Mike Russell on the fight to stay in Europe

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 April 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview: On the day the Article 50 letter was delivered, Mandy Rhodes sat down with the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister

Mike Russell - credit: David Anderson

The front pages of all the newspapers carry pictures, released late the night before, of a poised Prime Minister signing the formal letter to Tusk which will fire the starting gun on Brexit. She is sitting at her desk in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street under a portrait of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole – a set-piece vignette that looks for all the world like it comes from a different era when what Britain did, the world followed.

And in that spirit of bygone pomp, the signed letter – one of two copies – was then taken by courier under heavily armed guard to be sent by Eurostar to Brussels. On arrival, it was then delivered to the offices of Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, where it nestled safely in his less chic, more shabby leather briefcase. It sat there for a good few hours as he conducted his diplomatic business as usual – the chipped gold coat of arms on the school-like satchel, a faded reminder of a grander past.

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Mike Russell, Scotland’s key figure in Brexit, kept looking at his watch and checking his email. He has no idea of the contents contained within the Prime Minister’s letter and is still waiting for any official response from the UK Government to the Scottish Government’s 50 page plus document ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, published three months earlier, and which set out detailed proposals for how Scotland’s relationship with Europe could continue under any negotiated UK-wide deal for Brexit.

The weighty paper was written following a commitment by the Prime Minister that Article 50 would not be triggered until there was a UK approach and that Scotland would be “fully engaged” in that process.


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Russell, along with his counterparts in the other devolved nations, has been an enthusiastic participant in the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations)  put in place to provide a platform for the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland administrations to come together to forge that united approach to the challenge of Brexit.

Sturgeon brought Russell back into government as her new minister for Brexit in August of last year. It was as much a surprise to him as anyone. He was taking evidence as the newly appointed convener of Holyrood’s Finance Committee (a role he admits took him out of his comfort zone) at a two-day away day in Stirling when the Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, told the committee that there was to be a new Brexit minister. Russell’s phone started pinging with text messages from journalists and others asking if it was him. He had no expectations that it would be until he got a call asking him to meet with the First Minister that afternoon.

After almost two years on the backbenches, Russell, a former environment minister, culture minister, education secretary and SNP chief executive, and recently appointed part-time professor in Scottish culture and governance at the University of Glasgow, was placed in pole position to effect Sturgeon’s plans to influence the shape and detail of Theresa May’s EU exit deal.

The appointment said as much about Russell as it did about Sturgeon. There had been some disquiet that she did not have enough experienced ministers around her and there had been mumblings about her ability to be collegiate. Bringing a politically experienced greybeard like Russell back into the fold, having removed him from office just two years earlier, reflected well on her and afforded him a graciousness that some may not have believed possible.

Russell has something of a reputation. Pompous and a bit too smart for his own good are common descriptions. Having been a member of the SNP for almost 40 years, as well as an MSP in the first parliament before losing his seat in 2003, he has friends as well as enemies. As an accomplished writer and broadcaster, he has written extensively on the Scottish identity and history and while inevitably some of his work has come back to haunt him, no one could ever accuse him of not being an intellect. He is both forthright and insecure which is a potent mix in politics. His biggest learning curve came in 2003 when he lost his seat before coming back in 2007 as the list member for South of Scotland.

Many believed Russell had burned his political bridges when he stood against Alex Salmond as leader in 2004 and convincingly lost. They were as surprised as he was when he was appointed to the ministerial team as environment minister by Salmond in 2007 when the SNP formed its first government.

Of that role, he said it was one of conflict management and still describes it as the best job in government. Then as minister for culture, he replaced Linda Fabiani at a time of great upheaval with the creation of Creative Scotland and successfully managed to gel various disparate parties within the arts. The day before he was appointed education secretary, he delivered the crucially important white paper on an independence referendum.

Russell is as much a part of history as he is in helping shape it, but as he waits today for any official word on how the tone of that Brexit letter penned by Theresa May is phrased, his feeling that the devolved participants in the process have been disrespected are compounded when former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, tweets: “At 12:30 we pass the point of no return.”

