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THE EXAMPLE OF QUEBEC AND WHY WE CAN NOT LOSE ANOTHER INDYREF.

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IF you want to see a proper grown-up relationship between a “sub-national” government and a central administration you could look no further than Quebec within the Canadian Federation. Quebec proudly guards its special status within Canada and asserts its rights as a “nation within a nation” without question or compromise. It is an arrangement that seems all of the whole 3000 miles away from Scotland within the UK.

I was in Canada chairing a Scottish Affairs Committee visit last week and was part of the highest-level conversations about how Canada’s federal arrangements work across this huge nation, with its 10 provincial governments and three territories. We were there to discuss inter-governmental relations as we conclude our inquiry marking 20 years of devolution.

We also wanted to examine other features of provincial powers such as immigration and the role of sub-national governments in negotiating bilateral trade deals. It was fascinating and revealing stuff. This is my personal account of some of the issues in our visit.

The first obvious feature to observe is that Canada is a federation. Its constitutional arrangements are therefore designed entirely differently from the centralised UK state, with its strange version of asymmetric devolution. Canada claims to be the most decentralised nation in the developed world, and looking at its constitution, this is an assertion it would be difficult to take issue with. Where there are the obvious tensions over finance and powers (as the number of constitutional cases taken to their Supreme Court testify) there seems to mainly be a negotiated way through based on goodwill and mutual respect.

Talking of tensions immediately brings us back to Quebec. In order to secure the relative peace between Quebec and federal Canada, two independence referendums were required with the last settled by a few thousand votes and less than 1% of the huge 93.5 % turnout.

That was in 1995, and almost 25 years later the independence movement remains diminished – with the party of independence, the Parti Quebecois, languishing with 9 out of the available 125 members of the Quebec provincial government. They are currently selecting a new leader and uncertain whether they are a party of the left or right. Young Quebecers now increasingly identify themselves as pan-Canadian and PQ’s support seems to be dependent on the 1990s sovereignist generation.

The spectacular fall of the Party Quebecios, and its federal equivalent the Bloc Quebecois, is a salutary lesson to those who believe that a second referendum defeat would be consequence-free here.

Quebec is not Scotland, though. The Quebec independence movement is primarily fired by its francophone cultural agenda and differs significantly from the “civic nationalism” that underpins Scotland’s independence ambitions. Canada is also not the UK. In narrowly winning the referendum, Canada went out of its way to ensure that Quebec’s agenda was properly addressed and that its special status was properly acknowledged.

Contrast that to the UK who after promising a similar “near federalism” immediately set about the task of emasculating Scottish MPs with EVEL (English votes for English laws), before repatriating powers that should have ordinarily come to Scotland whilst examining how it can assert itself over a recalcitrant nation.

Back to 2019. Canada and the skyline of Montreal is practically covered in cranes building the new infrastructure required to support the unprecedented economic growth that is currently being experienced in Quebec. They now have powers over immigration bringing in the people and skills required to support a booming economy and address demographic issues on a par with the perilous situation we face in Scotland.

International students attracted to Quebec’s universities aren’t given immediate notice to leave following their studies but instead encouraged to stay and contribute to the growing economy. Their Department of Immigration told us that 60% of responsibilities over immigration now reside at Quebec provincial level. In discussing the CETA and Nafta trade talks Quebec and other provincial governments were in the next room asserting their provincial interests and ensuring that trade arrangements meet the requirements of all the provinces.

Believe it or not, Quebec also has the power to decide if it wants to hold another independence referendum! Responsibility over its own democracy more than anything else demonstrates the respect Quebec is now shown from federal Canada. Where Canada reached out to Quebec the UK almost seems to enjoy an approach which could only be described as passive provocation.

What about securing the federation enjoyed in Canada? Well, where the debate about federalism regularly crops up in Scotland its proponents don’t seem to properly understand what real federalism is or suggest a way how it could be applied across a United Kingdom of four nations where England provides about 90% of the population.

What is absolutely certain is that Quebec has an arrangement that is way beyond anything enjoyed by the “most powerful devolved parliament in the world”.

