Why Scottish Labour should oppose the triggering of Article 50

The result of the European referendum posed an immediate dilemma for those, like myself, who believe that the best future for Scotland is to remain in both the European Union and the union with the rest of the UK. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people started searching for options which would allow Scotland to remain in both the EU and the UK, even if the rest of the UK left the EU.

One of those who searched for such an option was Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, who went as far as to announce she had asked Labour’s Lord Falconer to look at possible arrangements.

It is clear that any such option of staying in both unions, even if the rest of the UK goes for Brexit, has now been rejected by Scottish Labour’s leadership. That is the only conclusion that can be reached from the decision by its MSPs a couple of weeks to reject the option of Scotland staying in the single market if the rest of the UK did not.

That decision is understandable, given that all the research done since the referendum has made it clear that there are no politically feasible options to allow Scotland to remain in the EU if the rest of the UK leaves, other than for Scotland to become a sovereign state (or as nearly sovereign as makes no real difference).

So, if Scottish Labour wants Scotland to stay in both the UK and the EU, the only practical way of achieving that is for the entire UK to remain in the EU.

And the inevitable conclusion if that is what Scottish Labour wants, then its elected representatives should vote against the triggering of Article 50 to give notice of the UK terminating its membership of the EU.

If Scottish Labour takes that position, we can anticipate that the Brexiteers will start shouting and complaining that would be to reject the democratic mandate of the referendum on June 23rd. The obvious answer to such a charge, of course, is that if Labour, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, believes that the UK is now a partnership of equals, then there is nothing wrong in saying that fundamental constitutional change cannot be triggered by part of the UK alone.

To say that is not to take a nationalist position, but rather to recognise that it is normal in a state which is federal in nature (as the UK is now in many respects) for amendments to its fundamental constitutional arrangements to require much more than a simple majority across the state as a whole. In the USA, for example, constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities, and approval by three-quarters of states. Most other states with federal or devolved constitutional arrangements have similar requirements.

So I urge Scottish Labour’s MP and MSPs to vote against the UK triggering Article 50, and in so doing reflect the choice of a clear majority of voters in Scotland.

I know that some in Scottish Labour might fear that to take such a line would ‘play into the hands of the SNP’: to which I suggest that if Scottish Labour doesn’t take a stand against the triggering of Article 50, that will certainly be used by the SNP to attack Labour, and provide a useful distraction for it from the fact that more SNP voters voted for Brexit than did Labour voters in Scotland.

Others might say that a vote against triggering Article 50 would be pointless, as the UK Parliament will vote for it anyway. To which I say that we have seen so many unexpected events over the last few months, nothing can be ruled out. Even if article 50 is eventually triggered by the UK Parliament, evidence that there are voices in Labour that are not prepared to allow the small minority of extreme Brexiteers who have taken over the government to go unanswered, will make it much more possible to build a majority in Parliament to keep close links with our European friends in the negotiations that will then take place.

Every day brings new evidence of the damage that the rush to Brexit is doing to our economy, our international standing, and our social cohesion. Now is not the time to be silent as the Brexiteers would like, but to speak up even more strongly.

(First published on http://www.labourhame.com on 29 November 2016)

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