Nicola Sturgeon: Why Theresa May has to defy Tory hardliners on Brexit

It is a disgrace that internal Conservative politics, rather than the best interests of the economy, are driving the Brexit process, says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

In the daily rough and tumble of Scottish politics, it is easy to forget there is now widespread agreement on major issues that were once fiercely contested.

Back in the 1980s the whole idea of devolution was controversial – although ultimately only the Tories campaigned against it – and the thought of a Single Market, taking in 28 European countries, was still very much in development.

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However, both the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Single Market have brought huge benefits to Scotland and now command as close to consensus support as it is possible to achieve.

Theresa May needs to unshackle herself from hard-line Brexiteers currently dictating policy, says Nicola Sturgeon

Indeed the benefits of devolution have been reinforced by our membership of the Single Market. Because of the Scottish Parliament, we’ve been able to resist the creeping privatisation of the NHS in England and with our new tax powers we’re able to do more to protect health spending.

The Single Market has given Scottish business access to the world’s most lucrative marketplace of 500 million people – a marketplace which, it should be remembered, is around eight times bigger than the UK’s alone.

But freedom of movement, one of the Single Market’s “four freedoms”, has also played a major part in reversing Scotland’s historic population decline, bringing in wealth creators and helping to fund and staff our health service.

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Theresa May needs to unshackle herself from hard-line Brexiteers currently dictating policy, says Nicola Sturgeon

This combination of democratic support plus the benefits to people’s lives mean we must do everything we can to protect both our place in Europe and the powers of our Parliament.

That’s why we, together with other parties and the Welsh Government, are resisting Tory plans to take control of devolved powers as part of their Brexit package. It’s important to remember that the campaign for a Scottish Parliament was, to a large extent, a reaction against a right-wing Tory economic and social experiment, carried out against Scotland’s wishes and with devastating consequences for many communities.

And when the devolution referendum came, it saw a resounding Yes-Yes vote. But today that overwhelming democratic endorsement is under threat from a Tory Westminster power grab.

The danger for the next generation is that they will bear the brunt of another right-wing ideological experiment.

Brexit was comprehensively rejected by the people of Scotland, and there is even less support for the extreme Brexit now being pursued by the Prime Minister.

Theresa May’s speech last Friday confirmed that her government wants to take Scotland and the rest of the UK out of the Single Market. She also said the UK should no longer be part of the EU Customs Union – which guarantees tariff-free trade among its members and allows Scotland to take advantage of trade deals with more than 50 countries.

Make no mistake this is a comprehensive victory for the hard Brexiteers, which the UK Government’s own analysis shows will result in a substantial economic hit.

Indeed the Prime Minister admitted what has been obvious for some time – UK and Scottish business will see their access to the Single Market cut. That means Scotland’s producers will lose access to some markets they have spent many years developing. Consumers will face higher prices and less choice, as “frictions” to UK-EU trade take their toll. It is inevitable that jobs will be lost.

Hardest hit will be our services industries which have benefited enormously from freedom of movement and the ability to attract wealth-creating talent to Scotland.

The UK Government seems to accept the damage that will be caused, because much of the rest of the Prime Minister’s speech set out a complex piecemeal plan to get preferential access back into the Single Market.

That plan was yesterday largely rejected by the EU. They made clear this “pick and mix” approach was unacceptable and have made it clear her “red-lines” must go if anything other than a damaging, basic deal is to be achieved.

In fact there is still the very real danger of a catastrophic “no deal” outcome if the Tories backslide on the deal they reached in December to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

The Scottish Government, in line with the overwhelming majority in Scotland, supports full EU membership. Short of that, the best way to minimise the damage is to stay within the Single Market and Customs Union. If the Prime Minister was able to unshackle herself from the hard-line Brexiteers currently dictating policy, she could aim for membership of the European Economic Area, meaning the UK could remain inside the Single Market, rather than having to negotiate its way back in – and then only partially so – through a complex series of arrangements.

The services sector would be protected, the UK could still be influential in deciding standards and regulations, and the “level playing field” on state aid, competition policy, environmental and labour standards would be achieved.

In addition the UK would be outside the “direct jurisdiction” of the European Court of Justice (the Prime Minister has now conceded an indirect role of the court) and the UK would be free to make trade deals with countries outside the EU – although the Scottish Government is clear in our view that the UK should also stay in the Customs Union.

But in short, membership of the EEA is now the only way to achieve the aims the Prime Minister herself set out last week.

So far, the entire Brexit process has – disgracefully – been driven by internal Conservative Party interests, rather than the interests of the economy, businesses or the country as a whole.

Jobs, living standards and the interests of Scotland have barely featured.

That must change. The UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill must be changed to protect devolution – anything less will simply confirm the impression of an arrogant Tory government which now thinks it can do what it wants to Scotland and get away with it.

On the wider issue of EU-UK negotiations, the clock is ticking. As a minimum, a transitional period must be agreed by the end of this month, and the UK Government must follow the logic of the Prime Minister’s speech and state clearly today that Scotland and the UK will remain inside the European Economic Area and Customs Union.