Where Quebec provides an intriguing example of another nation engaged in a conversation about its independence, the differences are all too real. The UK could never make the accommodations that have been offered to Quebec and it could never progress to a state of federation like that enjoyed across Canada.

The one real lesson that we can take away from Quebec is that we simply cannot lose another referendum. Looking at the condition of the independence movement in Quebec, there seems no clear way forward or real hope of resurrecting that spark after 25 years. Looking at the reasons behind its collapse there is no reason to suspect that a second referendum defeat would not be similarly near-fatal to the independence movement here in Scotland.

Scotland has only one more chance of becoming anything like Quebec and that is to end its current constitutional arrangements with the UK by becoming a self-governing independent nation.

For us there is no other way and that possible one last chance simply can not be lost.

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WHY I WILL STAND FOR SPEAKER.

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I’VE been really flattered by the interest in my announcement to stand for Speaker of the Commons. I only hope it doesn’t come as a crushing blow to Sunday National readers that Ladbrokes has given me the rather cruel odds of 50/1.

Nonetheless, even long shots can come in, so I have crafted a manifesto with several key reforms to bring Westminster into the 21st century. Mainly, they are designed to demonstrate the farcical and absurd way that Westminster operates and to contrast that with how things are done at Holyrood.

I have no idea when a contest will be called, but the Westminster expectation is that it is imminent. That means that SNP MPs participate in choosing the next Speaker and that choice should not be restricted to Tory or Labour candidates.

I will offer an entirely different option to fundamentally question the ways of Westminster.

It should come as no surprise that number one of my top 10 proposals is to introduce electronic voting. I have probably spent several weeks of my life just voting in the House of Commons and wasting time in cramped, packed and, at times, dangerous division lobbies. The way we vote is more reminiscent of a medieval assembly. Worse than that, because time taken up with this nonsense, several key decisions may not be considered.

The other issue that I know irks many people is that SNP MPs contribute at the end of debates with speaking time curtailed.

This is because MPs are called to speak based on seniority and a crude arithmetical assessment of party strength. With nearly all SNP MPs being relatively new and from a group of 35 out of 650, we inevitably lose out. What I propose is to overhaul how MPs are selected to speak based on equality. I would end “seniority” and have members with a long-standing interest in the debate – regardless of party – called early with a ballot system designed to then select the rest of the speakers on an equitable basis. I would also put in place a list of when members would be expected to speak prior to the start of a debate and have this made available to the House.

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And I want to address the many nonsensical ways in which the House conducts itself during debates. I remember the response when SNP MPs were rebuked simply for clapping. Legislatures round the world seem to manage perfectly well by allowing this and in the absence of clapping, strange and exotic sounds have emerged in the Commons.

We must also address how we refer to each other. I know that many would take issue with the prefix of “Honourable” to the Gentleman/Lady or Friend that we currently use.

We all have names and if they are good enough for us in all other day to day discourse they should be good enough for the chamber of the House of Commons. There is also the absurd notion that the Speaker should dictate how MPs dress in the chamber. As Speaker, I would end these pointless conventions.

I would also want to democratise the management of the Commons by creating an “Executive of the House” to include staff members and the wider Parliamentary community.

I have also suggested extending proxy voting to those with illness or caring responsibilities and I have proposed taking the debates we have in Westminster Hall around the UK.

Lastly, I would seek to address our historic commitment to reform the House of Lords because it is an undemocratic anachronism unreflective of our communities.

I would lead a cross-party convention of Parliament involving the devolved legislatures to progress our democracy and make both the “Houses” of Parliament more accountable and representative.

Is my programme likely to secure widespread Parliamentary support? Is my tongue firmly in cheek as I propose this almost revolutionary agenda?

I will leave that for you to decide. Scotland will be leaving Westminster soon so I will be in a hurry to conclude this agenda. I would like to maybe think that this could be our parting gift – from us to them.

THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS

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Today I announce my intention to run for the position of Speaker of the House of Commons when (and if) that position becomes available. 

It is time for a Speaker to come from beyond the big two parties to demonstrate that Parliament represents all shades of political opinion and all parts of the UK.

