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by Tom Freeman
26 April 2019
Alyn Smith: Brexit’s end could be the start of Scotland in Europe

Alyn Smith MEP - credit David Anderson/Holyrood

Alyn Smith: Brexit’s end could be the start of Scotland in Europe

Of all Scotland’s MEPs, Alyn Smith is perhaps the most well-known, largely thanks to two pieces of flamboyant oratory in the European Parliament which gained applause from his peers across the continent.

In his speech in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016, Smith won a standing ovation after he described himself as “proudly Scottish and proudly European,” pleading with MEPs: “Please, remember this: Scotland, did not let you down. Please, I beg you, chers collègues, do not let Scotland down now.”

The speech was bookended at the end of March this year with a speech with similar sentiment, begging European politicians to “leave a light on so we can find our way home”.

Of course, since Smith gave that speech, the Brexit date has been pushed back and Smith, like other UK MEPs, faces the prospect of seeking re-election to that parliament, albeit for potentially a very short term indeed.

Nevertheless, the three years of Brexit negotiations and intransigence have been an emotional one for Smith.

“Ach, it’s been tough. I went straight to anger and I’ve been there ever since,” he tells Holyrood.

Smith blames Prime Minister Theresa May “personally” for the deteriorating relations between the UK and Europe, but says this started with her predecessor, David Cameron, pulling Conservative MEPs out of the centre-right People’s Party/European Democrats group in 2009 to form new right-wing alliances with emerging extreme elements.

“That was where it started, because in the EU, your networks matter,” Smith says. 

“The networks you are part of really count, because that is where you get the credibility, that’s where you get the information, that’s where you understand what’s going on in order to influence it. The Tories found themselves in with a group of headbangers.”

Smith says he noticed, over the course of three European elections, that Conservative grassroots members were increasingly selecting candidates that “stripped out the moderate voices”, leaving the party “less and less credible” on the European stage.

Smith praises Richard Ashworth and Julie Girling, who were expelled from the Tories for criticising May’s negotiating red lines as “horrendous”.  Both have since joined Chuka Ummuna’s Independent Group. He also singles out Scottish Conservative MEP Nosheena Mobarik for rebelling against the whip to back sanctions against Hungary’s right-wing immigration policies under Viktor Orban. The other Conservative MEPs provided what Smith calls “human shields for him on the basis that he might do them some favours”.

“They are, to a man and woman, with the exception of Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth, more interested in their own career prospects and not getting heat from the grassroots.”

Smith knows what getting heat from the grassroots feels like. He was booed at SNP conference in 2012 for suggesting the party’s then policy for Scotland to be an associate, not full, member of NATO, made it look “odd, hopelessly naive and idealistic at best, not ready for the big league”. History, he claims, has vindicated that position.

Smith was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 when he was only 31 and it is clear he is used to the politics of building alliances which so characterises the place.

The UK MEPs who are committed Remainers have been working together, sharing researchers and other resources, he says. He took on remain campaigner Steve Bullock as a consultant who MEPs of all parties work with to resist Brexit.

“What we need to do to turn this round is turn England round, and I can’t do that,” he says. “I’ve got limited traction there, for obvious reasons, but we were helping the Tory, Labour and Green MEPs. We’ve done research for each other and passed it over for someone else to do, which is unheard of.”

This network was useful when promoting the Revoke petition, at a time when Nigel Farage’s voice was heard most loudly at Brussels, he adds.

The ability for the UK to unilaterally revoke Article 50 was a hard-won legal clarification sought by six Scottish politicians, first in Scots law and then at the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).

The idea came from Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, according to Smith. Maugham had wanted a case that would get referred to the ECJ, and first approached Smith to back a case in Ireland but Smith had thought it “pretty tenuous”. A year or so later, Maugham had decided to try Scotland’s legal system.

“I was totally game for that. We were looking for ‘a Scottish Gina Miller’, for somebody who wasn’t a politician but who could be supported by politicians, and we got [Scottish Labour MEP] David Martin onto it as well.”