After an agonising four hours since Sir Tim had left for the European Council, the Article 50 letter is finally delivered into the hands of Donald Tusk. As the two posed stiffly for the cameras, Theresa May was outlining the contents of the letter in the House of Commons. “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back,” she said.

Tusk gave his official confirmation of receipt of the letter with a tweet posted while May was still delivering her statement. “After nine months,” he wrote, “the UK has delivered. #Brexit”.

It was a more emotional Tusk who addressed the world some minutes later, expressing genuine sadness that Britain was leaving a union that was formed a month before his own birth in April 1957. He said that this was not a “happy day” in London or Brussels and that the Brexit process would be about “damage control” for both sides, while he warned of “difficult negotiations” in the months ahead and vowed to protect the interests of the remaining 27 EU members.

“There is nothing to win in this process – for both sides – and in essence this is about damage control,” he said.

 “What can I add to this?” he concluded with a shrug.

“We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”

May, meanwhile, told her fellow MPs that she hoped the talks would result in a “deep and special partnership” between the UK and the union it was leaving. But her stark language in the letter prompted an almost immediate response from Europe, accusing her of blackmail by conflating security issues with trade agreements. Angela Merkel also ruled out any parallel talks on trade during the Brexit negotiations.

In the interim, Russell has had business meetings in Glasgow, finished his interview with me, given a speech at a conference on his role as the minister responsible for Scotland’s outcome in any Brexit negotiations and still hasn’t had sight of the letter that triggers that withdrawal.

“I feel sad,” he says. “I felt very sad last night seeing the picture of the Prime Minister with Walpole looking down on her. I feel it’s a sad moment to have got to, I feel it’s a huge mistake and I think it will not end well.

“It’s an expression of regression, in my view, a desire to move into the past and that can never succeed.

“This morning, facetiously I suppose, I tweeted that I saw comment from Tom Newton Dunn [The Sun’s political editor] last night about the fact that the letter had been taken on the Eurostar with all the security and so on and actually, the image of the letter taken like that, that’s the wrong image, it should have been a steam train in some 1930s movie, you know, like some 1930s’ movie. It’s going backwards and it’s just the wrong thing to have done.

“We [the Scottish Government] have worked very hard to try to get an agreement to move forward on this but even if we had got that, I would still feel sad today because I just think it is wrong.

“The fact that at this point I still don’t know what is in that letter is simply a reflection of where we are in terms of how we have been treated and we don’t actually know the sequence that’s going to be followed today in terms of what or when we’re going to be told.

“On the train on the way across to Edinburgh this morning, we were looking at an email from somebody in my team who said this is going to be what happens with a caveat of ‘we understand’. Apparently, I’m to get a letter from David Davis [UK Government’s Brexit minister] which will reply to a letter of mine from almost four weeks ago and that will contain some information on the Article 50 letter. But we don’t know when we’re seeing that letter and we’re still waiting and, what is it, quarter past 11, for a copy of the Great Repeal Bill white paper which when I saw David Davis on Monday, he said we would have it yesterday. We didn’t get it yesterday. He said, ring me if you don’t have it by 9am on Wednesday. Well, we don’t have it, they still haven’t finished it and we think we might see a copy via the Permanent Secretary around lunchtime. It’s that sort of lack of information, lack of concern, lack of dialogue that really is upsetting because it’s unnecessary.

“I have no idea why it is like this but it is, as I say, now 11:28, Theresa May is due to speak in the Commons at 12:30 and so the letter is due to be published in an hour and two minutes. I’m due to speak to David Davis tonight or at least, he’s asked for a call tonight. But who knows? There’s a wee element in this that tells you everything that you need to know about how all of this works and it’s regrettable.”

Russell eventually saw a copy of the PM’s letter that would start the process of our country’s relationship with the rest of Europe at 12:55 when a civil servant showed him a copy of an email that they had been sent by Whitehall civil servants. Russell was in a lift going back to his office at the Scottish Parliament by the time he read its content.

I ask Russell if he has in fact failed to get Scotland’s voice heard, given the job he was tasked to do. “I suppose in a sense I have,” he says disarmingly.

