Q&A with Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for the constitution, Europe and external affairs
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?
Without question it has been the UK leaving the European Union and the subsequent negotiations. Leaving the EU will have a hugely damaging economic impact on Scotland and this can only be exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I am concerned about the impact that both of these will have on our economy.
How difficult have Brexit negotiations been during the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an inevitable impact on logistics around the discussions. For example, negotiators were unable to meet face-to-face for many weeks. An extension would have solved this in the EU context but was contemptuously refused. I have, however, been able to intensify my contacts with players in other European capitals by the increasingly accepted use of video conferencing.
With the combined economic and social impacts of COVID and Brexit in one year, and confirmation that there will be no Brexit extension past 31 December, how concerned are you about Scotland’s future post 1 January 2021?
We are facing unprecedented difficulty and potential hardship as a result of the UK’s approach to Brexit, so of course I am very worried. The Scottish Government published a paper on 3 June 2020 that assessed the need for an extension to the Brexit transition period in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Modelling outlined within this paper indicates that ending transition this year would result in Scottish GDP being between £1.1bn and £1.8bn lower by 2022 (0.7 to 1.1 per cent of GDP) compared with ending transition at the end of 2022. That would be equivalent to a cumulative loss of economic activity of between nearly £2bn and £3bn over those two years.
In addition to the cost, I am also very worried that businesses and individuals will not be prepared for the end of the transition period and it is simply unconscionable to expect them to be able to prepare for a future relationship with the EU which, to date, remains an unknown as well as to deal with the ongoing fallout of a global health emergency. It is also now clear that other trade deals are not going to happen within this time frame too, leaving the likely outcome being a reversion to WTO trading rules and the difficulties we have already had to address twice before in preparing for the disruption of a no deal.
All this makes even clearer the fact that the best future for Scotland is to be an independent country as a full member of the EU.
When would you hope to be able to hold a second independence referendum?
The mandate we have to offer the Scottish people a choice over their future is, by any normal standard of democracy, unarguable.
The Scottish Government is currently focussed on tackling the COVID pandemic and we will return to the issue when it is appropriate to do so. That time is fast approaching, particularly given the further power grab the UK Government has now embarked on.
Have relations between the Scottish and UK governments improved or got worse during the coronavirus crisis?
In relation to COVID-19 specifically there has been reasonable inter-governmental engagement and the four nations approach produced some early successes. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the Brexit process. Despite the fact that we fundamentally disagree with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, we have sought at every stage to engage meaningfully with UK Government in order to ensure that Scotland’s interests are protected as much as possible. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for UK Government and we now have a full-on assault on devolution with the publication of the UK Government’s internal market proposals.
Given that you are standing down next year, what do you hope to achieve within the portfolio before then?
Given that defending the existing devolution settlement will also be an important part of my work in the next few months, I think it will be a vital and busy time. I hope to be able to advance progress towards a referendum and make sure that the case we are arguing is very strong and clear. Brexit and independence are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin and I hope I can communicate that in Scotland and ensure that there is also a good understanding of our position outside these islands.
Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown?
I missed the interchange with colleagues in the parliament – formal and informal.
If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?
I have too many good friends in the cabinet, in the parliament and across politics to answer that. There are even journalists I miss talking to – one or two anyway. Having the occasional drink in the parliament bar with Brian Taylor – an impeccably non-political political editor – is something I will miss when I am not an MSP as he and I go a long way back – to at least the mid 1980s. The same holds true for your own magazine’s editor.