Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

Tommy Sheppard: Brexit is here to stay as defining issue of today

Tommy Sheppard: Brexit is here to stay as defining issue of today

I did ten press-ups this morning. It’s a start. Like many others the first days of my fledgling new year are driven by diet and detox. After the season of Christmas party excess and forced bonhomie it’s time to reset the body. The road to hell and all that…

I write on bank holiday Tuesday. The last day before the start of a new political term; last day of distraction. Tomorrow I’ll need to fire through the gears and get up to speed for the political challenges of 2017.

And what might they be you ask? It’s a fair enough question to put to an elected politician. My friends and family did it repeatedly over the last fortnight. Don’t ask me, I told them.  Thinking back to a year ago I, like most, could never have predicted what has happened in the year just gone.

For my party there was the achievement of getting a third term in Scottish Government as Nicola Sturgeon won the Scottish general election with more votes than ever before. But that seems like the only silver lining in a god-awful year for anyone of a liberal left persuasion.

My only prediction is this: just as Brexit dominated 2016 so it will dominate 2017. This may be the year when we find out what Brexit means, maybe not. Maybe we’ll get a date for when that £350m a week extra will be put into the NHS or maybe not.

Brexit is more than just a debate about the relationship the UK has with its European neighbours. It has become the rubric for a much bigger exercise in soul searching. The working class communities of England feel betrayed, left behind, ignored by a political elite which has kept the benefits of globalisation closely to its chest for decades. Brexit was – in part – their rage against the machine. An attempt to wipe the slate clean so they could find themselves.

That struggle for a contemporary English identity will dominate UK politics in the years ahead. There’s a fear the country could go backwards, dividing on ethnic lines, blaming the victims of economic mismanagement rather than the perpetrators. But it needn’t be so. This could also be the wakeup call for progressives to unite and regroup.

And in the midst of this we need to make our voice heard. It won’t be easy. It’ll work better if we are united. We need to try to put distrust behind us in the year ahead. To make judgements on what people say, not what you think they mean.

Just before the end of the last miserable year the Scottish Government presented its case for special Brexit arrangements for Scotland. They make a case for a new Scotland Act – which will have to happen anyway as EU powers are repatriated – giving the Scottish Government the competence to be able to sign an agreement to keep Scotland in the single market.  At the same time Scotland would follow the rest of the UK and either stay in or leave the European customs union so that Britain would not require any internal tariffs.

To be absolutely clear, this position is not independence which remains the governing party’s stated objective. It is a massive compromise. It would require the Scottish Government to have much more economic power than ever before and some limited control over migration. But what’s wrong with that in a post Brexit world. In many ways, this is the home rule that Uncle Gordon was prattling on about two years ago.

This position also respects the integrity of the Brexit vote across the UK as it accepts Scotland will leave the EU. It simply says that what happens next must be different in Scotland, particularly because that’s the wish of the people who live here.

Now you could take the view that there can never be any special arrangements for Scotland. You could, but it’s simply not true. What is the Scottish parliament if not a special relationship? Across every aspect of public life in the law, education, medicine, the arts, there are different arrangements for the administration of things in Scotland. This one is bigger I admit, but the principle is the same.

Back in 2014 those of us who argued for running our own affairs were told that a vote to stay in the union would see Scotland’s views respected not smothered. Lead not leave (the UK) was, I believe, a Better Together slogan. 2017 will be the year we find out if respect means respect.

First written for the Edinburgh Evening News 

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Thursday, 22 February 2018

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