Gina Miller successfully took the UK Government to court to ensure parliament had sovereignty over Brexit, but she suffered a torrent of abuse online and a petition to silence her emerged. It was therefore difficult for Smith, Maugham and Martin to find someone willing to stick their neck out in a similar way.

They decided to get in touch with the Scottish Greens, and Andy Wightman MSP was willing to put his name to the case.

MPs were approached to get involved as well, but only Joanna Cherry was willing to put her name to it after the UK Government warned that the action was breaching parliamentary privilege. 

Scottish Labour’s other MEP, Catherine Stihler, and Scottish Green Ross Greer were the other names on the action.

Despite the UK Government fighting the decision, the ‘Scottish six’ won the case, and the UK still has the ability to cancel Brexit as a result. 

Smith says it “changed the weather”, pointing to the fact Theresa May’s ultimatum of her deal or no deal no longer applied when reversing Brexit was an option.

Smith points to research by David Pannick QC which found the public saw Brexit as a past event rather than something which “is very much live”.

When it comes to past events, Smith’s journey into politics and supporting Scottish independence is an unorthodox one. Born in the east end of Glasgow “up a close”, Smith moved to Saudi Arabia in 1979 after his father, a builder, found himself unemployed.

“In the words of Norman Tebbitt, he got on his bike and looked for work. There was the prospect of working down south or in continental Europe but there was an offer from Riyadh to go build houses for the Saudi government. 

“So he did that for a year on bachelor status while my mum looked after me and my sister. That must have been tough, a long shift. But Dad was having a whale of a time. 

“Saudi in those days, the Bedouin tradition of hospitality was still there. The religious stuff was in the picture but it wasn’t as in charge as it is now. There was also a sense of ‘you are guests in our country and doing stuff we don’t know how to do’.”

Joining his father there aged only six, Smith says attending an international school in the Middle East provided formative memories. 

“All my wee pals were Syrian, Iraqi, Saudi, Lebanese and whatever else,” he remembers. “The teaching was in English, largely, but also a good bit of French and Arabic.”

He describes it as a “cosmopolitan, international” upbringing that brought with it a degree of instability, in that families never knew if they were going to be turfed out of the country. He was only allowed one toy at a time in case he had to leave in a rush. 

“Because I was in the international school, we knew what was happening in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, we knew about the Iran/Iraq war and because of that, we knew what the Israelis were up to. 

“We were formed into formation three times to be evacuated because there was going to be a military event or whatever else.”

Smith says it has given him a different perspective on stability, in that he doesn’t crave it as much as others.

“I don’t greatly mind about uncertainty, which has come in handy in the last couple of years, I must say.”

Precariousness does have an impact on people, though, which has been writ large in the Brexit process, especially for those EU citizens living in the UK.

“Dad’s trip every three months to the interior ministry to get his stamp on his card was not an academic exercise, which is where the Brexit stuff is really hitting me deep,” says Smith.

“What we can airily say is ‘just a couple of forms’, is not. It’s big, especially when you are dealing with people for whom papers is still in the fault memory as a thing.”

Now Smith’s family are spread out across the world. His parents returned to the Middle East.

“Family is not about bricks and mortar, it’s about who you love and where they are. My sister is now in California, with brother-in-law and the babies. He’s a research biochemist, so I get to San Francisco when I can. There are worse places to have to go for Christmas!”

Smith returned to Scotland at 14 in 1987. 

“We got back to Glasgow airport. I remember it well. I spoke English with an American accent, and I spoke Arabic as well as I spoke English. I was silent as we got there and I was looking at the sky, and I was like, ‘why is the sky so low?’ And it’s never really changed. That’s still my view.”

But given he was away from Scotland for almost exactly the reign of Margaret Thatcher, Smith’s journey to supporting Scottish independence is very different than many of his peers in the SNP.

“I didn’t know what Live Aid was. I’ve read about the miners’ strike but I don’t have any memory of it. It was politics first for me, then independence, by some considerable margin.”

