Alyn Smith’s impassioned speech to fellow members of the European Parliament in June 2016 is one of the enduring moments of the Brexit era. Amidst the bustle of the Edinburgh Festival, CABLE’s Lindsay Hastings met with the Scottish National Party MEP to discuss the UK’s Brexit approach, how Brussels is viewing things, and where this whole process leaves the case for Scottish independence.


Q: What are colleagues in Brussels saying to you about Brexit, Alyn?

My colleagues remain very warm. I’m getting hugs in corridors still as I’m walking through the building but it has been tough. The prospect of us being removed from the EU is pretty gruelling, not least from a Scottish perspective.

It’s often forgotten that politicians are actually people. Everybody in the European Parliament who is there to put in a shift really does buy into the European project. You’re not there to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya. You’re there to try and resolve differences and make things better. That is the project. They buy into the idea that we are a chamber of 751 people, representing every possible strand of political opinion, from the Algarve to the Arctic Circle. We’re there to find solutions to issues through a huge range of diverse views and politics. There isn’t a village in Scotland that doesn’t have a war memorial to when politics went wrong. That’s the big picture that sadly didn’t come out during the EU referendum campaign. The campaign was filled with lots of daft stuff and the EU was used as a cipher for everything that was wrong with your life. It was a dreadful campaign.

The initial reaction of colleagues to the Brexit vote was shock and incredulity. It was: ‘how could you possibly have voted against the EU?’  But the feeling in Brussels has moved on from sadness and shock. My colleagues are now going through the gears on this. Brussels is well used to trade negotiations, well used to accession of other states, and now it’s sadly contemplating the exit of one.


“There isn’t a village in Scotland that doesn’t have a war memorial to when politics went wrong. That’s the big picture that sadly didn’t come out during the EU referendum campaign.”

There’s a template for this; the EU negotiators know what they’re doing and the MEP’s know what they’re doing. Brussels is a machine that grinds slowly but it grinds small. Everything is now about ‘you’ve decided to leave and we respect your democracy, so we’re going to help you leave.’ It’s business as usual. People need to realise: Brexit is not the talk of the steamie in Brussels. It’s one issue amongst many: a number of European banks are still in trouble; growth remains too low for too many people; there are too many people in precarious employment; the refugee crisis is continuing. There’s lots of big stuff that people are engaged with that simply isn’t about Brexit.

Colleagues in Brussels initially thought the Tories were a bit whacky. But now they’re wondering if the party is really actually trying to crash Brexit. There’s a danger that by the time we get to a point where we might be able to turn things around, the well will be so poisoned that Brussels will simply say, ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’

Q: Assuming Brexit does happen, what are the options for UK MEP’s after 2019? Can they continue working with the EU?

I think it’s a reasonable assumption to expect that on the expiration of the EU treaties, Britain’s MEPs will expire as well. I don’t think that’s unreasonable in itself. But I think it’s a huge loss. People are only just realising what a loss that would be in terms of infrastructure, personnel, and democratic accountability.

From Scotland’s perspective, I’m blessed in that I have got a map which is uniformly one colour. Every counting district in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. I’m fortunate that I can say that my instruction from the people of Scotland is to remain. I respect the UK’s democracy but I want Scotland’s democracy to be respected as well. This is point really needs to be made.


“Every counting district in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. I’m fortunate that I can say that my instruction from the people of Scotland is to remain. I respect the UK’s democracy but I want Scotland’s democracy to be respected as well”.

Everybody is well aware of the Northern Irish question within the Brexit talks. Dublin has been dealing with this very effectively indeed. It is also a little-known fact that Michel Barnier [European Chief Negotiator for Brexit] was the European Commissioner who was responsible for the Good Friday Agreement. Dublin is going to be the arbiter of what is acceptable in the North. Not London. The Tory government’s whole stance is dependent upon the votes of the DUP in the North. How can this possibly go well?

