Nicola Sturgeon appoints controversial Brexit Minister

In the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum, Nicola Sturgeon played an absolute blinder. She seemed like she was the only grown-up in power. She was calm, she was reasonable and she put up a massive big tent that allowed all parties to unite. Well, not the Tories, but who cares about them in Scotland, anyway?  Given the chaos they have inflicted, as Brexit gets underway, I suspect that their good performance in the Holyrood elections will turn out to be a high water mark.

Within days of the result, the Scottish Parliament debated and passed a motion which authorised the First Minister and the Scottish Government to look for a way to preserve Scotland’s relationship with the EU. It was not, Nicola Sturgeon told Parliament, about independence.

However, let me be clear that if the Government concludes that the best or the only way to protect Scotland’s place in the EU is through a referendum on independence, we will return to Parliament with that judgment and it will then be for Parliament to decide. I am emphatically not asking Parliament to endorse that step today. A vote for today’s motion is not a vote for a referendum on independence.

I was glad to see that the Scottish Liberal Democrats backed Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts. Everyone seemed to be working together well with the SNP even removing wording from the motion to make sure it was  something all the parties except the Tories (who ultimately abstained) could sign up to.

Since then, however, Sturgeon, after an initial flurry of meetings and initiatives in Brussels, has stopped talking about such options as a “reverse Greenland” and she and her ministers have done little except talk about independence. The big tent has been blown down.

We all thought she was absolutely serious about trying to get a settlement for Scotland yet only weeks later, she seems to have retreated from that. Even as figures showed that Scotland would have an almost 15 billion (around half its actual budget) deficit, she still intends to bring forward legislation for a second referendum within weeks. The polls are showing a majority in favour of staying in the UK after an initial surge for independence in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.

However, it’s not going to be that easy for her to win a referendum. People don’t tend to vote for unpredictability when things are bad – and as we move towards Brexit, things will get very bad indeed.  However much I might have wanted to cut loose from the English voters who had ruined our future in the early hours of 24th June, it didn’t take me long to realise that the practicalities of why it wasn’t a good idea last time hadn’t been resolved.

The biggest sign that Nicola’s no longer interested in consensus is her appointment of a Minister to work with the UK on Brexit. Given that the three UK ministers in charge of Brexit are, not to put too fine a point on it, fairly controversial mavericks who are already falling out amongst themselves, you would think that she would have wanted to put a grown-up in the room. It needs someone with diplomatic skills, finesse and interminable patience to deal with Fox, Johnson and Davis. So what does she do? Only appoint the controversial former Education Secretary Mike Russell. He also is a bit of a maverick who spent his 8 years in office mostly upsetting people. During his term of office, the education system slid way down the world rankings. He makes a bull in a china shop look a master of subtlety. You wouldn’t send a tanker of kerosene into an almighty conflagration. Nicola just did.

This looks very like she’s pursuing the old grievance strategy. Russell is there to pick fights. It’s a massive slap in the face for her Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop that Russell is being sent into this arena. There are plenty capable women she could have sent if she was interested in actually getting somewhere.

It worries me that these four volatile men are driving forward Scotland’s and the UK’s Brexit operation. I’m disappointed that Nicola appears to walking away from that big tent so soon. Of course they were going to go for independence at some point. You expect that. It’s what they believe in. However, I don’t want her to let down the likes of Gibraltar either. Together they might actually get somewhere if they put their energies into something like a reverse Greenland plan. Gibraltar may not fare so well on its own.

Nicola was quite good at the statesmanship stuff. It’s a shame she’s given it up so soon.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron you seem to have forgotten the group of experts which the SG has convened to advise on the complex issues. it is also difficult to see how the SG can develop its own proposals when the UK government has yet to start defining its proposals. So it seems hard to see how you reach your conclusion that the SG has abandoned its “big tent” approach and quite frankly disappointing that in the absence of such evidence you stoop to an ad hominem attack on Russell. Perhaps you and the LDs should be saying whether you agree with the appointment of a Brexit Minister and what he should be doing.

  • That’s not the impression I have formed. I get the impression that a significant proportion of Scots don’t see Nicola Sturgeon as statesmanlike, they take an alternative “making Scotland a laughing stock” view.

    The SNP want independence. They will use any cause to fan the flames of division in furtherance of their independence aim. Brexit is just the latest manufactured grievance. Weren’t the SNP anti-EU a few years ago.

