First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Speech on Her Plan for a Referendum in Face of a Hard Brexit
March 13, 2017
Good morning, everybody.
Before the end of this month – and very possibly, as early as tomorrow – the Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, setting the United Kingdom on course to leave the EU in March 2019.
It is important, therefore, for me to report now on the Scottish Government’s attempts to find compromise with the UK government and set out our plan to protect Scotland’s interests.
Right now, Scotland stands at a hugely important crossroads.
We didn’t choose to be in this position.
In common with most people across the country, I wish that we weren’t in this position.
But we are and the stakes are high – so we must have a plan for the way forward.
For better or worse – depending on your point of view – the future of the UK looks very different today than it did two years ago.
As a result of the Brexit vote, we face a future, not just outside the EU, but also outside the world’s biggest single market.
In addition, the collapse of the Labour Party means that we face a prolonged period of uninterrupted and unchecked Conservative government at Westminster. Some predict that the Tories could be in power now at Westminster until 2030 or beyond.
And after a period which has seen the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and, more recently, hard won extensions to its responsibilities, we now face the prospect of a centralization of power at Westminster.
Indeed, the Prime Minister herself has been clear that the Brexit process will see the UK government reserve for itself powers in areas that are currently wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
All of this has massive implications for Scotland.
It has implications for our economy: for jobs, opportunities, public spending, and living standards – and for our ability to protect and advance our vital day-to-day priorities in education, health and business.
It has implications for our society – how open, welcoming, diverse and fair we will be in future?
And it has implications for our democracy – to what extent will we be able to determine our own direction of travel, rather than having that decided for us?
In short, it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake.
What is at stake is the kind of country we will become.
Now, at times of change and uncertainty, the instinct to do nothing and just hope for the best is understandable.
But, in my view, it is not the right one.
At times like these, it is more important than ever to have a clear plan for the way ahead – to try, as far as is possible, to be in control of events and not just at the mercy of them.
That is what I have always done. It is what I have tried to do since the day after the EU referendum last year. And it is what I am determined to continue to do.
Since last June, my focus has been on trying to find an agreement with the UK government, an agreement that would reconcile the UK wide vote to leave the European Union with the Scottish vote to remain.
I was encouraged in this approach by the Prime Minister’s commitment last July to seek agreement with the devolved administrations on a UK wide approach before triggering Article 50.
The Scottish Government’s paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, was published in good faith.
Our proposals represent significant compromise on the part of the Scottish Government.
We accepted that Scotland would leave the EU – despite the 62% vote to remain – but we argued that the UK should either stay in the single market or seek an outcome that would allow Scotland to do so.
And we set out how greater powers for the Scottish Parliament could help protect Scotland’s interests in a post-Brexit landscape.
Over the past few months, we have worked hard – really hard – to try to find agreement. The Prime Minister and her government have been given every opportunity to compromise.
But today as we stand, for all we know, on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, not only is there no UK wide agreement on the way ahead – but the UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement.
Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence.
UK membership of the single market was ruled out with no prior consultation with the Scottish Government or indeed with the other devolved administrations – leaving us facing not just Brexit, but a hard Brexit.
There has been talk of special deals for the car industry and others, but a point-blank refusal to discuss in any meaningful way a differential approach for Scotland.
And far from any prospect of significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the UK government is becoming ever more assertive in its intention to muscle in on the powers we already have.
The language of partnership has gone – completely.
And there should, I think, be little doubt about this – if Scotland can be ignored on an issue as important as our membership of the EU and the single market, then it is clear that our voice and our interests can be ignored at any time and on any issue.
That cannot be a secure basis on which to build a better Scotland.
But it’s where we stand today.
Now, let me stress, even at this late stage, I am not turning my back on further discussions should the UK government change its mind and decide it is willing to agree to our compromise proposals.
And, in any event, I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that Scotland’s interests are represented in the EU negotiations that lie ahead.
But I cannot pretend to the Scottish people that a compromise agreement looks remotely likely, given the hardline response from the Prime Minister so far.
That means I have to decide on the best plan to protect our interests now.
It is time for me to set out decisively and with clarity the way forward.
Doing nothing at this stage – in many ways, the easiest thing for me to do – would mean letting Scotland drift through the next two years, with our fingers crossed, simply hoping for the best.
And, of course, I do hope for the best.
I want the UK to get a good deal from the EU negotiations. That is clearly in Scotland’s interests as well as in the interests of our friends in other parts of the UK.
But I am far from alone in fearing a bad deal or indeed no deal.
Nor am I alone in fearing that even a so-called good deal will be significantly inferior to membership of the single market – and that it will set Scotland on a course that will not only damage our economy, but change the very nature of the society and country that we are.
The problem with doing nothing now is that, by the time these fears are realized, it will be too late for Scotland to choose a different path before the damage is done.
That would not be right or fair.
Whatever path we take, it should be one decided by us, not for us.