There’s a real understanding in Brussels of where Northern Ireland is and because of that, where Scotland is as well. We’ve been meeting with MEPs and various others to make sure that there is an awareness of where Scotland is coming from, and an awareness of the fact that we’re trying to find solutions to the situation we find ourselves in. It would be possible for Scotland to remain within the single market. It would be tricky but we’re going to have to find a solution to the tricky situation in Northern Ireland too. I’ve been over to Belfast twice over the past year, and to Dublin three times. No Tweets, no Facebook, I’ve been over to try to get our ducks in a row as much as we can.

The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is going to be very tough on this because now is his opportunity. Views have been expressed from within London metropolitan politics that it’s in Ireland’s best interests to exit with us, as if they were some sort of UK client state that did not have its own views and interests. That has served to solidify all strands of Irish political opinion where previously opinion had been slightly more nuanced. Behind the Taoiseach’s efforts, there is an understanding that Ireland’s future is emphatically European, and it is the UK that’s leaving the EU, not Ireland.


“Views have been expressed from within London metropolitan politics that it’s in Ireland’s best interests to exit with us, as if they were some sort of UK client state that did not have its own views and interests.”

In terms of my own future, I went through a 24-hour ‘woe-is-me’ period. Whisky helped! And then the e-mails started coming in. Myself, David Martin, Catherine Stihler, Ian Hudghton – none of us have wilted. There’s a grim-faced determination in us all. I am getting e-mails on a daily basis that would break your heart. People who have been living in Scotland for years, who have made their lives here, and are feeling anxious for their futures. There are businesses talking about shutting down, about relocating. This is real, serious stuff: peoples’ lives. So it’s really not the time to be thinking about my own future. Worst comes to worst, I finally get to set up my bar in Gran Canaria – assuming we’ve got residence rights in Spain!

Q: Critics maintain that the Scottish government should be doing far more to halt Brexit. Do you agree?

We’re working genuinely closer than I’ve ever worked before with any of the ministers in the Scottish government. We are all longstanding friends and colleagues. We go back a long way and we all know each other’s moves. On the issue of Brexit, we’ve been coordinating hand-in-glove. The information I’ve been getting in Brussels is getting fed in to the Scottish Parliament. Likewise at Westminster. And if we can make any sense at all of what the UK government’s doing, we’re feeding that in as well.

The Scottish government’s options paper is trying to square the circle that we’ve got. In 2014, we had a referendum about independence and many people voted specifically on the European question, one way or other, within that referendum. We were told we are a family of nations, we were told we are equal partners. Just two years later, we’re being told: ‘get to the back of the bus, behave yourselves!’ So, it’s possible to find other ways of doing things. Myself and David (Martin) have conducted research and produced an analysis of all the different constitutional quirks and exceptions within the EU. Liechtenstein, for example, is part of the customs union but it isn’t a full member of the European Union. It’s clear that solutions can be found. We’ve fed our analysis to everyone in Brussels and we’ve had a very warm response.


© David Pratt. All Rights Reserved.

The key issue with all of this is that the UK is the EU member state. The UK will negotiate on our behalf. The EU is not going to enter into parallel negotiations with Edinburgh, no more than it is with Stormont. There needs to be a UK proposition so that, presently, is where our focus is. We’re working to try and find some sort of accommodation and to influence the debate within the Tory party. But the Tories themselves don’t have a unified voice and depending on who’s in the ascendancy this week, we’re getting a completely different response to what is achievable.

The difficulty we have in articulating a clear black-and-white message is that there is no black-and-white position. We’re looking at a range of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum is EU membership for Scotland as an independent state. At the other end is no EU membership for any part of these islands. The latter then tips Northern Ireland into chaos, causes Gibraltar massive existential problems, the Channel Islands, and Overseas Territories likewise. All of these things are in the mix. We’ve said clearly what our best outcome is but we’re focused on the areas of potential compromise.


“We’re looking at a range of possibilities. At one end of the spectrum is EU membership for Scotland as an independent state. At the other end is no EU membership for any part of these islands. The latter then tips Northern Ireland into chaos, causes Gibraltar massive existential problems, the Channel Islands and Overseas Territories likewise. All of these things are in the mix.”