I will offer a clear reforming agenda that will fully respect Members of Parliament and treat every one of them equally and fairly. I will offer a new transparent and open process in how Members of Parliament are selected to make contributions and I will seek to end the practice of selecting Members of Parliament to speak based on seniority. 

My mission as Speaker will be to lead from the front the efforts to reform Parliament and make the House look and feel like a proper 21st century institution.

I am the longest serving Member of Parliament from Scotland, a former Chief Whip and business manager. I currently serve as a Shadow Leader of the House and am about to become a member of the House of Commons Commission. I also chair the Scottish Affairs Committee, the first member of the Scottish National Party to chair a select committee. I have a deep insight and knowledge of Parliamentary procedure and in my 18 years in the House I have had experience in practically every front bench responsibility. 

I will be a Speaker for the back benches and will ensure that the House will always comes first.

If elected your Speaker these are the main 10 points I would work to see achieved. 

1. I will work to end the massive waste of time in how we vote in the House.

Each current head count vote we undertake in the House of Commons takes a         minimum of twenty minutes to conduct. When there are multiple votes on debates such as at report stage of bills several hours can be wasted just in the simple process of the House expressing an opinion. Members of Parliament are forced into constrained, packed (and when particularly busy) potentially dangerous voting lobbies to queue in designated lines to be counted by a whip at the lobby door. It is a practice more reminiscent of a medieval Parliamentary assembly than a modern Parliament.

Because of the time taken to vote some important questions are not put to the House and the constraints placed on time available for voting means that the House can not express an opinion on several key questions. This must come to an end. 

As Speaker I would lead the campaign to reform voting in the House. I believe that electronic voting must be put in place as quickly as practically possible to end this massive waste of time and allow busy MPs to use their time much more constructively.

2. I will end the process of Members being selected to speak based on seniority.

Speaking in the House of Commons is the first and most basic responsibility that we perform as elected representatives in our day to day business in Parliament. It is the most obvious way to speak up on our constituents behalf and to represent their interests. All members must be therefore treated equally and all offered the same opportunities to speak across the House. The current situation proffers speaking ‘privileges’ to senior members who are called earlier to speak than newer members of the House. Why should the constituents of Rushcliffe have privileged representation in the speaking rights of their MP compared to the constituents of recently elected Members of Parliament who will invariably find their representative at the tail end of the debate with speaking time curtailed? 

All Members of Parliament should be considered equal and have the same entitlements as all others. I will end the practice of Members of Parliament being called to speak by seniority.

3. I will make the selection of speakers open and transparent. 

I will put in place an open and available list of when Members would be expected to speak prior to the start of a debate. This will be made available before any debate is due to start and issued to all who have indicated a desire to speak and to the wider House.

I would intend to have members with a long standing interest in the debate to be called early following opening speeches with a ballot system designed to select the rest of the speakers on an equitable basis. 

The opportunity to speak in the House must be made equal and fair to all. 

4. I will end the practice of referring to fellow members by constituency or by the title of Honourable friend or Honourable member. 

We all have names, and if they are good enough for us in all other day to day discourse they should be good enough for the chamber of the House of Commons. All debates should continue to be made through the chair but we must start to speak to each other like ordinary human beings and address each other sensibly. 

5. I will end any ‘dress code’. 

The suggestion that the Speaker of the House of Commons should state what Members of Parliament should or should not wear is almost absurd. There was the recent ‘innovation’ that male members did not need to wear a tie but we need to go much further. Members of Parliament are grown ups and it should be exclusively up to them what they should or should not wear to work. 

I would ensure that there are no rules or observed ‘conventions’ as to what Members of Parliament choose wear to come to work. 

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6. Reform of the management of the House.

The House of Commons commission must be reformed or replaced with a proper ‘Executive of the House’ involving all members of the House of Commons community including staff representatives. The running of Parliament should not be a matter exclusive to MPs and I will design, in consultation with political parties, an inclusive ‘Executive of the House’ involving the whole Parliamentary community.

7. An extension to proxy voting to Members of Parliament and those experiencing health difficulties or in need of extra support.

I was a big supporter and advocate of proxy voting for Members on baby leave having given evidence to the procedure committee on the issue. The success of this must now mean that it is extended to support other Members of Parliament suffering from illness or otherwise indisposed through caring duties or other demonstrable priorities. 