“However, I don’t think the role is over, as far as I know, but I think to date I have not succeeded in ensuring that the dialogue that we wanted to happen has in fact taken place. Now, to be fair to me, I may not have been able to because they [the UK Government] have been lax at dialogue and to put the smallest of positive spins on it, we are still talking.

“Indeed, my relationship with my counterpart, David Davis, has been straightforward and honest and we’re trying to have a dialogue but I think the real crisis, and we are in a constitutional crisis right across these islands, in every part of these islands today which we weren’t in yesterday, is the refusal of the UK Government to talk to the Scottish Government about some vital things. It’s never happened before in devolution and no matter what’s happened in devolution, there’s always been the ability to talk and if the Secretary of State for Scotland says, ‘we will not talk about it’ then we’re in a new and very difficult place and that, perhaps, explains the nature of the government we’re dealing with because they wouldn’t talk about the key issues we wanted to talk about. So you have a non-talking government that is also not clear about what it means. Does this bode well for what will be the most complex and difficult negotiations the UK will ever be involved in? I think not.

“At the first Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) plenary in Downing Street, it really was just ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the really worrying aspect was that if you look at the plan for Britain published just two weeks ago, it doesn’t say any more than that. It’s full of intention and long words but there’s nothing concrete and firm. If you look at our ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ paper — which I know you have under your pillow and regard it as a core text on this matter –  there’s a lot of detail in there and a lot of questions. We say this won’t be easy or that route might not be easy and why we should then look here and so on but there’s none of that in the UK’s paper. The intriguing thing is that they’re going to have to do that because Michel Barnier [chief negotiator for the EU Commission] is going to start publishing details, as you know, at each stage of negotiations, so this excuse that it’s all behind the scenes somewhere and that the heavy work has been done, we may very quickly discover that that’s not been the case.

“I presented the Scottish Government’s paper at the January JMC. I made a short presentation – the Secretary of State actually said he was surprised how brief I had been but that he was very pleased about that! I spoke for about 10 minutes and we agreed that officials would go away and it would be considered alongside the Welsh paper which had just been published. We then had no substantive discussion of it in February…the February JMC was a very chaotic meeting. We didn’t even know the room we were meeting in until essentially 20 minutes beforehand and we were shoved into the House of Commons café and told to buy ourselves a coffee because they hadn’t got a room ready yet for us. Since then, and I’m trying to be really honest and think when it’s actually been discussed, but I cannot remember any substantive discussion at all about the Scottish Government paper. David Davis made an undertaking, and I spoke to him on the day it was published, that he wouldn’t respond to it until he had considered it fully and could make a full consideration. Well, we haven’t seen any such response.

“I have raised five specific points again with him personally at a meeting in his office in February and he did react to each of them, mostly by saying it wasn’t his decision and it would be for, as he put it, his neighbour at 10 Downing Street, something about being above his pay grade.”

How would he sum up the process thus far?

“Frustrating. Unnecessarily frustrating, and a wasted opportunity. I think the problem with why it’s a wasted opportunity, is that ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ gave us the opportunity to have a clear step forward which is, even if the UK Government profoundly disagreed with everything in the paper, and they didn’t, what they should have done, in my view, is say OK, we are going to put in the Article 50 letter that the Scottish Parliament is seeking a differentiated deal and that should form part of the negotiations. That should be in the Article 50 letter and that would have cleared the way for the next stage because that squares the circle. They then should have involved us, and maybe they still will, in the negotiating process in so far as that is a negotiating objective. Now we don’t think either of those is going to happen. Theresa May has said we joined the EU as one UK and we will leave as one UK. That is a very flawed understanding of the last 45 years because there’s been a huge set of constitutional change and the constitution and the nature of the UK is entirely different now but the attitude to it, that it’s unified, remains the same. Now that also misunderstands the constitution, right back to 1707, as it happens, because the Act of Union is a differentiated act and it’s that point, that’s the wasted opportunity, that should have been in there and that would have given the opportunity of a proper negotiation and they have failed to do so.