I really believe this is a UK government that needs to be saved from itself. It is utter nihilism. And we have this ongoing punishment narrative: Brexit would have gone great were it not for the bloody foreigners; Suez would have been cracking had we just had a more positive mental attitude; that sort of stuff. There’s enough people within the wider public, and there’s enough poison in the air right now, that they might just get away with it.

David Davis was on the Today programme [BBC Radio 4] earlier on today, talking arrant nonsense and putting across factually incorrect information. He’s pushing the idea that during the customs union transition period, the UK will be able to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries. Naw you canny! Until one is signed off, you can’t start the other. I’ve been doing a crash course in WTO [World Trade Organisation] myself, and I’ve got a number of people in Geneva I can call. And for Brexiteers, here’s a reality check: if you didn’t like Brussels, wait til’ you meet Geneva.

Q: Where does the whole process leave the case for Scottish independence?

I’m pretty hawkish on this within the party. I don’t think we can win independence as an abstract proposition. We need to win it on the basis of a detailed prospectus. In 2014, we put out the White Paper, which had vast amounts of depth in it, a prospectus which could be tested. Some people were persuaded and some people weren’t.

Now, all the people who would vote for independence in 2014, we’ve got them already. We must now turn our attention to the people who, as yet, remain unpersuaded. I don’t believe these people will get over the line until they see the case. The trouble is that the formulation of the case, to a large extent, is dependent upon what Brexit Britain actually looks like. Until we see what we are going to become independent from, the independence proposition is an abstract thing.


“Until we see what we are going to become independent from, the independence proposition is an abstract thing.”

I remain utterly committed to Scotland’s independence. I think it’s more a matter of democratic sovereignty and the nimbleness of a country of five million people, with all the assets and heritage we’ve got in the wider world. There is, however, an economic case which needs to be solid and substantive. It may be possible that Scotland, as an independent member of the EU, would be able to do what Ireland has done in terms of attracting investment, trade, and assets. But until we see what emerges from the chaos of Brexit, the case for independence is going to be tricky to formulate. We’re working on it though. There’s the Andrew Wilson Commission going on at present, which has the involvement of a lot of good people and we’re keeping our powder dry until it’s ready to go.

The big thing I took away from the 2014 referendum was to be aware of echo chambers. There were lots of us having a carnival of democracy that was exciting and crackling with possibilities. But there was a lot of people who weren’t part of it, who didn’t feel part of it and, in some cases, actually felt threatened by it. That was whipped up and egged on by a deeply cynical unionist effort to inject fear into the independence question. Things like: ‘The Nats are going to cancel your bus pass’; ‘Food is going to be more expensive’. All that stuff. We dismissed these silly claims, didn’t engage with them.

I think that’s one of the lessons from the first independence referendum. I spent most of my time during the referendum in South Edinburgh, Newington, Merchiston, and Morningside which was a tough gig. What I was getting time and again on the doorstep was that the media scare stories were being taken seriously. So that’s something that we really need to engage with in any future campaign.

The 2014 referendum remains a fantastic exercise in democracy. It changed the debate in Scotland from ‘could we’ to ‘would we’. Three years on, the debate has totally changed. I think we have one of the most politically engaged populations in the western world, we have a healthy ongoing debate, the media is evolving quickly, and these are things we need to take care of.


“The big thing I took away from the 2014 referendum was to be aware of echo chambers. There were lots of us having a carnival of democracy that was exciting and crackling with possibilities. But there was a lot of people who weren’t part of it, who didn’t feel part of it and, in some cases, actually felt threatened by it.”

In terms of putting the case for independence together, there are lessons from Yes Scotland that we have drawn and there is a real role for the Scottish Independence Convention, Business for Scotland, and other organisations to step up and not wait for the SNP for leadership. The SNP does not have a monopoly on the independence franchise. We are the biggest and most organised part of it but that’s not to say that there isn’t room for a wide range of others.

