In the second of our ‘In Conversation With’ series, Ken Sweeney talks to Alyn Smith, the Scottish MEP who stood up for Scotland in the European Parliament and rained on Nigel Farage’s parade with his impassionate speech about Scotland remaining in the European Union. We get to chat with Alyn about ‘that’ speech and Scotland’s future in the EU, as well as independence, Brexit and the rise of the SNP.
“The People of Scotland did not let you down, please; I beg of you, do not let the people of Scotland down now.” Alyn Smith June 2016
Those now famous words, spoken by Alyn Smith brought the people in the European Parliament on that day to give him a standing ovation. It was passionate, honest and full of the verve you would expect from a Scotsman. But who is Alyn Smith? I got a chance to chat with him and try to get a little bit of insight into the man who made Europe literally stand up and listen. Born in Glasgow in 1973, Alyn spent his childhood years in Scotland and Saudi Arabia before coming back home as a teenager in 1986. He went on to study law at Leeds University. Alyn would later work in London for a commercial law firm before going into politics in 2001 when he came fourth at the general election in Edinburgh West for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Since then he has moved up the SNP party ladder and now, while currently a MEP for Scotland, he has put himself forward as a candidate for the forthcoming SNP deputy leader election the winner of which will be announced on 13–15 October 2016 during the SNP’s party conference. I started off by asking Alyn about his time as a child in the Middle East.
As a child, you lived in Saudi Arabia for a few years. What was it like and did you live in a compound?
We did live in compound. My dad was a builder and was working for a Korean company, so we weren’t living in a traditional British Expat compound. We were living in an international environment. So it was international in every possible sense. I still have very happy memories of Saudi Arabia. It’s a tragedy what is on-going there now. The petrol dollars are good, but they are not able to keep the services running which they have funded and there are real problems in Saudi now.
You spent a year studying on the Erasmus programme. Did that help to fuel your passion about Europe?
I’m not the education secretary, but I think the Erasmus programme should be made compulsory if we are serious about the people of Europe getting to know each other better, social mobility and breaking down barriers. Spending a period of study at school, college or university overseas is just a hugely important thing to do, because you learn so much not just outside the classroom, but also inside the classroom. I came back viewing Scotland and the UK with a different set of eyes. It’s organised and you are looked after as a student and there is a system that is working well and as we see the Erasmus generation come through, we are seeing a younger generation that views Europe as their back yard and that is psychologically very important. It’s good for the other states and it’s good for us.
Outside your role as an MEP, would you be a seasoned traveller in Europe?
Yes, I still have close interests in the Middle East as my folks still live there, but Europe would still be my focus, there are still plenty of bits I haven’t seen yet.
You mastered in Law but now you are in politics. What brought you to politics?
I was always political and I was interested in how we organise ourselves in society, and I went into law on the basis that that would be an interesting place to be. I qualified as a corporate finance solicitor in London, but I worked out fairly quickly that while it was interesting enough, it wasn’t a passion, so I moved on from there to come back to Scotland in 2000 just as the Parliament was re-established. I was working as a lawyer in Edinburgh and I was enjoying it well enough, but I was spending more and more time shouting at the TV, so I got more and more involved in the SNP and found myself standing in 2001 for Westminster in an Edinburgh West seat that was in those days a tough gig, and then kept up the momentum for that in 2003 for Edinburgh West again, but it was always the European side I was after. I do think that Scotland in the world and Scotland in Europe could be a very different actor to where we are within the UK.
To the outsider, Scotland’s independence push seems a recent phenomenon. But what is the historical background behind it, has there been a long history to it?
Very much so and this is why I am standing for deputy leader for the party. One of the big lessons for me in the 2014 independence referendum was that we haven’t prepared the ground across the rest of the European states. From my side now, we absolutely must prepare the other member states of the EU for what is going on in Scotland, because there is a danger that we are written up by the London correspondents or the London embassy and they are viewing us with London eyes where Scotland is one of Europe’s most ancient nations and we’ve been independent for a lot longer of our history than we have been part of Great Britain.
So what happened with the independence vote in September 2014? Why did it fail?
We’ve done a lot of soul searching and the fact was that the case wasn’t made. We set out our stall and ‘Yes Scotland’ was a thing of its time, but there were a number of people within Scotland who weren’t open to the conversation and didn’t see the need for change. Some of that was demographics, some of that was socio-economic as well, and a number of people did vote no on the basis of economic security and avoiding uncertainty. People don’t like change and that’s a fundamental driver and everybody pretends they do, but actually people will traditionally vote for the status quo rather than the proposition for change. The fact that we got the vote to 45% was a remarkable achievement and we just have polls yesterday showing independence support at 48% and that’s without having done a campaign, without clarity on what the proposition will be for what Brexit Britain will look like and what independent Scotland will look like, so there’s been no slippage which is the real significance here.
Despite the loss of the yes vote, the SNP seemed to have rebounded phenomenally. What is the secret behind the success?
I put it down to the difference in the campaign. There is a positive case for the UK with Scotland remaining in it, but the ‘No’ campaign didn’t make it. And their campaign was fearmongering with scare story after scare story and it was presenting the concept of change as something to be afraid of. In their own words they called it ‘project fear’ and that was an entirely negative campaign and there are a number of Scottish politicians who need to reflect on the role that they played in that. So where the ‘No’ campaign was entirely negative, the ‘Yes’ campaign was an energising sense of possibilities. And that energy and that sense of disappointment turned into a sense of action and a lot of people who were involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign joined the SNP en-mass and that energy continues. Scottish politics remains an exciting place.
You said in the recent debate for the deputy leader position in the SNP that the independence referendum is ‘back on the cards’. Is Scotland ready for another referendum on independence?