“I’m not lying to anybody about the process. I’ve been very transparent about it. I think the reality of this will become apparent as people see how things unfold in the Brexit negotiations. I don’t think they [the UK Government] are equipped for them. I wish them well, I absolutely don’t wish them ill, of course not. I want this to work, but we will discover that there’s a level of bluff and unreality in the UK Government and a level of optimism which is not borne out by the facts. I think that will become more and more obvious. Then the question is what do you do about it? That’s a big question. You take all that stuff aside and you say, ‘what do we do about this?’

“What can we do? I suppose the choices are we [the Scottish Government] carry on like this, we carry on scuttling around the edges. We do our best to influence things, which we’ve failed to do so far, but we do our best to influence things, we accept the rhetoric of ‘we have the same objectives’, which I don’t believe we have but that’s the language that we hear, and we hope for something to turn up. It is the Micawber-like view or do we actually say there is a way in which we can resolve this and we think we can give a better solution.”

An independence referendum?

“That’s her [the Prime Minister’s] choice. There’s a way to go forward, united, but it is no accident that there’s now a constitutional crisis in every part of these islands and the common factor of that is Theresa May – she is the one spreading constitutional chaos wherever she goes. So, if she feels her position is being weakened, she has weakened it herself, by failing to get the agreement across the United Kingdom and failing to back the terms of reference of the JMC EU which say ‘to seek to agree a common position and to have oversight’ in so far as it’s possible in areas of devolved competence. They’ve broken the first completely because they haven’t sought to get an agreement, they’ve just done what they’ve done and if the second is to work, there needs to be a change of attitude and heart. But you look at Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland has a special set of circumstances, obviously, and there are lots of problems, but you know at the heart of this is the tension brought on by the process of Brexit. I heard Martin McGuinness say that myself and I think others would share that view. The difficulty we have here, and the fact that we have now had to make a choice in terms of moving forward in terms of a Section 30 and a referendum, has been created by the failure of the UK Government to move to an agreement and to get an agreement. And in Wales you have the spectacle of the Labour administration and Plaid Cymru, not the happiest of bedfellows, putting out a joint paper and continuing to express considerable concern about the process. Carwyn Jones [the Welsh Labour First Minister] has had to make clear the repatriation of devolved matters is a red line for the Welsh Government, now that’s quite an achievement.

“It is difficult to tell now but Theresa May was a Remainer, but as is true of all the Remainers in the Scottish Parliament, who are the hardest line, the zeal of the convert is seen. But I think she needs to stand back and think clearly because she started off very differently. In her first day in office, she was up here saying to Nicola, ‘look, we will fully engage and fully involve you’. The trouble is that hasn’t happened, and what that says about her as a political leader is that she may make statements that she is careless about fulfilling and that’s not a good reputation for a prime minister to have.

“I think she is determined to hold onto office and to do so, she requires to pacify the UKIP right of her party and indeed, former UKIP voters. Look at the drop in UKIP voting, those voters have come home to the Conservatives and she needs to hold onto them and she’ll think she has a mission to deliver this thing which she believes will essentially ensure the political survival of the Tories. I think as a former home secretary she is, I think, naturally hard line and authoritarian and I think she now buys into the notion of absolute parliamentary sovereignty and that the UK Parliament cannot be second guessed, cannot be overruled. That means she can’t share power and if she can’t share power then Europe is an anathema but then so too is devolution.

“I do think this is really important because when you say it, the Tories get all hot and bothered and say this is outrageous. I got an email from Andrew Dunlop [Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland] saying he was personally offended when I said it. I’m not criticising individual Tories like Dunlop who may well believe in devolution, but I don’t believe she does and I don’t believe the sovereigntists do or if they believe in it, they do not believe in what essentially is parity of esteem between the governments. There is an attempt to delegitimise devolution and the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament and oddly, the Tory MSPs are going along with it. I mean, Annie Wells [Scottish Conservative MSP] and that strange performance on television with  her not believing in the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament. In a sense, technically, constitutionally, though she may not know it, she’s actually right, but what she was saying was that the Parliament’s decisions don’t matter. If you’re a member of a parliament and you’re saying that then you are essentially undermining yourself. I don’t think they realise that. I have a sort of rule of thumb for some of the Tories that the louder they become, the less they believe what they’re saying. Some of the strident language from people like Adam Tomkins [Scottish Conservative MSP] suggests to me they know they’re on very thin ice.”

