Earlier this week, Theresa May held her first meeting with the devolved administrations about the approach that will be taken to the Brexit negotiations. The prime minister has promised to take a United Kingdom-wide approach, establishing a new joint ministerial committee sub-committee on Brexit for formal discussions with the devolved nations.
That seems a positive development. But you will forgive me if I do not take these details at face value. The Tory government appears determined to prioritise controlling immigration over maintaining free access to the single market, regardless how ruinous the result for our economy. I also struggle to trust the Tories on constitutional issues, given their claims prior to the Scottish parliament election in May that they were the only party that could protect the UK. It is thanks to their thoughtless machinations that the UK is in jeopardy.
The other threat to the UK comes from the Scottish National party. Scotland voted resoundingly to remain in the European Union, and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is looking for any excuse to call another independence referendum. If the government proves intransigent – or the SNP do not get what they want (the two are not synonymous) – we could be facing the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum, just a few short years after the last.
Sturgeon has delineated her red lines on Brexit, including continued access to the EU single market for Scottish businesses, something Scottish Labour fulsomely supports. However, the suspicion lingers that the SNP’s Brexit demands are merely a means to an end. Their ultimate goal is, and always will be, independence.
The risk for Scotland is being caught between two implacable forces: a Tory government obsessed with immigration, and an SNP government obsessed with independence. One would drag us out of the EU single market, the other out of the UK. Neither is good for Scotland. It is time to inject some sense and balance into proceedings.
There is absolutely no reason why a deal cannot be struck that finds the middle ground and secures exactly what Scots have voted for in recent years: remaining in the UK, and retaining a close and productive relationship with the EU. This, along with safeguarding the rights of EU nationals to remain in Scotland and securing the repatriation of EU powers in devolved areas to the Scottish parliament, is what Scottish Labour is wants to achieve.
However, if the JMC sub-committee negotiations take place behind closed doors, shrouded in secrecy, I doubt this case will be made. It is therefore vital that the negotiations are inclusive and transparent, and approached in a spirit of compromise, not conflict.
There are two recent precedents for the Brexit negotiations, one good, one bad. The good precedent is the Smith Commission which followed the Scottish independence referendum. It involved representatives from all major parties, was transparent in its dealings, and succeeded in reaching an agreement signed by all parties, which in turn formed the basis of the Scotland Act 2016, the legislation that will transform the Scottish parliament into one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.
The bad precedent is the joint exchequer committee’s negotiation of Scotland’s revised fiscal framework, the fiscal arrangements underpinning Scotland’s new devolution settlement. That took place behind closed doors, between two governments with opposing views but a shared aversion to transparency. Those discussions nearly broke down, which would have scuppered the Scotland Act. In the event, only a temporary agreement was reached. Both parties used the impasse as an excuse to advance their own agendas, and hid behind the now familiar ‘no running commentary’ excuse.
It is clear which way is better, and that is why Scottish Labour is calling upon Sturgeon to nominate members of the major parties in the Scottish parliament to serve on the Brexit sub-committee, so we can monitor directly the approach taken by governments, and ensure that the interests of all are represented. These negotiations are crucial to the future of the UK in the EU, and Scotland’s future in both. They must be democratic, transparent, and truly speak for Scotland. Otherwise, the constitutional ramifications will last for years to come and such uncertainty is not good for Scotland or, indeed, the UK.
Ian Murray is member of parliament for Edinburgh South. He tweets at @IanMurrayMP
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