Angus Robertson: Doing nothing about Brexit is not an option

Scotland is not alone in facing difficult choices, but says Angus Robertson, we can steer a course through our challenges

Hundreds demonstrate at the Scottish Parliament for Scotland to remain part of the European Union. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Recent political developments have been of such a scale it has been hard to keep up. Barely a day goes by without hugely significant news, sadly often bad news.

In the UK, during a few short weeks we have gone from the shocking murder of the much-liked Labour MP Jo Cox on the streets of Yorkshire, to a British Brexit referendum result but a Scottish “Remain” majority and of course the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. The bloody Greek tragedy of the Tory succession culminating in new PM Theresa May is only matched in drama by the self-destructive civil war in the Labour Party.

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Internationally we are witnessing tumultuous events too, including poll numbers suggesting that the prospect of a Trump presidency is not just a bad dream. The rise of populist anti-elites politics is on the march across Europe, coming within 1 per cent of victory in the recent Austrian presidential elections. Appalling murders in France and Germany are likely to exacerbate the trend of those peddling the simplistic message of “enough is enough”. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees continue to flee war-torn Syria and Libya.

All of this should be a massive wake-up call for people who care about progressive politics. For everyone who has worked so hard at the democratic grassroots of our communities we face our biggest challenge.

There are difficult choices for many of us. If you are a Bernie Sanders volunteer who feels cheated by the Democratic Party establishment, do you now throw your weight behind Hillary Clinton, or leave the door open for Donald Trump?

If you are a mainstream European decision-maker, what do you do when the refugee numbers continue to rise and are matched by a growing reaction calling for an immigration stop and the rebuilding of borders?

If you are a Labour Party member in England what do you do when the polls tell you that the Tories have a 20 per cent lead and there is little or no prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being elected as Prime Minister but the alternative is a never-ending civil war?

In Scotland, what do we do when the country voted to remain in the European Union but Westminster insists that Brexit means Brexit? Do we stand idly by or do we do everything we can to protect our place in Europe? It seems to me that there are few options but to settle on the positive democratic answers and then do all in our power to deliver the best we can in the difficult circumstances. Doing nothing is not an option, and we should not leave the field to the populists and demagogues.

Shortly before the Westminster parliamentary recess, I attended the inaugural Tony Benn Memorial Lecture hosted by Commons Speaker John Bercow.

The lecture was given by former Labour Leader Ed Miliband who I have always liked personally. He argued persuasively why the people of his Doncaster constituency had been left behind economically and socially and that this explained in part why nearly 70 per cent of people there voted for Brexit.

It was striking how much we agreed on, from rising to the challenge of inequality, to mending broken politics and maintaining an outward-looking perspective. Where we parted company however was his acceptance of being taken out of the European Union. Of course our southern neighbours find themselves in a different situation than we do in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where we voted to remain in the EU.

In Scotland we have a choice about protecting our place in Europe: to let others make decisions about us and for us, or we can insist on our priorities. A United Kingdom outside the EU is not what 55 per cent of voters cast their ballots for in the Scottish referendum on 18 September, 2014.

Already progressive grassroots activity has started, gearing up to defend our place in Europe. Activists have been reaching out to EU citizens resident in Scotland to explain how valued their contribution here is and that the Scottish Government is working hard to protect common EU citizenship rights including the right to free movement.

Next, we need to communicate with the many people who believe their 2014 referendum vote was to stay in Europe by voting “No” to Scottish independence. A growing number of those voters believe they have been misled and frankly they are quite right to feel they were hoodwinked.

After that, we need to speak to those many people who thought they were voting for certainty over risk, given that we are about to enter a period of almighty economic turbulence and uncertainty.

The good news for Scotland is that there is huge sympathy for our predicament across Europe. In one of the largest surveys of its kind on the continent, overwhelming support was registered for Scotland remaining in Europe. Prominent politicians from different EU countries have also shown they understand Scotland voted to remain, not least in Germany, the largest EU member state.

Scotland has been debating big and testing political questions at an intense level for some time. A number of commentators believe there is a risk of democratic fatigue, but I would contend that doing nothing will only exacerbate the underlying problems.

We are not alone in having to face huge challenges. Where we differ from some other places at the present time is that we can steer through our particular set of challenges through rational debate, discussion and decision. We should rise to that challenge.

• Angus Robertson is the Westminster Leader of the SNP and MP for Moray