8. Members will not be rebuked for showing their approval in the House by clapping in approval of speeches or contributions of which they approve. 

Legislatures round the world seem to manage perfectly well by allowing the use of clapping to show support or appreciation of a speech. In the absence of clapping strange and exotic sounds have  emerged which accounts for ‘approval’ in the House of Commons – which equally baffles and amuses our constituents. We should be able to show our appreciation as Members of Parliament in the same way as everybody else does in the communities we represent.

9. Reform of Parliament.

The House of Commons must become a proper 21st century institution with working hours that are representative of the rest of the country we serve. I will lead attempts for the next phase of modernisation looking at when we sit and how the House should look and feel.

Where there is no locus for the Speaker on House of Lords reform it is incumbent on the Speaker to lead the calls for a review of Parliament. The House of Lords is an undemocratic anachronism unreflective of our communities and host to unelected appointees, aristocrats and Bishops. As Speaker I will  lead a cross party convention of the House involving both Houses and the devolved Parliaments to see how we can progress our democracy and make both the ‘Houses’ of Parliament more accountable and representative of the nation we serve.

10. Outreach across the UK.

Parliament must demonstrate its commitment to all parts of the UK. 

As Speaker I will seek to take institutions of Parliament round the UK and allow the maximum opportunity of access to the people we represent. There is no good reason why some debates, for example some that currently take place within Westminster Hall, could not take place in other parts of the UK and I will lead efforts to make Parliament available to all communities we serve. 

My pledge to you is as your Speaker is to make Parliament look and feel like an institution that belongs to its age. I will put in place reforms so that all Members of Parliament are treated equally and I will do everything to make Parliament relevant to all members of our community and all parts of the United Kingdom.

TOWARDS A UNIVERSITY OF THE CITY OF PERTH

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I am really pleased that a renewed debate about the possibility of a ‘University of the City of Perth’ is taking place and I encourage everyone interested in Higher and Further Education in Perthshire to get involved. 

Perth College is a remarkable institution with deep roots in the city. It has travelled far in the many decades it has served Perth and Perthshire. Just look at how it has grown since it first began offering courses in building trades in its old Rose Terrace site. Perth College now has over 2,800 students enrolled this year, served by an incredible and talented staff team. It also has acquired an international reputation. It is a centre of excellence in aircraft engineering. It also now offers degree courses in everything from music to social sciences.

The major transformative moment for Perth College was when it became incorporated into the University of the Highland and Islands. The degree courses started to arrive and Perth College became part of a proper paid up higher education institution. As one of the campuses of UHI, Perth College has been put clearly on the map and it has been transformed in the process.

But like every institution it must consider its future and take into account the risks presented by current conditions and structures. Perth College remains as just one of the 13 campuses of the UHI and is therefore constrained in what it can do to develop its future and reach. It also remains vulnerable to any institutional changes within the UHI, as we saw from experience last year.

As such I agree with Perth and Kinross Council and other politicians from across the political spectrum that now is the time to look seriously at Perth securing its own university, and the college becoming the University of the City of Perth.

A University of the City of Perth would have far reaching benefits to the rest of the city and county. University cities attract incredible economic benefits and investments – we only need to look to Dundee with its two universities to see what a dedicated university can do for the local economy. It would also be fantastic to hold on to the many school leavers who currently leave Perth to pursue their university studies elsewhere. It is such a depressing feature of our city that we lose so many of our talented young people to city competitors, some never to return. Perth lost out to Stirling when Scotland got its first new build university since medieval times in 1967. We can not lose out again.

Then there is the risks of doing nothing. Last year there was the attempt to integrate the colleges of the UHI into the head executive office in what would have been nothing more than an amalgamation. Had this gone ahead it would have compromised the current UHI model with potentially disastrous consequences for students and staff in Perth. Where this was rightly seen off  there will be other such attempts in the future and the UHI model remains vulnerable and open to further ‘restructuring’. Most recently UHI withdrew rurality funding to Perth College precipitating the disastrous closures of the Learning Centres in Blairgowrie, Crieff and Kinross with staff being made redundant and students losing out.

