Q&A: Michael Russell on how Brexit is 'a scam'
This is a new Cabinet position, what will it entail and where do you see the priorities?
Part of my portfolio continues what I have been doing on Brexit. However, it makes sense to integrate that with the wider issue of overall government business given there will be so much secondary legislation and so much demand on the Parliament itself over the next couple of years. Constitutional relations and liaison with other UK legislatures is clearly related to that issue and so are some other portfolio responsibilities including elements of electoral reform.
My priority will be to continue to ensure that Scotland’s interests are articulated as part of the UK Brexit process and that the UK Government is left in no doubt about what Scotland wants and needs. I will also want to point up and seek to change the current constitutional settlement, given the way in which it is working against Scotland’s interests, whilst working as hard as I can to try to make sure that Scotland avoids a legislative and operational Brexit cliff-edge.
Graeme Dey, as the Minister for Parliamentary Business, will take forward the day-to-day parliamentary business issues as a member of the bureau, working with other parties on issues such as committee membership and remit. He also has special responsibility for veterans, a matter which is very close to his heart.
What lessons have you learnt from the last couple of years as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe?
A degree of patience I never thought I had and a massive confirmation of my longstanding view that Scotland needs to be independent. The current UK Government and Parliament is working against our interests and is also chaotic, undisciplined and heedless to reason.
Have there been positions within the negotiations that have particularly surprised you, for instance, when the Welsh backed the UK’s Brexit legislation?
I have worked very closely with the Welsh and with parts of the Northern Ireland political system. I was always of the view that we might not agree on certain matters within the Withdrawal Bill but that has not affected our ability to co-operate, which we continue to do at the JMC, in the Ministerial Forum and in other ways. The biggest surprise has been the depth of chaos into which the UK Government has sunk, and the inability of the Prime Minister to listen to and find a way to compromise with, let alone respect, the devolved nations and the devolved settlement. I am also surprised that good people who know that Brexit is wrong and disastrous are prepared to go along with it for the sake of their careers – both at Westminster and at Holyrood. That actually horrifies me.
How are constitutional relations across these nations, on a scale of one to ten, and what can be done to improve things?
Relations between the UK Government and the Scottish Government are at a very low ebb – probably at two on that scale. But between Scotland and Wales they are better than they have ever been – an eight at least. With most of the Northern Ireland parties – excepting the DUP, unfortunately – relations are also in a positive state. Relations with the UK can only be improved if they start to respect the devolved settlement and work with us as partners rather than trying to impose their will on us, despite, for example, Scotland voting against Brexit. Things are not helped by the Prime Minister coming to Scotland and telling us that it is “incumbent upon us” to support her position, especially as many of her own MPs don’t do so. That just gets backs up.
Like Roseanna Cunningham, you have previously talked about being environment minister as one of the most rewarding roles in government because of the challenges it brings in bringing disparate groups to the table, was that useful experience in terms of Brexit negotiations and in your new role?
Yes, but all the jobs I have had in government have been learning experiences which always help in future jobs. Environment is a most enjoyable portfolio given the range of interesting things it deals with but it does also require a lot of mediation and negotiation between competing interests. Its special relevance to the Brexit portfolio also lies in the amount of European regulation and legislation involved and the need to ensure it continues to be influential so that environmental standards are not reduced.
As a ministerial ‘grey-beard’, what advice would you offer to the new entrants to ministerial positions and more specifically, to the minister that will be working directly to you?
I have had a ‘grey beard’ for a while, so that isn’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. But I would give them all the same advice that I give to first-time MSPs. Enjoy the job, and if you aren’t enjoying it, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. I don’t mean that everything is always fun all the time, but being positive in a job and about one’s responsibilities is something that ensures positive leadership and better results from everyone. Graeme and I worked closely together on the Land Reform Bill in 2015, as members of the old Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, so we know each other and I am sure I will learn as much from him as he from me.
The Prime Minister has constantly told us that Brexit means Brexit, what does Brexit mean to you?
A completely unnecessary waste of time and money, which we now know was only obtained by deceit and, most likely, illegal campaign funding. It appears, more and more, to be a scam devised and perpetrated by wealthy extremists.
Which European country would you happily live in?
I am very fond of Ireland and used to spend a lot of time there when I worked in television. But as I like the lifestyle in France, Italy and Spain and – as I get older – find I need more sunshine, I could happily settle almost anywhere there. I also like the snow, so Sweden and Finland would be fine too. But my mother trained in Denmark, my younger brother lives in Brussels and my elder brother spends much of his time in Romania, so I suppose almost any of the 27. But I would rather stay in Scotland and make sure it became the 28th