at Selkirk’s Victoria Hall. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it stands full0square against Brexit. But it was inspirational to hear lucid and cogent arguments supporting such a view coming from someone clearly on top of their brief.
Despite their history of fierce reiving, today’s borderers live peacefully in their unspoiled towns and prosperous farms, proud of local traditions and politically conservative. After presenting a pragmatic evaluation of where we stood vis-s-vis the guillotine poised over next March 29th, and presenting practical approaches to the dilemma ensuing, he did not get an easy ride on questions—some of whom would not have been out of place playing the Ettrick Shepherd or a character in The Dandy’s Black Bob.
To Mike, the whole Brexit debate is too important to be deformed by party politics, Joining the EU was as instrumental as any other factor in bringing Britain out of the severe economic doldrums of the 1970s. Apart from the issue being obfuscated by being caught up in internal wrangling within the Tory party that has gone on for 40 years, a key reason why we are facing Brexit lies with the over-55s, whose votes to leave overwhelmed a significant surge in your voter participation who anted to stay. But the over-55s are not the ones who will have to live with the damage to GDP which will result.. That there will be damage is agreed by every objective observer and is not simply another ‘Project Fear’, as ardent Breciteers claim. The only way to prevent or reverse such damage is to stay in the Single Market.
Remaining in the Single Market has been the compromise position sought by the Scottish Government over the whole two years of largely fruitless discussion that has taken place to date. Failing this, there needs to be a Free Trade agreement, along the lines of that forged with Canada. The third and least desirable option is to follow the Brexiteers strident argument and simply be bound by World Trade Organisation rules. But this last means, effectively, walking out with nothing, i.e. the ‘Hard Brexit’ that most people—including the EU itself—fear. Originally, Westminster decried this option. But now it seems to be considering it likely, due to the difficulty in getting agreement on the “Chequers’ white paper that so many Tories have publicly decried.
There is much talk of second votes, either in Westminster or even a referendum. There is scant chance of that. What is most galling of all is that, in two years, no evidence at all of concrete advantages accruing from Brexit have been presented. All of the talk of new trade deals could be pursued without having to leave the EU.
The practical issues that need to be clarified, Mike asserted, revolve around three items:
In terms of people, Scotland is more dependent on a healthy flow of workers than England. We hire many foreign nationals in our Food &Drink, our Tourism and our Health sectors. Some 80,000 people in the Highlands alone are nearing retirement and need to be replaced. One in four researchers in Scotland are EU citizens.
On regulation, almost 98% of current legislation is both good and useful, but it is EU-based. It will need to be brought into Scots Law—a massive task.
And, as for money, the scale of capital investment made possible by the European Investment Bank (mostly as catalysing seed funds that brought in other investors) has already dropped to zero. A replacement source of funding is not obvious.
Mike answered a whole series of questions that ran the gamut from virulent EU skepticism through indifference to a total Europhile. But, while he was clear in articulating his (and the Scottish Government’s) position that staying in the EU was the preferred option and one the country had clearly voted for, the chances of achieving even the next-best position of staying within the customs union looked poor and were diminishing by the day.