And the thing is we’re almost there. As part of the UHI we already have degree courses, we have an excellent site within the city environs and we have a dedicated and committed staff group. All it needs is the ambition to take this forward and grasp the opportunity to go out on our own. I encourage everybody to think about this seriously and to consider the benefits a stand alone university would bring to our city. With our renewed city status and our growing population now could be the time for the University of the City of Perth. 

My Brexit update – April 2019

Over the past few months MPs inboxes have been overflowing with emails about Brexit. Over the course of the next few days, I will be writing out to those constituents who have contacted me offering their views with an update as to how I voted and the thoughts behind my choices.

A copy of this email is here on the public record –

Thank you for your communication. I am writing to you with an update on the Brexit process to set out the recent decisions I have made and the reasons why. 

Can I first of all say that the interests of the people of Perth and North Perthshire will always come first for me, and I will be guided by the wishes of the majority in my constituency who voted to remain in the EU. I have, though, been prepared to compromise and work with others in Parliament in order to try and secure a majority in the House for a deal being progressed.

Let me try and run through the decisions that have been made and my position. First of all I have voted against any measure that would take the UK out of the EU with no deal reverting to World Trade Organisation arrangements. This is simply the worst Brexit option and the impact on Scotland’s economy and trading arrangements would be significantly detrimentally impacted. Because of votes in the House this threat has diminished but still exists. I will continue to vote against any measure that brings that back. 

On compromise motions I voted to reject any proposal that did not ensure a customs union combined with membership of the single market. Both of these aspects are required to ensure that our vital economic interests are protected. It is as a member of the single market that freedom of movement can be maintained. Our population growth in Scotland is almost entirely predicated on freedom of movement and our demographic issues would be raised to unacceptable levels if vital sectors did not have access to the pool of labour provided by freedom of movement. 

I have also led the call and provided the first amendments in the House of Commons to simply revoke Article 50. This would stop the process of leaving the EU at all and fall into line with the position of my constituents and nation of Scotland. I have supported all measures that have proposed this. 

I have been unable, thus far, to support the motion that proposes that a deal is put to the British people in a confirmatory vote. Supporting this motion would mean that the Prime Minister’s deal (or some undefined version of Brexit) would be allowed to pass in return for some sort of unspecified confirmatory public vote. It is a measure in which we would be asked to allow a Brexit deal to proceed through Parliament with the hope that those throughout the rest of the UK would then reject it. It greatly concerns me that it does not contain a commitment to have a remain option on any future confirmatory vote ballot paper. It also concerns me that we have not secured any guarantees for Scotland’s position for our unconditional support for this confirmatory vote. However, if this emerges as the only chance to stop Brexit I am prepared to consider it. 

Lastly I supported the bill to secure an extension to the departure date. This is now imperative to stop the risk of leaving with no deal and provide a space for alternatives.

It remains the case that in spite of our best efforts and arguments we may not be able to save the UK from itself. If Brexit does come to pass the people of Scotland will need to consider carefully what options we have open to us to protect our interests and move on to a more positive destination.

HOW I VOTED IN THE INDICATIVE VOTES

Tonight I supported the amendment to support the revocation of article 50 and I opposed all measures that would possibly lead to a no deal Brexit.

I could not in full conscience support the motion which asked for a confirmatory referendum and I set out the reasons for that here. No motion secured a majority in the House.

Supporting this motion would mean that the Prime Minister’s deal (or some undefined version of Brexit) would be allowed to pass in return for some sort of unspecified confirmatory public vote. It is a measure in which we would be asked to allow a Brexit deal to proceed with the hope that those throughout the rest of the UK would then reject it. It also greatly concerns me that it does not contain a commitment to have a remain option on any future confirmatory vote ballot paper.

This problems with this were just too great for me and I could not expose my constituents to these risks  The only Brexit deal on offer is the Prime Minister’s and I would risk letting a deal pass that would make my constituents poorer; that would end freedom of movement with all its disastrous consequences for economic growth and our population issues, and that would deny our young people the opportunity to live and work freely across a continent.