One of the most tricky things for Yes Scotland was that they were trying to put together a proposition that suited the Greens, the SSP, radical independence, the SNP. Perhaps it was lost in the noise a wee bit. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from 2014. My big one is that when people are properly informed to take a decision, they’ll feel more confident about the prospect of change.

Q: What will be the single biggest loss to Scotland due to Brexit?

In my mind, the single biggest loss will be the one that people will realise last. It’s that Scotland’s debate will begin and end on these islands. Because we’re part of something that is bigger in the EU, we’re able to have debates about things like the Paris Climate Agreement, and how to address the refugee crisis. If we’re not plugged into the EU networks, this will become more difficult.

Norway is able to make amazing contributions to efforts in the Mediterranean right now, and also further down the chain to stop population flows that are continuing to get worse. If Scotland doesn’t operate in a bigger bloc to try and fix this, we’re going to be involved in a much smaller debate.


The legislation of the European Human Rights Commission that the Tories have been trashing was a product of English lawyers. As an English lawyer myself, human rights are very dear to me but they are being systematically denigrated and wilfully misrepresented. That’s wrong – and it’s making the UK look bad.

The former UK Ambassador to NATO, Mariot Leslie, highlighted that whatever happens, we’re going to see a diminished UK: diminished financially; diminished in terms of influence; diminished in stature. I’ve spoken to a number of British organisations recently who are feeling a definite international chill. They feel isolation because there’s a growing unwillingness to partner with UK organisations due to the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s position, presently and in the future.

It’s symptomatic of just how narcissistic UK governments are sometimes that they don’t appear to realise that people are watching us. I see Tory politicians making a daft speech to the Daily Mail for a domestic audience – but of course it’s being read by a much broader audience. The EU referendum campaign caused massive reputational damage to the UK across the European continent and further afield. It went well beyond ‘look at what the whacky Brits are doing now’.

Look at what President Trump is doing to America’s prestige right now – look at what is going on in Virginia. If that is all you’re seeing of a particular country for a sustained period of time, that is what the country in question starts to look like. I think we’ll see a diminished UK which is a great tragedy. As much as I am a proud Scots nationalist, the UK has, by and large, in post-War Europe been a real force for good. The legislation of the European Human Rights Commission that the Tories have been trashing was a product of English lawyers. As an English lawyer myself, human rights are very dear to me but they are being systematically denigrated and wilfully misrepresented. That’s wrong – and it’s making the UK look bad.

For Scotland, para-diplomacy is going to come into its own in terms of fisheries cooperation with Norway, the Faroes, and Iceland. Perhaps there’ll be a more relaxed attitude from London about those sorts of discussions but I fear not. In fact, I fear quite the reverse. I think we’ll see a UK apparatus that, for its own self-interest, is going to need to pull ours close to itself. If you’re a UK government trying to make sense of WTO negotiations, the last thing you want to be thinking about is ‘how is this going to fly in Belfast and Edinburgh?’


Look at Scotland’s academics, our NGO’s our charities, our various industries. Scotland is an internationalist country – we have huge outward links and we’re pragmatic. But we’re going to need to join the dots in a way that we haven’t before. It will be challenging and we’ll be doing so from within a diminished UK. 

So I think we’ll see a wholesale reversal of the devolution settlement. One of the things the UK government is going to be keenest to get rid of will be Scotland’s voice in the world. It isn’t in the interest of the UK government to have Scotland cutting across London’s voice in the world. They will be interested in reigning in any sort of external competence which is where I would pay a warm tribute to Jack McConnell. He has done great work in creating our Malawi links and subsequently building upon them. He has created a Scottish ‘foreign policy’ where many think we have no such competence but he moved forward with a desire and willingness to create these links.

Look at Scotland’s academics, our NGO’s our charities, our various industries. Scotland is an internationalist country – we have huge outward links and we’re pragmatic. But we’re going to need to join the dots in a way that we haven’t before. It will be challenging and we’ll be doing so from within a diminished UK.

