To launch our Brexit project, Future Choices for Scotland, we were privileged to welcome Keir Starmer to Glasgow. Keir joined some of our newly elected MPs, Lesley Laird, Martin Whitfield and Paul Sweeney in a discussion, along with many of our contributors to the project.
Keir then spoke to a packed venue on the challenges of Brexit and what it means for Scotland. His speech is below:
“Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening, it is always a privilege to address the Scottish Fabians.
Even more so in the weekend after a fantastic Labour Conference, which really showed that our entire movement is feeling self-confident, optimistic about the future, and is ready for power.
Theresa May called an election in the summer because she thought she could decimate the Labour Party, get a free hand to continue austerity and pursue a reckless Brexit.
The country had different ideas, and instead the Prime Minister got a nasty shock: she lost her majority, she lost her mandate, and she lost her authority.
Labour didn’t win, but we took a step closer to Government. And here in Scotland we made giant strides. In fact, we have had a sevenfold increase in the number of Scottish Labour MPs since the last time I spoke to the Scottish Fabians in January.
I know that Ian Murray is delighted to have some compatriot colleagues in Westminster, if only to hear the last of that joke about there being more pandas in Scotland than Labour MPs.
In all seriousness though, the strides the Labour Party are making in Scotland are important.
Scotland is the home of Labour giants like Keir Hardie, John Smith and Gordon Brown is a country where the values of social justice, internationalism and equality run deep.
Its people deserve to have those values, Labour values, represented in the Westminster Parliament. And they deserve those values to be represented in the British Government.
With a swing of just 5% from the SNP to Labour we would gain 23 seats at the next election, and we need to take just a handful of seats elsewhere to be back in Government.
With a swing a like that we would have Labour MPs in Glasgow South, Glasgow West, Glasgow East, Glasgow North, Glasgow Central and Glasgow North West.
We can and we will have MPs from this great Labour city, playing a role in a transformative Labour Government.
And nowhere is that transformative Labour Government more vital than in the handling of Brexit.
Unlike senior members of the Government, I have always appreciated that these negotiations would be fiendishly difficult. They are complex, there is much at stake, and even if we secure transitional arrangements time is short.
And as the man charged with bringing the entire Labour Party behind a singular approach to Brexit, I am under no illusions how difficult the politics of Brexit are. I’ve got the scars to prove it.
But just because the challenge of Brexit is great, that does not excuse this Government’s miserable performance.
The Prime Minister has put down arbitrary and unhelpful red lines on the ECJ and on a cap on immigration which make progress difficult.
We have a foreign secretary who, when he isn’t contradicting his Government’s official negotiating stance, is insulting our European partners.
And the entire Government have wasted the first third of the article 50 negotiating time by holding an unnecessary general election, quibbling over the rights for EU nationals that should have long since been guaranteed, and pretending that we would be willing to wench on our financial obligations.
All of these avoidable mistakes have made securing the deal that Britain needs more difficult to obtain. But that’s only half the challenge of Brexit, the bigger challenge is bringing our divided country back together.
We need a Government which speaks to and for the 52% and the 48%, offering a future that works for all no matter how they voted.
Instead those who voted to remain have been dismissed as citizens of nowhere by the Prime Minister and had their patriotism called into question by the Foreign Secretary.
As with the SNP so it is with the Tories, a party that can only speak to and for half the country does not deserve to govern.
Equally, a party that does not speak for every nation in our union does not deserve to govern.
The Government have consistently ignored the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Not even bothering to offer formal replies to their papers on Brexit.
The Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit, which is supposed to be the forum in which the devolved Governments can contribute, has not even met since February.
And the Government have nothing to offer but fantastical blue sky thinking on the very serious issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Once again the so-called Party of the Union are playing fast and loose with the bonds that bind us together. It’s utterly reckless.
Speaking of utterly reckless, that brings me to the Withdrawal Bill that is currently before Parliament.
A lot of the media attention has been on the co-called Henry VII powers in the Bill. And there is no denying they are an affront to Parliamentary democracy.
The Bill would place unprecedented powers in the hands of the executive, with the least amount of Parliamentary Scrutiny possible.
It would leave rights, protections and standards in the hands of Tory Ministers and not Parliament.
And it would take away the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, making it harder for citizens to assert what they are entitled to.
All of that amounts to an unacceptable power grab, and we are working hard to stop it happening. But, in England at least, not enough attention has been paid to another pernicious aspect of the Bill: It dismantles and disrupts the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Bill stops the devolved legislatures from passing laws on matters previously dealt with in Brussels, but gives the Westminster Parliament a free hand. This is even true when the matter is otherwise devolved.
So under the Government’s proposals the UK Parliament could weaken food safety standards previously guaranteed in Brussels perhaps by allowing chlorine washed chicken even though agriculture is a devolved matter. The Scottish Parliament would be powerless.
Politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are rightly up in arms about this. But so far their reasonable complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
Our union is at a fragile moment. The Independence referendum was only narrowly defeated here in Scotland, and power sharing in Northern Ireland has broken down once more. The Government ought to be a lot more careful.
That is nowhere truer than here in Scotland, where 62% voted remain, and where the need to preserve Scotland’s membership of the European Union was used as an argument by the Better Together campaign.
So the country needs a different approach to Brexit.
We need a Westminster Government committed to uniting the country, rather than playing divide and rule.
We need a Westminster Government that wants to work with the devolved administrations on a great constitutional challenge, rather than assuming it always knows best.
And we need a Westminster Government that uses Brexit to transfer power to Parliament, to the regions, and to the devolved legislatures rather than as an opportunity to hoard powers itself.
In short, we need a Labour Government.
We also need a fresh approach to the negotiations.
I know there has been some frustration about Labour’s approach to Brexit. And I cannot pretend we haven’t had our disagreements, which family hasn’t over Brexit?
But I genuinely believe we have worked those differences out in a mature manner, and over the summer we have reached a strong and united position.
We reached an agreed position in favour of transitional arrangements on the same basic terms that we currently have with the EU. For Labour that means that during the transitional phase, we would remain in a customs union with the EU and within the Single Market.
The Prime Minister is inching towards us on that position, but some in her Cabinet still seem to disagree with here.
When it comes to the final deal Labour are united in our objectives: protecting jobs and the economy by retaining the benefits of the single market.
And we are united in our approach: leaving options on the table and not going into the negotiations with arbitrary red lines.
Subject, of course to negotiations, remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour.
We are also flexible as to whether the benefits of the Single Market are best retained by negotiating a new Single Market relationship or by working up from a bespoke trade deal.
No rash, ideological red lines preventing a sensible deal. No fantastical, blue sky proposals. A pragmatic approach. Labour are now the grown-ups in the room. We stand ready to take charge of the negotiations.
That’s why when I next come back to speak to the Scottish Fabian Society, I hope it is as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU in a Labour Government which delivers a Brexit deal in the interests of the Many and Not the Few.
In a Labour Government, with MPs and Ministers from every region of England, Wales and Scotland, and which delivers a Brexit deal that works for every part of our union.
In a Labour Government with the values, the seriousness and the vision necessary to rise to great challenge our country faces.
In a Labour Government that you can be proud of and recognise as your own. Thank you.”