Q&A: Michael Russell on Brexit, independence and citizens' assemblies
As she left office, Theresa May basically said that the SNP Government was the most disruptive in terms of good relations between devolved government and UK the governments. Would you concur?
No. Not least because it isn’t true. We have been very constructive for the last three years, but always within the context that our job as the Scottish Government is to protect and advance the best interests of all those who live here.
We have of course been resolute in our attempts to defend the current devolution settlement whilst always making it clear we want to go further. That is what we were elected to do.
In fact, that the former Prime Minister believes such representation to be disruptive says much more about her and her ignorance of devolution and her inability to be open to any point of view other than her own.
The reality is the UK Government has ignored the clear vote of people in Scotland to remain in the EU; has disregarded the views of the Scottish Parliament, often when expressed with a large majority as with the Continuity Bill and dismissed the compromise proposals we put on the table as long ago as December 2016.
I think you will find the Welsh Government has been as frustrated as ourselves at the way the UK Government has conducted its business since the Brexit vote. Despite our very real differences with the UK Government we have tried our best to work with them and indeed some of the work that has been carried out on policy frameworks shows what is possible.
In this respect David Lidington deserves some credit but he of course has been sacked in favour of hard-liners who know little and care less about devolution and are prepared to take Scotland and the UK over the cliff to a disastrous No Deal Brexit. That is why it is more important than ever for people in Scotland to choose their own future.
How well prepared is Scotland for the prospect of a no deal Brexit?
We are as well prepared as we possibly can be. Scottish Government ministers and officials are fully focused on mitigating the effects of no deal in all the sectors that fall under our responsibility.
We will do everything we can to achieve that, but we cannot do everything to avert the consequences of a no deal.
Inevitably businesses would face serious difficulties importing supplies and exporting their products. There is a risk of interruptions in the food chain and in the supply of medicines.
And independent analysis shows that there would be job losses in Scotland and across the UK.
What would a no deal Brexit mean for support for independence?
The decision to remove Scotland from the European Union, against the wishes of its people, is the most serious example of the democratic deficit in our post-devolution relationship with the UK Government. A no deal Brexit would further and seriously compound the harmful effects of this decision and have a very damaging effect on our economy.
Against this background, Scotland has a fundamental choice to make about its future. In April the First Minister announced three distinct initiatives to identify the best way forward for Scotland. We are initiating cross-party talks to explore areas of agreement on constitutional change. A Citizens’ Assembly is being established to explore the key questions facing our country. And we have announced our intention to give people a choice on independence in a second referendum.
No doubt the UK Government’s handling of the Brexit process – and the repercussions for Scotland - is one of the reasons that more and more people are saying it’s time to take our own decisions instead of being at the mercy of an increasingly chaotic and broken Westminster system.
But Brexit is an example of what is wrong, not the only cause of it. Just as Boris Johnson exemplifies the worst aspects of an undemocratic system that ignores Scotland. He is not the first Prime Minister to do so. Let’s hope he is the last.
How has Brexit changed the way other countries, outside the UK, view the argument for Scottish independence?
The divisions opened up by Brexit have highlighted Scotland’s very different approach to the European Union and wider international relations. There is now greater awareness of Scotland as a distinctive nation that is open to the world, one that shares the EU’s core values and is a global leader in tackling climate change.
The SNP is also fortunate in having three exceptional MEPs spreading the word amongst their colleagues from the other 27 EU members, and our 35 MPs meet London-based diplomats frequently as well as making sure their activities at Westminster are known and reported widely. As global understanding of Scotland’s constitutional situation increases, so does respect and support for Scots’ desire to have a greater say in their own future.
You are now responsible for Scottish Government activity on Brexit, a possible second independence referendum and plans for a Citizens’ Assembly. How will you manage your time?
I am fortunate to have a good team around me, including my deputy, Graeme Dey, who is the Parliamentary Business Manager, and some key officials who have considerable experience and are also used to working with me, as I have been a minister for most of the last 12 years.
I always try to focus my efforts on where I can have most impact and my colleagues also know to tell me to stop doing things if, as usual, I try to overdo it. I don’t always listen of course…!
Although Brexit has been a constant in my diary for three years it is becoming harder and harder to predict what will happen, and that does create uncertainty which is sometimes difficult to work through. No deal preparation spiked in the run up to the first withdrawal date on 29 March and is rapidly increasing again now.
I often reflect that it is immensely frustrating to see so much time and effort spent trying to mitigate the damaging effects of a policy that Scotland does not want and which is being forced upon us.
We could do so much more with all that money and all that hard work.
In contrast, preparations for the Citizens’ Assembly have been intensive but fascinating as we explore new ways of involving people in the democratic process.
It is vital though that this activity is independent and separate from Government and we are almost at the time when the two independent conveners and the secretariat will take the project over and drive it ahead. I really look forward to watching flourish over the coming months.
Of course no matter how busy I am in Edinburgh or London or Brussels my primary duty as an MSP is to my constituents in the amazing, but very large, constituency of Argyll and Bute constituency. I have a great team that works for me there too and making sure my constituents receive as much help as we can give in all the issues they confront is a constant priority and a good antidote to the Brexit bubble.
What lessons has Brexit provided for a future campaign for Scottish independence?
Independence is the very opposite of Brexit. We want Scotland to play its full part as a member of the European family of nations.
Of course we want the rest of the UK to stay in the EU as well, which is why we are working with others to try to achieve that aim.
By its nature our movement is inclusive and outward looking and must remain so, whereas the Tories in charge of Brexit seem to revel in division and isolation.
Brexit is about going backwards to an imagined past in which the world was subordinated to Britain’s interests.
In reality that is about getting off the world as it is. In the year of Winnie Ewing’s 90th birthday it seems appropriate for us to counter that by saying “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” and acting accordingly.
Both supporters and critics have described plans for a Citizens’ Assembly as a vehicle for promoting Scottish independence. How can you convince Scots they are for everyone?
Citizens’ assemblies have been used in many countries to debate contentious issues and propose potential solutions. To work successfully they must begin with a clean slate and be free from external interference.
The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland has a brief to examine the three questions that the First Minister suggested as being those that were important for our collective future
* What kind of country are we seeking to build?
* How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?
* What further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?
The direction its debate takes, who is called to give evidence and what recommendations are eventually made are matters solely for the Assembly members and independent conveners to decide.
The Assembly is a non-political body. I was sorry that, initially, some people were unable to see past their own concerns and fears but I sincerely hope that everyone will look closely at the facts, watch how the Assembly develops, listen to the assurances of the conveners and think again. The door remains open to all.
This is an opportunity to create new mechanisms for democracy and provide different ways for people’s voices to be heard. We should grasp it with both hands.
Boris Johnson enjoys painting wooden crates. What do you do to unwind?
I read, I write, I take photographs (I am now close to completing my 9th year posting a photograph every day on Blipfoto), I enjoy being with a few good friends, I listen to music, I cook (often the produce that my wife grows in her polytunnel, as she has taken to horticulture in her retirement) and sometimes I travel (though as I travel a lot in my job and in my constituency, I also like being at home in my Argyll garden).