Speech to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference

My speech to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference on the 3rd of March



This time last year we were facing a fast approaching Holyrood election and a fast approaching Brexit referendum. I characterised them as charging elephants and recommended that we deal with them one elephant at a time. With hindsight, perhaps I should have included a stronger warning about that second elephant…

I should probably clear one thing up at the get-go. I really dislike referendums. If we never had another one, I would not be disappointed...

Holyrood or bust

The Holyrood election was quite an event. I don’t need to say much more. After all, there are now thirty-one Conservative MSPs to do just that, more than doubling the number of Tories in the chamber. There were those who forecast that the Conservative Party would be wiped out in Glasgow. I will leave that to Annie Wells and Prof Adam Tomkins to deal with.

I was doing a stint on the STV Holyrood election special as the results rolled in. Ben Rose, my sidekick sent me a text that said, ‘Looks like Ruth may have won Edinburgh Central.’ I showed my phone to Bernard. His response, ‘Aye, right…’ From fourth to first is no mean feat. And Ruth is no mean leader. Leader of the opposition, that is.

So what about that second elephant?

I voted remain. So did 1.6 million Scots. 1 million Scots voted to leave the EU. By a clear margin, Scots voted to remain in the EU. However, less than 24 months previously an equally clear majority (2 million Scots against 1.6 million) vote to remain in the UK. The SNP Government would have you believe that the second vote wipes out the first vote, a generation passing in the blink of an eye. It doesn't.

Scots voted to keep the United Kingdom united.  And the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. The key to the legitimacy of any referendum is to accept the result before the result is known.

Some of my colleagues in the European Parliament were quite amusing in a depressing sort of way immediately after the Brexit votes were counted: just have another go until you get the result you want. That’s what we did in Ireland and in Denmark. I don’t buy that. The United Kingdom has determined that its future rests outside the European Union.

What that future will look like will be the subject of intense negotiation. Both sides have much to lose if they get it wrong.

EU citizenship

Before we go on to the detail, let me make one statement. I have had a lot of mail about granting EU citizens the right to remain in the UK. 

The House of Lords made this point just the other day.

I do know that Theresa May has reached out to other EU leaders of this issue, and she has been rebuffed. That is disappointing.

What will the negotiations look like?

Some points to bear in mind:

The departure of the UK changes the EU irrevocably. It will never be as large again, nor without significant increases in the budgetary contributions of the remaining 27, will it have as much money at its disposal. Each of the would-be member states in the queue would be net recipients of EU monies, not net contributors.

The UK is the EU’s second largest financial contributor to the EU after Germany. In 2015, the UK's net contribution was greater than that of the other 26 states combined. The loss of the UK contribution will leave a big black hole in the EU’s budget. Either the budget will be cut by about 10%, or member states will have to cough up more hard cash. At a time when the EU is seeking to do more it will be a particular challenge.

The UK (together with the US) is the joint most important trading partner of the EU. However, we are of greater importance to certain of the EU 27 than others.

The prospect of a unified EU position cannot be assumed. Different national groupings want different things. States to the east are particularly exercised about freedom of movement and citizenship, states close by prioritise trade. States in receipt of regional funds want the UK’s cash.

On the issue of fisheries, EU vessels catch upwards of 60% of their catch in UK waters. Without access and entitlement the North Sea fleets of France, the low countries and Germany will be tied to the pier wall for extended periods.


Let me say a few words about fisheries. This week the European Parliament PECH committee has been assembling its Brexit position on fisheries. It will not come as a surprise to learn that it favours the continental position. Indeed if the committee had its way, the UK would only be able to sell its fish on the continent if EU vessels were guaranteed the right to fish in our water.

Hardly a surprise that I confronted the chair of the Fisheries Committee on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday. I have had my group raising objections. I have secured the involvement of the UK Government. And the SNP? A party which has had an MEP on the committee since 1998? Well, they were represented by a Green MEP who shares their group.

And what did the SNP MEP say…

How stands the SNP

I remember the morning after the Brexit vote. I can remember listening as Nicola Sturgeon declared that ‘a second referendum must be on the table.’ Since that day Ms Sturgeon has declared that a second referendum is ‘likely,’ ‘highly likely,’ ‘more likely,’ ‘even more likely,’ It can only be a matter of time before it is ‘helluva likely,’ ‘so likely you won’t believe it,’ and ‘I can’t believe it could be more likely.’

There has also been the suggestion by many in the independence movement that Scots were misled during the referendum: only by voting to remain in the UK could Scotland’s place in the EU be guaranteed. This is simply not true.  Let me rephrase it: by voting for independence, Scotland’s exit from the UK would guarantee Scotland’s exit from the EU. 

I had the temerity to suggest that Scotland outside the EU would find itself in a queue for re-entry. My word, that didn’t go down with the keyboard warriors of the Nationalist Party. Indeed if only it was a queue as we understand it that would at least represent order and progression. It’s more like a queue at a busy bar as you try to catch the barman’s eye. Amazing how long it takes to be served when you are standing in a blind spot.

The SNP in Europe

A number of Scottish ministers have been over in Brussels seeking support for their approach. It hasn’t always gone well. I listened to Scottish Brexit minister out in Brussels describe how 5 million Scots had voted to remain in the EU. Not quite. A clear majority, yes, but certainly not every man, woman and child in Scotland.

Even more peculiar when his fellow SNP MSP and former Scottish Government minister Alex Neill had already come out of the closet and declared that he (and several other colleagues) voted for Brexit. (May I take this opportunity to wish Alex a speedy recovery. He remains one of the gentlemen of the Scottish Parliament).

After 10 years in government there is no one left to blame