Willie Rennie: Let's fight to put UK back in the EU

The Brexit result doesn't mean we have to surrender our multi-faceted identities, writes Willie Rennie MSP

If Charles Kennedy were with still alive it is unthinkable that he would give up on Scotlands links with the European Union. Picture: John Devlin
If Charles Kennedy were with still alive it is unthinkable that he would give up on Scotlands links with the European Union. Picture: John Devlin

The result of the EU referendum has sparked a great deal of soul searching. Even though the polls indicated a Leave result was a possibility, people on all sides of the debate were left shaken.

Many of those who voted for Brexit did so because they felt dispossessed. Since the result, those who voted Remain have also come to know that feeling, although for altogether different reasons.

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But this isn’t unique to Scotland. People throughout the United Kingdom are feeling hurt. They are looking at their children and wondering what this will mean for them and what opportunities they might be denied.

After the result had filtered through, I called a meeting of my party. With just a few hours notice, hundreds of members from every corner of Scotland turned out.

We took stock of the momentous choice that the United Kingdom had taken. We heard from new members and an 89-year-old party member who had been motivated to make a speech for the first time.

We discussed what it could mean for members’ Belgian sons and Russian family. We discussed the outcome with residents of Paris and students studying Spanish.

It reflected the international family that exists within my party and across our country. It is our overlapping identities that have caused so many people to have taken this result so personally.

I entered the meeting still feeling a deep sense of loss – the loss of part of my soul and what I had believed to be the soul of this country.

I left with a feeling of optimism and a determination that the Liberal Democrats are the party that can take us back to where we belong, with Scotland in the UK and the UK in Europe.

Thousands of others clearly share my confidence because, as I write this, more than 12,000 people have joined since the polls closed last week.

That is around one a minute – not too dissimilar to the rate at which shadow cabinet members seem to have been deserting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

What would Charles Kennedy do? That is something I think about regularly. What a refreshing voice he would have been had he been able to take part in this debate and what a loss he is to our country.

He was fond of saying: “I’m a Highlander, a Scot, a Brit and a European, and I don’t want anybody to take any of those away from me.”

I am not prepared to give up on that.

I have lost elections before and I didn’t give up then because there are people who share my liberal values and who need to be represented. This is no time to abandon the principles of internationalism, compassion, openness and tolerance.

It is no time to abandon the 14.5 million people who voted Remain elsewhere in the UK, whether they are in Northern Ireland, Gibraltar or the vast majority of England’s cities. And how many of those who voted Leave don’t like what they have seen since? How many have buyer’s regret? After all, it is all too easy to get swept up in a binary, divisive referendum.

We haven’t left the EU yet and Brexit is fast unravelling.

That is why my party will fight the next general election on a clear platform of supporting the United Kingdom’s place in Europe. That case can still be won.

In the meantime, I will continue to work with the First Minister to explore how the benefits Scotland receives from being part of the European Union can be protected.

I spoke earlier this week to the former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt – now the leader of the liberal movement at the European Parliament. He is keen to help.

We discussed the flexibility that Scotland could have to maintain its relationship with the European Union, short of independence.

That is because my ambitions for this country involve Scotland in the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom in Europe. This is what I believe is in Scotland’s national interest and I don’t believe people should be forced to make a false choice.

The United Kingdom is in real danger of leaving its biggest economic market. This should not automatically be the trigger for Scotland to leave the UK – its biggest economic market.

We have seen across Europe in recent years that political instability and international fluidity can often bolster feelings of nationalism.

But if you have a chaotic situation, you don’t solve it by instigating further chaos, greater uncertainty and more indecision.

We are still only eight days on from the referendum result. The initial emotion of last Thursday is only just beginning to subside.

But one thing that is abundantly clear is that those who agree Scotland and the UK’s place in the world needs to be protected must now determinedly, and honestly, work together.

• Willie Rennie is MSP for North East Fife and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats