Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard says the turmoil of Brexit would be “nothing” compared with the uncertainty caused by a second independence referendum and a vote to leave the UK.
In an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday to mark his first year in charge of the party at Holyrood, Leonard calls for a general election to end the impasse over EU withdrawal and admits to having disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn.
Leonard, 56, has endured a tumultuous first 12 months, criticised for his performances at First Minister’s Questions and accused of “purging” Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie from his shadow cabinet during a reshuffle last month.
But the former union official says he believes his party is slowly starting to win a “battle of ideas” with the SNP on issues such as education and health.
Within hours of the draft EU withdrawal agreement being published this week, there was renewed pressure on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to call a second independence referendum.
Sturgeon was withering in her response to the deal and where it leaves Scotland, but despite calls for a second vote she has so far refused to be drawn on indyref2.
Leonard says the difficulties and uncertainty created by Brexit would pale into insignificance compared with the fallout should Scotland sever ties with the UK.
“The turmoil of coming out of an economic relationship which has been in place for 40 years would be nothing compared with the economic turmoil of coming out of a relationship which has lasted 300 years,” he says.
“Given the extent to which we are in a highly integrated level of monetary, economic, social and political union with the rest of the UK, I think the challenges would be huge.” He adds that a hardening of attitudes on whether there should be a second independence vote make it unlikely Sturgeon will call one in the near future.
“The signals she was giving [at FMQs] suggest she is not minded any time soon to call a second independence referendum,” he says.
“I can only surmise that’s because she can see just how unappealing the Brexit process has been to people and the concerns that has raised. I think she understands that would be multiplied considerably in the event of her calling for a second referendum.”
Leonard says during campaigning for last year’s elections, he detected a growing sense of “hostility” on the doorsteps to the prospect of a second independence vote.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were still some people who were very enthusiastic about Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP and independence, but those people who didn’t warm to that were increasingly hostile and I think she understands that,” he says.
Despite his party’s sluggish performance in opinion polls at a UK level, the Scottish Labour leader says there should be another general election, one he thinks Corbyn can win.
But despite being seen as the Corbynista candidate during last year’s leadership contest, Leonard admits to having what he calls “robust discussions” with his party’s Westminster leader, particularly after Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s decision not to oppose tax cuts for higher earners in last month’s Budget.
“You can characterise that as a disagreement if you want, it’s certainly a difference in policy,” he says. “We’ve had some robust discussions, but we’ve got a working relationship and I’m not going to go around trying to manufacture disputes in order to demonstrate the differences we have.
“There’s got to be a fresh approach to Brexit. My own view is the best way to achieve that is for there to be a general election. This is a political crisis and there’s a growing prospect of it being a constitutional crisis. That propels us, in my view, in the direction of a general election.
“What Labour has said is that we are prepared to consider options. The mandate we would seek would, in my view, be a mandate to renegotiate the terms of Brexit.”
During the past year, Yorkshire-born Leonard has had to defend his party’s decision to withdraw funding for former leader Kezia Dugdale’s legal defence in a defamation action brought by pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell, publisher of Wings Over Scotland. And he was accused of carrying out a “purge” after removing Sarwar and Baillie from his front bench last month.
Leonard says that decision was not about “political differences”, but about trying to “reach out and appeal to voters we need to win back”.
He says it is for others to judge his performance as leader, but that his party has made important interventions on issues such as the future of Monklands Hospital in Lanarkshire.
“It’s clear that we are starting to make progress,” he says. “A lot of the work we’re doing on reaching out to trade unions and working people and the work we’re doing to build our profile in the communities, we are starting to get a resonance and a traction again.
“There’s a long way to go and I’ve always approached this job as a challenge to try and win a battle of ideas. The next Scottish Parliament election is not until 2021, so I’m content there’s still time and we have an opportunity to build up a positive message of hope. We are the only party which is avowedly anti-austerity and we are leading the debate over the ownership of our public services.”
Among Leonard’s big ideas are a new industrial strategy that would see smaller Scottish firms championed at the expense of multinationals. According to Labour, foreign-owned firms have received more than £220m in Regional Selective Assistance grants from Scottish Enterprise since the SNP came to power, compared with £141m for Scottish companies.
“We need to move beyond this scenario where we just simply react to crises all the time,” says Leonard. “We need to have a proactive, forward-looking approach to industrial policy … with Brexit, it becomes even more imperative that we don’t just leave things to chance.”