Having had this ringside seat on Brexit, I wonder what Russell’s observations are about how governments interact.

“There’s a huge difference between ourselves and the government south of the border, actually, many, many differences but one of them is the way in which we are structured. We have a much more cross-governmental approach so people talk to each other but we’ve also got a group of people who have known each other, to a lesser or greater extent, for a very long time. I sit at the cabinet table in Bute House on a Tuesday morning and I’m looking around the table at some people, John Swinney, for example, who I first worked with in 1987, 30 years ago. I first became a senior office bearer of the SNP in September 1987. I first stood for parliament in June 1987. Nicola was the youth representative on the Salmond election committee when Alex became leader in 1990 and I chaired it because I was the campaign manager. I look around that table and some people have come in much later, and new friends have been very good, but by and large, it’s a group of people who may have fallen out from time to time, as people do, but who have been friends and have been colleagues for a long time and will work well together. That is exceptionally important and it also leads to a loyalty with each other.

“I think one of our naiveties is that we don’t understand how unique that is. We don’t understand how other governments work sometimes because we think everybody’s like us. We don’t sometimes underrate the difficulties of other parties because we don’t do that. We’ve had spasms in the 80s and 90s where we could have gone in that direction, but it’s tended to be the current. If you see a collective leadership of a political party then that current collective cadre, you would call it elsewhere, has learnt to know each other and perhaps to trust each other. As I say, new people come in, Derek Mackay, around 30 years ago, he was probably still at school and the same with Humza and others, but you know, Angela and Alasdair Allan were at university together, they were president and vice president of the union, so there’s smaller groupings where people have known each other too and these are new, old bonds, so to speak. I think that’s significant and important. 

“I still talk to Alex – he has discovered electronic communication which is quite scary! I have dinner with him when I’m in London and I spoke to him on the phone two days ago but relationships evolve and change. My relationship with Nicola is very different to what it would have been 30 years ago. She’s a different person, so am I.

“Alex and Nicola are both very good leaders but I think Nicola is more of a planner and I think it’s safe to say she has a huge ability to get people to share, to be confident in her plan and that’s really important. She inspires people by saying this is how we’re going do it, let’s do it. I think that really works, it’s worked on the Brexit issue, particularly the European issue, because on the very first weekend, she was out there showing leadership and she continues to do so.”

Is she going to lead us into another divisive referendum?

“I think this idea of a divisive and destructive referendum just isn’t true. There are some people who were bruised by the process, perhaps they were bruised because it challenged their preconceptions. Perhaps they thought Scotland was something it turned out not to be. But if anybody is rude and offensive, they have no place in this and I’m subject to abuse on Twitter and elsewhere but you just say that’s not what we’re engaged in. I think Scotland’s a very positive country.

“That said, I don’t think I’ve seen a time when the UK leadership has been so divisive and one which is also so careless about it. I mean, May’s precious, precious union will not survive unless perhaps she learns that she has to respect and think about the other parts of that union and so far, she has completely failed to do so.”

Does he think May is more divisive than Thatcher?

“That’s a very interesting question. I can see some similarities between the Thatcher/Michael Forsyth relationship and the May/Davidson relationship, although you know, Thatcher would never have been on both sides of the Brexit debate, she would have known which side she was on and stayed on it so I don’t think May is Thatcher but I think Davidson is a true believer in that muscular Conservatism, and like Forsyth, believes that the problem in Scotland is that there’s not been enough of it…I think that’s a very, very foolish misreading of where we are.”

So in terms of next steps, what has he got up his sleeve?

For once, he is coy.

“My arm…

“Look, it’s an intriguing job and I never expected a) to be back in government or b) to be doing this. It’s a thinking job and the job today, as every day has been and will be, is to try and think our way forward.”

Russell once told me: “I suspect the worst thing that can be said about me is that I am a free thinker and in a sense, I am a free thinker and an iconoclast and that is probably a dangerous thing to be in politics.”

I wonder if Theresa May is about to find out how dangerous that combination could be.

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