Q: There is growing talk in the UK media of halting Brexit. Will this happen? If so, how?

Legally, it’s very straight forward. Article 50 was triggered by writing a letter – it can be rescinded by writing another letter. This is my point about the mood music and attitude in Brussels. When this whole process started, Guy Verhofstadt [President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe] was very clear that it was possible to rescind Article 50. Verhofstadt is now saying that although it’s still possible to rescind, the UK won’t be able to return to the same deal from which it’s currently trying to depart. The UK has always been able to successfully operate at an arm’s length from some of the EU’s programmes but it may not have that luxury should Article 50 be rescinded. Any revocation would need to be done with the consent of the 27 other member states which would entail a political discussion and would probably result in a very political decision.

The fact is this: there needs to be consequences for the UK. Look at it from the EU’s position: member states can’t be doing this willy-nilly because otherwise Viktor Orbán will do it to whatever suits him, the Poles may well do it to provoke a row. There is no shortage of candidates who could threaten Article 50, send the letter, and then revoke the letter once – for whatever reason – they decided to put a halt to things.

What the consequences would be for the UK if it did decide to rescind Brexit is an open question. It’s my role to remain as visible as possible, to present the fact that 48% of the UK population, and the whole of Northern Ireland and Scotland, want to remain engaged with the EU and see a solution. It’s a reasonable assumption that things like the rebates and opt-outs will be on the table but that’s a live discussion.


© David Pratt. All Rights Reserved.

Legally, halting Brexit is very straightforward. It’s politically that difficulties would arise. I’m putting more and more of my efforts into keeping the door in Brussels open to that possibility. We need to be careful how politicians talk about halting Brexit. The debate in Scotland is very different to the debate down South. When speaking to my English colleagues, the conversation from them is that Brexit needs to happen and is going fine. We must be mindful that there has been a democratic vote, there is a sizeable percentage of the UK population that expects Brexit to happen.

The only legitimate way that this situation could be reassessed would be through a ratification of the terms of the eventual Brexit deal. Where the SNP in 2014 had the White Paper, the Leave Campaign did precisely the opposite. A ratification on the terms of the deal would be respectful of democracy and would be a pragmatic solution.

Q: What would you miss most about being a Member of the European Parliament?

I have the ability to skite over the surface of the whole of Scotland. I’m on the Agricultural Committee which includes Scotland’s food and drink, how we treat our animals, and how we feed our population. After climate change, the biggest crisis facing Scotland is the obesity epidemic and the health of the nation. We’ve got world-leading science in biotech, in technology, in farms. I’m able to work across all of these issues.

In my previous role sitting on the Industry Research and Energy Committee, I was able to help design the Horizon 2020 EU programmes to get as much money into smart, green research in Scotland. It’s amazing to be able to point to projects that I’ve helped to happen. Having grown up in the Middle East and sitting on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I’m able to go to the Middle East and be true to Europe’s values but also be pragmatic about how we engage with the various important issues. I’m talking presently about going to Erbil for the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum. I’m able to go, I hope, with a degree of heft, representing Scotland as a country that knows about independence referendums. I would miss all these things if I wasn’t an MEP.

I’m also very lucky in that I have a good circle of friends in Scotland and elsewhere. And my boyfriend is very supportive. It’s easy to lose touch with people in this job because you’re covering the length and breadth of Scotland. You have to remember: when I’m meeting constituents, I’m not going to a local meeting 10 minutes away; I’m going to a local constituency meeting in Aberdeen or Lerwick, or further afield.

I’m on the road a lot but this is one of the aspects of the job I love. The work is all-consuming but I am blessed. For the last 16 years or so, I’ve been able to make a living out of what is my passion. It’s a responsibility which I take very seriously.


Lyndsey Hastings runs the 7 Questions feature for CABLE. She is on Twitter at: @lchastings_

CABLE would like to thank everyone at Summerhall for their assistance. Interview conducted Tuesday 15th August 2017.