Irvine Times column, 18 September 2018
Last Tuesday was the 21st anniversary of the day when the Scottish people voted in a referendum to authorise the re-establishment of our national parliament, after a gap of three centuries. At Holyrood, the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Mike Russell, used the opportunity to give a sober analysis to MSPs about one of the most challenging issues to face our Parliament today, the UK’s departure from the European Union.
When the Scottish people voted to reconvene our Parliament in 1997, they did so in accordance with the Claim of Right of 1989, which recognised the “sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government that best suited their needs”. Today, the very foundation of our Parliament is now under threat because of Brexit. The Westminster Government is attempting to seize powers from the EU which should be rightfully devolved to Scotland, and to strike down the Scottish Government’s European Continuity Bill through the Supreme Court.
The Cabinet Secretary’s speech highlighted to me the differences between the approach of our two parliaments. As the Scottish Parliament remains focussed on addressing the challenges of a Brexit that we did not vote for, I cannot recall in my lifetime a more divided Tory party at Westminster, with its warring factions offering a false and hopeless choice. As Mr Russell noted, no deal between the UK and the EU is impossible and unthinkable, whilst the Prime Minister’s Chequers deal is impractical and unworkable.
We must find something better. Not leaving the EU – the option that Scotland overwhelmingly voted for during the referendum – remains the Scottish Government’s preference, but if Brexit is to happen, the only acceptable alternative is continued membership of the single market and customs union, an absolute necessity for our economy and our society.
Much of the public discourse over Brexit has not been pleasant in recent months, but in many other areas I have also become increasingly aware of a growing intolerance in our society on a range of important conversations.
At the Scottish Parliament this week I hosted a timely debate about free expression, hate speech and censorship, in partnership with Scottish PEN (www.scottishpen.org), a not-for-profit organisation that champions freedom of speech and literature across borders. Over a hundred attendees listened to an expert panel discuss many issues, including Lord Bracadale’s review of hate crime legislation in Scotland, the role of social media in censorship, and where the responsibility for policing hate speech should lie. It was an important and thought-provoking discussion, and hopefully the first of many.
Finally, this week, I was delighted to be appointed as the Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which considers and reports on various issues relating to equal opportunities, human rights and issues of discrimination.
The committee’s current business includes scrutinising the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill, Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament, and the implications for equalities and human rights in Scotland as a direct consequence of Brexit. It will be a challenging, rewarding session, and I am very much looking forward to the work ahead.