Mike Russell exposes himself as the unprincipled opportunist he is

Mike Russell exposes himself as the unprincipled opportunist he is

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 24, November, 2018

IT WAS NOT the best day at the office for Michael Russell. The SNP’s Constitution Secretary has never lacked self-confidence, and must have thought he was in for an easy ride when he appeared in front of the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee on Wednesday.

After all, his boss Nicola Sturgeon had just been to London, seeking to build a coalition amongst opposition parties, and rebel Tory MPs, in support of either a softer Brexit than the Prime Minister was proposing, or a “People’s Vote”. The difficulties that Theresa May had encountered, even within her own party, in getting a withdrawal agreement gave confidence to the SNP that they were winning the argument for a different approach.

But it wasn’t long in front of the Committee before the Scottish Government’s position started to unravel. I asked Mr Russell whether he had actually read the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, given that he had been so forceful in his denunciation of it. I pointed out that the document had gone into the public domain at 11.46 a.m. on Wednesday 14th November, but he had tweeted at 12.09 p.m., 23 minutes later, that it was a “very poor and disastrous” deal. He could not possibly have read the 585 page document in that period.

The Constitution Secretary was forced to admit that he had only skimmed it at that point, and had come to the document on the understanding that it was based on a set of red lines previously agreed that were very damaging to Scotland, and therefore it was bound to be bad. 

For the Scottish Government Minister responsible for constitutional affairs to admit that he denounced a document before he had even read it was, however, not a particularly good look. It simply confirmed the impression that the SNP have been giving all along, that in their approach to the UK Government they are always seeking grievance, rather than basing their opposition on any solid foundation.

But there was worse to come for Mr Russell. In an attempt to be humorous in answer to my next question on whether this agreement would be better than “No Deal”, he replied that: “When it comes to a choice between this agreement and an alien invasion, this is better, but the reality of the situation is that both are very bad”. When I gently pointed out that an alien invasion was somewhat less likely than “No Deal”, Russell quipped in response: “Have you seen Jacob Rees-Mogg?” He was subsequently forced to make a half-hearted apology.

In the meantime, the Constitution Secretary had made an important admission. The deal on offer from the Prime Minister was better than “No Deal”. It is one which industry bodies such as the CBI, and the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, have urged support for. So, when it comes to a vote in the House of Commons, and the choice between this and “No Deal”, can we take it that the SNP will vote in favour?

It was then the turn of my colleague Adam Tomkins. He pointed out the Scottish Government’s stated position that it will not participate in any legislative consent process with regard to any Brexit legislation. And Mr Russell helpfully confirmed that that refusal to cooperate applied to any future legislation with regard to the withdrawal agreement. But then Mr Tomkins raised the Health Care (International Arrangements) Bill, currently proceeding through the Westminster parliament, and for which legislative consent from Holyrood would be sought.

This is important legislation. It deals with healthcare for British citizens living in the EU27 after we depart the European Union, including nearly 200,000 British pensioners who live in EU countries, and need to continue to access the health care that they require. It also covers British citizens, including those living and working in Scotland, who require medical treatment every year during holidays in Europe. The Bill is required to ensure they will have medical assistance when they need it.

And yet, this is Brexit-related legislation, and therefore covered by the principle of non-cooperation set down by the SNP government.

The crunch of reverse gear being engaged by Michael Russell was almost audible. Realising that he could not concede a situation whereby Scots visiting or living in Europe would be deprived of health cover, he tried to fudge the issue, saying that it would need further consideration. But, at a stroke, Adam Tomkins had demolished the point of principle of non-cooperation to any Brexit-related legislation that up until that moment had been an article of faith from the SNP government. 

So what did we learn on Wednesday from Michael Russell’s appearance? That he had not read the draft withdrawal agreement before declaring it disastrous, that this deal was better than “No Deal”, and that the SNP playing games with the constitution puts at risk practical arrangements that are required for the welfare of the Scottish people.

Michael Russell has had better days. 

What all this exposes is that the SNP stance towards Brexit is entirely opportunistic and driven by politics, instead of being principled and consistent. Expect much more of this to come, in the weeks ahead.

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