Glasgow University Politics Society (GUPS) hosted a panel debate on Brexit titled “Brexit: One Year On” in Glasgow University Union’s Debate Chamber on Friday 2 February. The panel, chaired by Strathclyde University professor Sir John Curtice, an expert on polls and electoral behaviour, discussed the current developments in the negotiations of the divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as wider implications of Brexit on the UK and the EU. The four discussants were Patrick Harvie, Scottish Green Party MSP for Glasgow, Lesley Laird MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Scotland, Peter Sellar, lawyer and Westminster Brexit advisor, and David Coburn MEP, leader of the Scottish UK Independence Party.
The panel discussed a variety of topics posed by Curtice, who often followed up with inquisitive demands, pressing the discussants to provide clear and unequivocal answers. Starting with the question of whether Brexit was the right decision with the benefit of hindsight, the differences of opinion on the panel soon became very clear. Laird took the more moderate approach, stating that she voted Remain but respects the popular vote and claimed that the politicians should not put their own twist on result and instead now focus on delivering the least harmful Brexit. She has consistently stated during the entire debate that the Conservative cabinet is unable to deliver such result and blamed them for a complete lack of transparency and information sharing.
She said unequivocally that Labour is pro-Brexit and categorically against a second referendum; however, being repeatedly pressed by Curtice on what the specific Labour positions are, how would Labour conduct the Brexit negotiations differently or indeed what the best outcome of the negotiations looks like in Labour’s view, she was unable to provide a clear answer, resorting instead to broad phrases of putting the economy and jobs first.
Peter Sellar offered perhaps the most moderate and factual perspective of the whole panel, focusing on specific issues, pointing out unmentioned problems and providing substantiated answers. Sellar contemplated various options that the UK had in choosing future arrangements with the EU, noting that all of them had certain shortcomings in terms of economic and trade prosperity. He stated that the referendum was merely advisory and the close result did not mandate government for any extreme options yet despite this, the British people are likely looking at a “cliff edge” Brexit.
When further questioned by Curtice, Sellar said that he would phase the Brexit, opting for the EEA arrangement similar to that of Norway, which would give the UK some much-needed time to negotiate trade deals. Sellar also went to note that while many voters may have been driven to vote against the freedom of movement (one of the four fundamental freedoms of the Single Market), there has been a widespread confusion between freedom of movement and immigration; and said that freedom of movement benefits the British culture and economy.
Patrick Harvie came down as the strongest anti-Brexit voice on the panel. He delivered a passionate monologue in which he stated that he currently sees “no good outcome” and that “hates everything about Brexit, same way as he did a year ago”, mentioning the increase in widespread racism, emboldened far-right and the destruction of the principle of free movement. Harvie claimed that the government had no mandate to take UK of out the Single Market as that issue was never mentioned on the ballot. He also stated that he wishes for the UK to rejoin the EU in the future and he is more than willing to campaign for that, even if it should take 20-30 years.
David Coburn represented the opposite pole to Harvie, taking a strongly anti-EU stance. During his remarks throughout the debate, he made many controversial claims, often met with laughter and expressions of disbelief from the audience, and regularly interjected in other discussants’ speeches. He painted the EU as a failed project on the verge of collapse, often mentioning countries such as Italy, Greece or Spain as being in a terrible state. He has also declared that Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstad, the chief negotiators of the EU, have a job of “tanking the British economy”.
Coburn accused Theresa May of being an inept negotiator and “not playing hardball enough” with the EU. Some of his further controversial claims included a statement that “there was no trouble between the British and the Irish government since 1923” on the question of Irish nationals in the UK, while also accusing the EU of using Northern Ireland as a hostage with regard to the Irish border question.
A substantial portion of time was given to discuss the question of another independence referendum for Scotland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvie commented that the current situation gives Scotland a legitimate claim to reopen the question of independence while Sellar also acknowledged there were reasons to consider it. Conversely, Laird opposed the idea of another referendum, citing the concerns of further economic uncertainty and democratic deficit and stating that “all of the talk of constitution distracts governments from actually doing their job”. Taking the opposition even further, Coburn claimed that Scotland would be “the opposite of free if it remained in the EU”.
The answers of the panellists to the final question from Curtice fittingly summarised their respective positions throughout the entire debate. Asked who, if anyone, should have the final say over Brexit, Harvie said the ultimate sovereignty lies with the people and any further referendum needs to take account of all four countries in the UK. Sellar stated that Parliament definitely has the power to reverse the triggering of Article 50 as the referendum was merely advisory. Laird noted that Parliament has taken the decision that the MPs will have the final say but does not believe the Parliament itself has the right to reverse the decision, only to scrutinize and examine the deal. Coburn took his last opportunity for controversy and did not fail, declaring that the British people already had their say and they chose to leave the sinking ship that is the EU.
President of the Glasgow University Politics Society Becca Edgeworth commented on the event: “The Politics Society always tries to hold topical events and as it was almost a year since Article 50 was triggered, we thought we should have some kind of event to mark it. We settled on having a panel because we wanted to have as many viewpoints as possible and I think that really came across on the night – it was great to see so many people keen to ask questions and get involved! GUPS always got weekly events coming up so keep an eye on our Facebook page for more info; a highlight will definitely be our Social Sciences Ball in March which was a huge success last year.”