  • @andy allan: Russell’s record speaks for itself. The Stow College affair for a start.

    He is not the person I would ever choose to do anything that requires finesse and negotiation if I wanted to get anywhere.

    The SG should not be banging on about independence while this process is going on.

  • There is no change of position as the First Minister made clear at Tuesday’s press conference. She said from the outset that all options will be explored to give effect to the clear mandate to keep Scotland in the EU and avoid the dramatic detriment to the Scottish economy that would result from leaving the EU. There is no change on that, as she reiterated on Tuesday.
    She has, however, always made it clear from the outset that it may well not be possible to keep Scotland in both the UK and EU and a referendum on which of the two very different unions that Scotland wants to be in is “highly likely”. That has also not changed.

    To hear the First Minister’s own words and decide for yourself what to think, the press conference can be viewed here…
    The press conference proper starts at 11:30 in, and the section on the EU is from 13:40 onwards.

    Viewers in England who are in favour of remaining in the single market and avoiding the hard form of Brexit may be reassured to hear that the First Minister’s views on that issue.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Aug '16 - 11:46pm

    Caron has correctly described Nicola sturgeon in words she deserves , what I do not understand is the opening of the article .

    Glowing comments on the , very , eloquent ,but divisive First Minister , who would not know the word unity unless it had ,Scottish ,and independence next to it in a sentence , while at the same time dismissing the Tories in Scotland , whose excellent leader, Ruth Davidson , a British patriot , was one of the most passionate voices for Remain throughout our Union , and whose party is the official opposition of Scotland !

  • Lorenzo, Ruth Davidson did well up here by decoupling herself almost completely from the Conservatives down south. I don’t think she’ll get away with that any longer, particularly as Brexit starts to unravel. It is her party which, time and again, has put itself before the national interest. We saw it over English Votes for English Laws the day after the independence referendum and again over Brexit.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Aug '16 - 12:05am

    Caron, thank you , yes , of course what you say makes sense on the Tories UK wide and in the rest of the countries other than Scotland , yet it is the success that Ruth Davidson has achieved in doing what you , do now refer to , establishing the Tories as something altogether more likeable , than in England !

    Mind you , I had the pleasure of spotting Anabel now , Baroness , Goldie on my way into a meeting I attended at the House of Lords committee rooms recently , and speaking with her ,a delightful character !

  • I am not Scottish nor living in Scotland, so perhaps my view is more detached. I do not know if an independent Scotland would get EU membership. However, Scotland has a lot to lose if it isn’t in the EU – as does the rest of the UK. So if the only way of remaining in the EU is through independence, then I suspect this will suddenly become a much more attractive option and I suggest my Lib Dem colleagues north of the border should begin to take this into their calculations.
    Of course, I still hope that Brexit may ultimately not happen, once the reality of what the rest of the EU will offer us becomes clear, but whether Mrs May has the gumption to go the House of Commons and say so is in doubt.
    It is near wise to say never in politics and our Scottish colleagues should not dig themselves a hole they cannot get out of.

  • John Peters 26th Aug '16 - 8:35am

    Before Scotland can join the EU it has to become independent.

    Before Scotland can become independent there has to be indyrefx (x currently 2).

    No sign of indyref2 (I thought there was going to be a summer drive for indyref2, not much summer left in Scotland).

  • John Peters 26th Aug '16 - 9:19am


    You can’t retain something you don’t have. Scotland is not a member of the EU. In EU parlance Scotland is a tier 1 NUT of the UK.

    I’d have thought the biggest problem for Scotland, if they are accepted into the EU, would be the hard border between Scotland and England and the economic shock of readjusting their relationship with their largest trading partner, the UK.

  • I’d say keep an eye on the EU machinations for a few months yet. On the Euronews portal there is a good article about the next countries likely to want an Exit (France, Denmark) or the next best thing; just not cooperating with the EU rules they don’t like. We have already seen the Germans, Italians and Spanish utterly flouting EU economic rules with zero comeback and the Hungarian PM is doing the same about immigration policy. This plus a new poll of German industrialists who are seriously worried about Brexit costing the EU more than it costs the UK, may just force the EU to relax some of the policy that Brexiters had objected to and hence we may yet see a 2nd referendum as per the Irish one about the Lisbon treaty. It’s not all black and white!

  • Scotland is in the EU already, so the obligation that Scotland becomes independent before being in the EU is not a necessity. The only precedent is Greenland leaving while Denmark remained: not much of a precedent given the large differences, but still a precedent.