This confirmatory vote also has serious consequences for our future independence referendum. In supporting this we might be expected to support a ‘confirmatory’ referendum for any deal we  negotiate with the UK to secure our independence. This would be an open invitation for those opposed to our nation’s independence to try and undermine that result and invite the UK to give us the worst possible ‘deal’ in order to reverse that result. There is also the issue that we have not secured any guarantees for Scotland’s position for our unconditional support for this confirmatory vote. There will therefore be those who will insist we respect the result of this confirmatory vote even if Scotland votes to reject the ‘deal’ and the UK votes to accept it.

My view is that the clear way forward is to get fully behind the campaign to revoke article 50 in line with how the people of Scotland voted in the EU referendum.

Eventually, though, I believe we are going to have to forcefully make the case that the only way Scotland can rescue its EU membership is as an independent nation, and regretfully conclude that a UK solution to Scotland’s continuing EU membership is unlikely to emerge.

I will continue to oppose Brexit and do everything possible to protect my constituents from the worst excesses of this chaotic Brexit.

REVOKE, A ‘PEOPLE’s VOTE’ and SCOTLAND

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What a weekend that was in the campaign to see this Tory Brexit end and ensure our place in the European Union remains secure.

A million people marched through central London for a so-called People’s Vote, and the petition to revoke Article 50 had just passed five million at the time of writing. There is a real sense that the public want this madness to end and it’s starting to feel like the beginning of a real people’s revolt.

The petition has forced revoking Article 50 on to the agenda as a real proposition. Until this weekend, very few people in Parliament took this proposition seriously. When Angus MacNeil and I first presented this amendment to Parliament a few weeks ago it secured the support of only 12 MPs. That is because the main driver to stop Brexit has been the People’s Vote campaign. This had been presented as the only means to stop Brexit and therefore attracted all the attention

People have even tried to conflate revoke with a second referendum, with some even wanting Article 50 revoked just to start all the madness over again with another vote! It is therefore important to understand that the two are significantly different.

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Revoke would end Brexit in an afternoon. We have the “Scottish Six” to thank for this. It was they that secured the landmark judgement in the European Court which stated that the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50. Revoke is a clear, straightforward route to rescuing the UK’s place in the EU and its simplicity is the thing that has driven so many people to sign the petition.

Revoke would also secure Scotland’s place in the European Union in line with how we voted and what we as a nation clearly want. A People’s Vote is a lot more complicated. Firstly, its advocates can’t agree on how this should be progressed and what should appear on any ballot paper.

There are also the issues for Scotland. We have not secured any protections for our national interest in a second referendum in return for our unconditional support.

If Scotland voted to remain again (which it would) and the rest of the UK voted to leave (as it very well might) we could be expected to respect the UK-wide result again.

Worse than that, the momentum for a People’s Vote is for what is called the Kyle-Wilson amendment. This is a compromise specifically to get the Labour Party off the hook in line with its almost contradictory Brexit policy. It proposes that the Commons allows the Prime Minister’s deal to pass on condition that it is then put to the people in a confirmatory referendum.

We would be asked to vote for (or at least abstain on) the Prime Minister’s deal. We would have to let a deal pass that we know would make our constituents poorer; that would end freedom of movement with all its disastrous consequences for economic growth and our population issues, that would deny our young people the opportunity to live and work across a continent

Scotland’s EU future would be out of our hands and we would have to trust a Labour Party whose leadership wants to leave the EU and can’t even say if remain would even be on the ballot paper.

It is also a “confirmatory” referendum with all the associated risks. If this principle was extended to a future successful independence referendum, Unionists would be working from the day after the vote to undermine that result and the UK would ensure we were given the worst possible “deal” in order to try to reverse the result.

Eventually Scotland is going to have to accept that the only way we are going to rescue our EU membership is as an independent country. At some point Scotland is going to have to decide whether we go down as part of Brexit Britain or make our own relationship with Europe as an independent nation.

For all the dramatic activity over the weekend, none of the proposed UK options are likely to salvage our situation. The days of a UK solution to Scotland’s EU membership are swiftly coming to an end, just as it is becoming apparently obvious that it is only the people of Scotland who can rescue our EU membership.