Scottish MEP: Pro-EU Brexit speech was made up on the spot

Alyn Smith

Alyn Smith’s impassioned speech calling on the European Union to not let Remain-voting Scotland down after Brexit was ad-libbed, by an MEP determined not to let the likes of Nigel Farage be the face of the debate. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain in the EU in last week’s referendum.

Alyn Smith is a Scottish National Party MEP and a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament. He shot to fame after telling MEPs, “Scotland did not let you down, please don’t let Scotland down” in the Parliament debate after the vote to Leave.  

Smith spoke to News Editor James Crisp. 

How do you feel after the vote for Brexit?

Well, people forget that politicians are human beings. Within the European Parliament, there was a real sense of sadness, rejection, and blank incredulity. People were thinking, “What have you done?”

Because the Leave campaign was conducted in English, our media was watched the length and breadth of the EU. Europeans saw their citizens being described in gratuitous, disgusting terms. Polish workshy scroungers.

We rejected that totally in Scotland and there was recognition that we did something different. We want something different. I don’t want those people speaking for my country.

So you gave a speech. You hadn’t prepared it in advance?

I hadn’t prepared the speech. I wasn’t down to speak. I ran down to tell them I needed to, and in the end I had about 5 minutes notice that I had been given the time to speak. I think they saw in my eyes that blood would have been spilt if they hadn’t given me the time!

When I saw how the speeches were going, I decided to speak. Not just Farage [UKIP leader Nigel Farage] but also Syed Kamall [Leave-support chairman of ECR group]. Kamall was so sleekit, a good Scottish word for smug and condescending.

Nigel was just gratuitously offensive. I was not going to let him be the face of this debate. I hadn’t prepared the speech. I managed to keep the Tourette’s under control, and managed not to break down in tears.

You were given a standing ovation.

I’ll remember that one for a long time. I saw everybody’s face as it went on. They were thinking, “Oh Scotland has something to say here.”  European Parliament President Schulz and Commission First Vice-President Timmermans clocked it. So now the door is open, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in Brussels the following day.

She didn’t meet European Council President Donald Tusk.

Tusk was busy. We reached out to Tusk, but it was the second day of the summit. Obviously he was busy, there was a direct clash and we expected that.

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Is this about getting independence for Scotland?

We are saying that this is not about independence. We want our democracy respected. The constitution of the UK is what it is. But look at Jersey, Guernsey, for example. They have their own arrangements.

Independence was not our planning. We didn’t ask for this. We campaigned against this. We voted against this. But we reserve our right as any sensible government is right to do, to protect Scotland’s best interests.

This was categorically not about independence. There are lots of other options. We have opened doors with Europe and yes, there are lots of granular problems, but Brussels is good at finding solutions where there is good will and there is goodwill and we want to find the mutually best and effective solutions.

As Westminster has descended into chaos and farce we have opened channels to Brussels, we have opened channels to the City of London. Mayor Sadiq Khan is clear he wants London to be represented in the talks. There is going to be a coalition. There are channels with Dublin. We are not without friends. We need to have cool heads and warm hearts.

There was a coalition going into the campaign. We campaigned alongside the greens and [Welsh party] Plaid Cymru. And from the shellshock you can see in their faces, there were even Tories who pretended they wanted to leave, but actually didn’t. You can see that.

A UK general election seems necessary. We’ve heard one will be called to give a mandate to the Brexit government.

You don’t have that poison without doing something. We have heard that about the election as well. It would temporarily shut down the personal fights in the Conservative Party.

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What’s to blame for Brexit?

Thirty years of disengagement and misrepresentation. If you are an ambitious politician, it is easier to sing along with the band then face it down and educate it.

Saying and agreeing one thing in the Council and going back and telling people, “I was fighting for you” – it has turned Brussels into a pantomime villain. Unfortunately, that had some people so far down the rabbit hole, we couldn’t get them back.

But in Scotland we waged a campaign based on fact and information. If you face issues like immigration down, it goes away.

It’s important to bear in mind that in Scotland after our referendum, we had a politically engaged and switched on public as well.

In Britain, there were two Eurosceptic campaigns – one for Remain, and one for Leave.

The Leave campaign wilfully misrepresented the facts, they wilfully lied. We put out a 650 page white paper on the EU, but Leave never even put out a plan. The Remain campaign was also just not good enough.

Do the EU institutions bear any blame?

On some personal levels there is a lack of concern about the concerns of the electorate, but much of that is about member states. I find it astonishing that the Europe minister is not a cabinet post. There simply is not a structure in place that fits the EU. It’s looked at through the prism of foreign affairs.

But there are various things we would like to change about the EU. We’d like to see the focus on big picture issues like energy, climate change.

Do you think leaders like Juncker and Schulz should have fought for the EU in the campaign?

People would have reacted against them. What we learnt during our independence campaign was that there are voices from outside the debate (that) are not helpful.

What about the influence the Scottish debate could have on Catalonia?

Each situation has its own conditions. We’re focused on Scotland.

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