Friday, 30 September 2016

Show us some direction on the Brexit bypass

For my Daily Record column

Does anyone at Holyrood have an actual plan for Brexit? 

We can’t be sure about the effect of leaving the EU, but there is little sign of the Scottish government trying to even insulate the place from the impact.

It’s scant relief the First Minister yesterday gave an assurance on the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise following well-sourced reports that closure was being considered.

HIE, and its forerunner the HIDB, was the instrument of turnaround Highland development, successfully channelling millions of euros of EU funding into the area.

Closing the region’s development agency before Brexit would be an act of economic vandalism, yet it was on the cards.

On this, and a host of other policy areas, Holyrood Ministers are floundering instead of making the waves. 

Only this week a £3 million European fund to develop community businesses in the Western Isles was told to stop taking applications because of the alleged uncertainty Brexit is causing.

Businesses can’t sleep easily just because Fergus Ewing has written to Whitehall for clarity.

Speaking on radio the SNP’s Alasdair Allan MSP sounded as informed on the issue as the Victoria Quay janitor. He is actually the Scottish government Minister for Europe.

Instead of offering something constructive all hapless Allan bleated was: “I’m just asking the question, what happens?” 

I'll tell you what’s happening.

As Ministers look for fights with London their civil servants are taking from the Highlands with one hand then punching it in the face with the other. 

While there’s an unseemly haste to close up shop on economic development there’s no slow down in efforts to baler twine the region in European environmental designations that sterilise the sea and shoreline. 

If we’re going to be out of the EU these empire-building schemes from the bureaucratic green brigade won’t apply.

But European Union Wild Bird directives are being rushed through in Scotland fast before the Brexit guillotine falls.

That’s what Brexit means for the Highlands, it’s a pretty shameful two-handed game  that doesn’t impact on government thinking.

Playing keepy-up with the constitution Nicola Sturgeon’s distraction therapy from focusing on a real Scottish response to Brexit.

Marching purposefully past tv cameras down Brussels corridors does not amount to a plan.

Pro-independence firebrand Alex Neil is the only person to have set a compass.

In an excellent article this week Neil nailed it - forget a referendum vote, there to be lost, and focus on getting as many EU powers and replacement funds to Scotland as possible. 

He has hit on Scotland’s Brexit sweet spot. A majority voted to stay in the EU and a majority voted to remain in the UK.

So, if power is to be repatriated from Brussels then it should by-pass Westminster and go to the communities affected by the decisions.

It’s £800 million of cash and a swathe of controls over farming, fishing, employment law, consumer protection, social policy and the environment.

Neil is the only one on the case, oh and the NFU which is hiring big lobbying firms to make sure rich farmers stay subsidy rich.

Yet if powers and cash are to be clawed back from one distant political institution they shouldn’t then be embedded in Edinburgh, home to the most centralised government this side of Uzbekistan.

Really, to kickstart a Labour comeback Kezia Dugdale should have ripped off Neil’s article and used it as her Liverpool conference speech. Well, maybe not the bit about “neo-independence”, more about real devolution. 

As the clock ticks down on our EU departure all the Scottish government’s preparations for the Highlands amount to is cutting the legs from economic development while strangling the population with needless European environmental designations.

It will be the same for the rest of Scotland. Some plan that.

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