He remembers approaching an SNP stall in Glasgow city centre aged 17 and being unimpressed by “a tirade about how oppressed we are”.

“I don’t think Scotland is oppressed, for a second. It could do better, but that is a different discussion,” he maintains.

He went on to law school in Leeds then Nottingham, where he volunteered for local Labour MP Paddy Tipping, who Smith describes as “a great guy. He had a beard before it was cool”.

Smith didn’t join the party, though. It wasn’t until he was doing an internship in Brussels while doing a masters at the College of Europe that he became switched on to independence.

“Spending time in that environment, where everybody is special and everybody has their own stuff but there is this wider framework, Scotland was already seen as being ‘independent’, different. 

“There was a recognition that we weren’t quite a region but not quite a thing either, I began to think ‘we could do better than this’.”

By the time he was elected, Smith was well familiar with Brussels. Two of his tutors at the College of Europe were sitting as MEPs for Poland across the chamber. He already had a support network, and was assisted by “utterly unflappable” SNP colleague Ian Hudghton – who retires at this election – and his wife in the early weeks. 

But in the years since, European democracy has come under strain, not least from the financial crash and subsequent fallout which saw technocrats appointed to run Italy and Greece, and punitive conditions attached to financial bailouts, particularly towards the latter. Indeed, there were some among the left and within the SNP who voted to reject the EU because of it. 

Smith says the criticism is “legitimate”, but he rejects it. 

“How we talk about Europe in these islands needs to get over itself. We’re not special. We’re not interesting. Everybody else does politics too. There is no European politics, except where there is that solidarity.”

The Greek crisis “was entirely a Greek creation”, he suggests.

“Frankly, if you talk about a technocratic government, if you put the offer of a technocratic government to the people of the UK just now, I’m not entirely sure it would be a bad option. 

“What we saw was not a European failure. It was a Greek failure, it was an Italian failure. 

“This is the dynamic between the national and the European level. The EU is a rules-based cooperation, and solidarity is built into the system as are consequences for your actions.”

Coverage of Europe in the UK media has tended to be fairly negative. Indeed, before the EU referendum, there was very little coverage of what MEPs were up to at all.

“These politicians are small. These politicians are far away,” smiles Smith, in a reference to a joke about perspective that aired in the sitcom Father Ted.

“This is where there has been a disconnect between domestic and EU politics. The UK has had a uniquely bad structure for doing the European stuff, in that the UK, from the very get-go, viewed the EU stuff as somehow foreign. It was viewed through the prism of foreign affairs. 

“In Finland, Denmark, Ireland, the European affairs stuff is integral to government. EU matters are dealt with directly in the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin. The Europe minister in the UK was not even at a cabinet-level rank until very recently. He or she was a deputy to the foreign secretary. 

“Sadly, the Scottish apparatus mirrored that structure. We should have had European stuff cutting across everything, because it does cut across everything.”

Much of Smith’s time at the European Parliament has focused on agriculture, thanks to his membership of the relevant committee, which later expanded its remit to include food more generally. 

He says it remains “far and away” his favourite policy area.

“The facts are stark. Without EU support, one in three Scottish holdings goes under, which means destocking, people leaving the land, big chunks of Scottish countryside going to ruin. 

“The idea of rewilding I completely dismiss. We’ve always had a working countryside and we always will, I hope. There’s only so much of a future in quadbikes and glamping. We need agriculture to make Scotland work. What Scotland does is produce spectacularly good food and drink.”
But a large number of farmers voted to reject Europe. 

“You’re right, there is an element among Scottish farmers that wherever the regulations are coming from is what they want to get rid of. 

“It was the same with fishermen as well. If the regulations were coming from London, they’d like them just as little, or coming from Edinburgh. 

“I have to say, there’s a damn sight fewer of them now because the promises made to the fishermen and the farmers, whoever else, have comprehensively not been kept. And they are not going to be kept. Even the most enthusiastic Tories are not talking about a sea of opportunity anymore, because they know it’s pish.”