There is a new dynamics and a lot of people who voted no did so on the basis that it guaranteed European status, economic stability and continuing to use pound sterling. And now all of these things, as soon as two years later, are very different propositions to what they were. We’ve also seen the EU referendum which really was a parallel universe in Scotland and there was such a degree of political consensus that EU membership is in our best interest that the issue was actually getting people engaged and interested. Where down south we did see a gratuitously offensive leave campaign and the issue of immigration is qualitatively different in Scotland. There are a number of decent people in Scotland looking at this anew, saying ‘I’m not sure I want to be part of that state’ and ‘I think we can do better with ours’, so there is a new dynamics and that’s as strong as I can put it. We need to work on what the proposition is going to be and much of that is predicated on what Brexit Britain will look like in terms of what sort of relations it will have with the EU. So I think there is a new opportunity for us and objectively, we didn’t bring this situation about, we didn’t ask for it and we didn’t vote for it. Scotland voted significantly to remain within the EU with 62 per cent unanimously across every council region within Scotland, so there is a clear mandate that says we want something different out of this process and independence remains on the table as one of those options.
There has been a lot of analysis of the Brexit referendum, but I’m more interested in the background of the SNP during the whole situation. It seems that the SNP had a contingency plan well before the votes were cast. Was that the case?
Yes, we thought it was going in the wrong direction down south about a week out and there were a number of things that were put in place frankly for either scenario, because it looked like whatever happened it was going to be close. Now actually had it been 52 per cent to remain and 48 per cent to leave, that still wouldn’t have settled the question, so the big issue for us was that Scotland voted very differently to how the UK voted, so the plan was to make sure that Scotland’s interests were maximised within whatever was happening.
On the outside, it seems to be that the United Kingdom is fragmenting. While it’s clear that there is a call for independence in Scotland, the rest of the UK nations seem to be unsure as to what the next step should be. Could a proposal for a British federal state be an option?
I think it would be up to somebody to bring it forward. I don’t think there is much appetite for it, I have to say, and I’ve long been of the view that the devolution that we have to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland does need to be mirrored by some sort of internal re-organisation of England, but every time it’s been put to the people of England, by and large, it’s been rejected. So I don’t see that there’s a huge appetite there, but absolutely, we want our friends in the south to do well as well and I think that some sort of federal devolution is something that should be looked at, but every time it’s been looked at it’s been beaten.
Over the last few months, there has been an idea of closer security with EU member states and even talk of an ‘EU army’, so what would be the SNP’s position on the EU army idea?
We would be sceptical. NATO is the cornerstone of defence co-operation. Anything that limited NATO’s role would be viewed with scepticism, but the things that were proposed in Junker’s State of the European Union Address are: closer co-operation in saving lives in the Mediterranean, it’s closer co-operation in policing borders, it’s not an EU army, it’s a way of co-operating towards the common objectives we have, so if there is an objective to take it in that direction, then I would be sceptical, but what’s being proposed doesn’t strike me as anything to be worried about.
So, let’s get to that speech. What was the immediate reaction both in Europe and back home in Scotland?
It was a thing of its time and it was a moment where the stars aligned and I was in the right place at the right time, but it was also important in that Nigel Farage was seeking to be the face of Brexit with his gratuitously offensive speech to try and provoke a reaction and what I managed to do was to rebound things a bit back and say that, OK, the Brits are quite a complicated bunch, there’s actually quite a lot of things within this and I do believe going forward that for an EU that needs a good news story, Scotland could be it. Here is a country that is well known and well regarded and now if they don’t go any further than the Loch Ness Monster and whisky, well, that’s fine, because there is at least that which is associated with us, so that a country in the eyes of many of our European friends is a bit peripheral, saying that we want to remain part of this and that we don’t want to be taken out against our will is actually a very different dynamics to where we were in 2014. Now we had the speech that I made and we had Nicola Sturgeon in Brussels looking every bit the international stateswoman she is over the next couple of days after and London recognised that as well. The first trip that Theresa May made outside of London was to visit the First Minister of Scotland in Edinburgh and it didn’t look like she was going to visit the provinces, it looked like she was on a state visit.
Is Scotland a special case when it comes to EU membership? Should they get speed tracked into membership?
Well, to an extent this is a reprise of the 2014 discussions and we understand very well how treaties work, but objectively we are not negotiating from outside the EU, we are already part of the EU, so in terms of the Copenhagen criteria and all the acquis communautaire, all of that is done and there is no question that that has to be worked through, but all of that is already in place and exists, so it would be a truncated process. Now it is a negotiation and there are a number of other member states involved in that and I wouldn’t second guess anybody’s opinion on where that’s going to get to, but we are not looking for a new status. We are looking to retain the current status and this is the discussion that we are now able to have with Brussels and with the other member states: that the UK already recognises that the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have a different status in the EU and within the UK, so we are increasingly talking about one state, two systems in that there is going to need to be some sort of distinct status for the north of Ireland and something for Gibraltar, so we want something as well. So it is about finding solutions at the moment and membership is very much on the table, independence is very much on the table, but it’s not our first place to go to really, and we think there are models of status which would allow us to keep the advantages that we have while recognising the mandate and the challenges that everybody has to deal with.
We will watch with interest at the SNP’s conference starting on October the 13th and see if Alyn will get the position of Deputy Leader. There is no doubt that Alyn is a fine representative for Scotland in Europe and Scotland is certainly making a strong case for membership. It will be an interesting next 12 months as we wait for the start of the Brexit negotiations, because whatever their outcome there will be consequences for Scotland, but they look to have a willing and able team of representatives that will give Scottish nation the best chance it has for EU membership and possible independence.
Picture courtesy of alynsmith.eu