Willie Rennie: Why Sturgeon no longer has my backing over Brexit

The First Minister's pursuit of independence has seen her dump cross-party commitments on Scotland in Europe, says Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie

Where once they stood side by side over Britains exit from Europe, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are now far apart. Picture: PA
Where once they stood side by side over Britains exit from Europe, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are now far apart. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon has broken the Scottish cross party consensus that was built after the Brexit result just two months ago. When my Scottish Parliament colleagues and I cast our votes at the end of a special parliamentary sitting in favour of exploring the options, we were reassured by the First Minister that the motion was “emphatically not” about independence. But, from that moment on, she has talked about little else, betraying those words she uttered in Parliament and consigning the consensus to the dustbin.

Liberal Democrats have a positive, optimistic outlook which seeks to break down borders and barriers and work in partnership with our neighbours. We are the only party fully committed to Scotland in the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom in the European Union. We call this policy No Borders.

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No Borders means we want to keep our country in the EU and believe that voters should have a say on any final Brexit agreement in a referendum. The reason is simple. The leaders of Leave failed to tell anyone what Brexit meant before the referendum so it would only be right for people to have the chance to decide once we know. It would be the democratic thing to do. That is my positive solution to Brexit.

I know the First Minister has another solution. She wants independence. Even the Martians know that. However, I was keen to work with her despite our different objectives. In June she gave me her word that this was not about independence, and in the shocking circumstances of Brexit, it was important for us all to reach out to find a solution.

Especially following the decisive vote in 2014 to reject independence and the clear commitment not to hold another referendum for a generation, I thought we might be able to find common ground short of independence.

The First Minister appointed an expert group with some credible figures with a wealth of European experience, so the early signs were positive that she meant what she said.

She set out five principles, none of which I could disagree with.

And when she set out the cost of Brexit, as a strong pro-European, I agreed with her estimate that it would have a dramatic effect.

Yet the only solution that the First Minister has offered in the last two months is independence. She has been hyperactively bouncing around the country over the summer advancing any argument that will advance her independence ambition. For someone who said she did not favour Brexit, she has shown a remarkable degree of enthusiasm ever since. In contrast, she has made little attempt to propose a solution that may garner the support of my party and others.

I know her activists believe this is a golden opportunity to win independence but she has a responsibility to lead the country, not just her party. In that last BBC debate in the May election she was silenced by the audience when she sought to make the case, again, for independence. She appears to have forgotten that people wanted her to focus on day-to-day issues such as the NHS, education and the economy.

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She is now planning to ask Parliament to agree legislation for another independence referendum. That may have been something she said she would do in the hours after the Brexit vote but she also promised she would do so much more than just that. She promised she would explore all the options.

I have received no invitation from the expert group to seek my opinions. I have not even heard a single recommendation from that group. They risk becoming little more than a book cover for another independence campaign manual. The First Minister only wants their reputations, rather than their advice, to take another step towards independence.

If the First Minister was serious about exploring all options she would have set them out and discussed them in public. She would have asked for my preferred option. She would have asked her expert group to engage.

I would have expected to hear more about Norway, Greenland, Switzerland or a special UK solution. I would have heard her seriously explore whether a UK public vote in another referendum on the final deal would be possible and desirable.

Yet the only solution she has ever proposed is independence.

Her solution is to compound the chaos of Brexit with further chaos that independence would bring. It would be damaging to distance ourselves from our biggest economic market, the UK, at the same time as distancing ourselves from our second biggest market, Europe. I see little logic in responding to creating new borders with Europe by creating more borders in the UK. We need fewer borders.

I simply don’t think Nicola Sturgeon is serious about working beyond her own ranks. She has reverted to her nationalist type. If there was another vote in Parliament on the same motion we would vote No.

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And when she brings forward her legislation for another independence referendum, we will vote No to that too.

Liberal Democrats will confine our positive efforts to securing a vote on the agreement so that people in the UK can choose whether they approve of it or not.

Liberal Democrats are therefore departing from the First Minister’s efforts and will pursue our positive, No Borders, alternative.