Animal rights is another area that Smith identifies as an interest, and he was made honorary vice-president of the SSPCA. But he concedes there is a potential split in opinion between rural and urban members of the SNP on things such as blood sports.

“I think Scotland is big enough and diverse enough to come up with solutions,” he says.

“Fishing and hunting has been part of what we do. My personal take on it is making it a sport is something I’m uncomfortable with, but I’m a libertarian, so it’s not something I would seek to ban. 

“But my biggest question is, is it the most economically productive thing we could be doing with the land? Particularly in respect to grouse, where it most demonstrably isn’t.”

Smith has also campaigned on lobbying by his former home, Saudi Arabia, and called for an EU-wide arms embargo on the country.

He points to the fact the Middle Eastern state lines were drawn along the dividing lines of the British and French empires. 

“We are beholden to this region. We did this. The reason why we see such breathtaking double standards across much of the Western world in dealing with the Middle East is because people want to make money out of it. There’s lots of money going. 

“Jeezo, I grew up in Saudi as part of the human shield, part of all sorts of stuff. I can bring that perspective to it, I can speak to the Saudis as a friend of Saudi. 

“As a gay man, I can speak about LGBTi stuff, and say as a friend of your country, I know both. That hits in a way it wouldn’t if I was just reading a press release at them.”

Smith predicts a Chilcot-style inquiry into the financial interests of those who have advocated Brexit. But Holyrood speaks to Smith on the day one of his chers collègues, Ian Blackford, was found to have chaired an investment fund which had invested in BAE systems and Airbus, both of which are involved in arms contracts to Saudi Arabia.

Smith says he doesn’t know the details, but say the lack of transparency in finance means “the ethics of finance is something which has yet to really dawn on people”.

He says: “We see the universities coming under pressure for it, the local authorities coming under pressure, and fair dos. But equally, unless we’re saying these activities are illegal then why should we say people should have lower pensions than they otherwise should? There is a wider discussion that needs to be had about this, EU-wide, truth be told.”

A lack of transparency was exploited by Vote Leave, he suggests.

“Who elected the WTO, who are these people? If you didn’t like Brussels, wait till you meet Geneva. That’s going to throw all that into sharp relief.”

Another thing being left unsaid is exactly what Smith’s European friends are saying about Scottish independence. How did his ‘leave a light on’ request go down?

Things have changed from 2014, he suggests. “We boxed ourselves into a corner by using the word ‘automatic’. Nothing is automatic and, in truth, we wouldn’t want it to be,” he says.

“There was also the question, and this is fundamental, which is the EU is dead against internal enlargement. The splitting of one member state into two is utterly unprecedented and has to happen with the acquiescence of all parties. There’s a real reticence, not just from Spain but from a lot of other member states.”

Catalonia, he says, is “failing” by trying to create a set of rights in EU law.

“The EU has a well-publicised clear rule book as to how you apply. That changes the day and hour Brexit happens because we’ll not be applying from within, we’ll be applying from without. So, we’re already talking about a ‘Brexit flip’ in attitudes to us. 

“There is a reticence to get into the internal workings of a member state, there will be less of a reticence to get into the workings of an ex-member state.”

With the UK about to enter the difficult bit of Brexit, the forging of new relationships, Smith says his role will be to play an active part in putting Scotland’s case as part of that. Even if his time as an MEP is over, he wants to be based in Scotland after his partner moved in with him. He has put himself forward for a new party role as policy development convener, with the aim to “reach out to the wider community about what policies we need.”

“Brexit’s end is Scotland in Europe’s beginning. Trite as that sounds, it’s true,” he says. 

“What we need to do, meantime, is make sure people in Brussels and the capitals are well aware of where we are, what we’re asking for and what we are not asking for. If I say so myself, my speech in Strasbourg, to leave a light on, was the right pitch. We don’t want you to get into our stuff but bear us in mind. We’ll be in touch.”  

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