    The question is whether England and Wales can leave, while Scotland remains. Can England and Wales join with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as Crown Territory outside the EU? Perhaps this seems too outlandish, but all Brexit suggestions I have seen seem just as fanciful.

    For Liberal Democrats I agree with mickft that it would be a big mistake to rule out Scottish independence, if that is what is required. The first step for Liberal Democrats, particularly those in Scotland, should be that Scotland must not be disadvantaged by Brexit, that is not disadvantaged by the electorate south of the border. If Scotland is disadvantaged in this way the case for putting Scottish independence back into question is unanswerable: the Scottish electorate should have the right to decide whether they agree to being disadvantaged by what the English and Welsh have voted for.

    It is also much needed that anti-Brexit parties do much better in putting personality issues to one side. It were better that the Liberal Democrats set an example.

  • John Peters 26th Aug '16 - 2:32pm


    The UK voted to leave the EU. The UK is the member state and the member state will leave.

    Reverse Greenland pops up occasionally only to be sunk. The FM’s vision of leading Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar to a glorious future staying within the EU as rUK leaves is fanciful. Although I expect the words used by Arlene Foster at the British-Irish Council were more robust than fanciful.

    Scotland’s choice is simple if they want to become a member of the EU. Scotland must first vote for independence from the UK.

  • If Scotland does vote for independence then we must presume they’d be voting to end their budget deficit and frankly the rest of the UK should be doing the same with their almost exactly equivalent deficit since all we are currently doing is forcing our children to sort out our mess. As a europhile I see no problem with using the euro rather than the pound since much of the London-based euro-bashing has been unjust bias: In fact the pound is no better! There are also quite a few boondoggles and white elephants that could be happily disappeared from the budget before any hurt is truly felt. I’d also presume, as the Wood report states, that some of the oil industry decline is due to the crazy taxation on the industry that Osborne actually made much worse.

  • Simon Banks 26th Aug '16 - 6:44pm

    So I take it the Scottish Liberal Democrats have decided that in a choice between leaving the EU or leaving the UK, they opt for leaving the EU?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Aug '16 - 8:27pm

    petermartin2001 26th Aug ’16 – 8:49am “you’ll end up with the euro.”
    The process is (1) qualify for the ERM, doubtful with that big a deficit. Sweden had a referendum on the euro, got a NO vote, and, strangely, has not joined the euro yet.

  • The Professor 26th Aug '16 - 9:23pm

    I look forward to the day when we, in England, get to hold a referendum on the future composition of our country.
    I would vote for England and Wales as the two home nations in a new country called Great Britain (outside the EU / permanent member of United Nations security council).

    Northern Ireland can join with the Republic (inside the EU and eurozone).
    Scotland will be independent (inside the EU and eurozone).

  • John Peters 26th Aug '16 - 9:33pm

    The Professor

    I think we all hope that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can unite in peace. Possibly in my lifetime if I live another 30 years.

    I’d be sad if Scotland left the United Kingdom, but that really is a decision for the Scots.

  • @lorenzo cherin

    There is no ‘official opposition’ in Scotland, that is a quaint tradition of Westminster.

  • @caron lindsay

    “The SG should not be banging on about independence while this process is going on.”

    Are they “banging on” about it? As far as I can see they have simply said from the outset that it is an option that has to be considered. The Guardian seems to think that the appointment of a Brexit Minister means that the SG are not pursuing the independence option!

    In any event, you may be a “UK in all circumstances” unionist, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be!

  • Although, Hireton, there is a main opposition party whose leader gets the lion’s share of questions at FMQs.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '16 - 11:00am
    petermartin2001 26th Aug ’16 – 9:39pm Trade links are also a major factor. The UK and the Republic of Ireland had a fixed exchange rate for decades. The Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia do a lot of trade with each other having been together in the Republic of Czechoslovakia for most of the time since the end of World War One.

  • I hope is that if Scotland does get its independence, that my own country of Wales follows. Thought of ‘English votes for English laws’ in what supposes to be a federal parliament at Westminster would put Wales and possibly Northern Ireland at a great disadvantage.
    I have not yet given up on on a new UK federal union but it is now a little bit late given the parliamentary strength of the Liberal democrats, but perhaps working with the Greens, and with Jeremy Corbyn (If he survives this reactionary onslaught within his own party).

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