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EXCLUSIVE: Willie Rennie: “Students will lose most from Brexit”

Unless Article 50 is extended, Britain will be leaving the EU on the 29th March. With or without a deal.

I spoke to William Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, on Wednesday morning to get his thoughts on Brexit and how he felt subsequent negotiations have gone.

In an exclusive interview with Brig, Rennie started by speaking about the mood within Holyrood as the Brexit deadline loomed closer.

“I think we’re numb because we don’t have a direct influence over the outcome in the House of Commons.”

“They’ve been at this for two years now and not an awful lot seems to change from one day to the next then people are a bit numb with it all. The energy in some ways has been taken out of it even though it’s becoming more critical because it’s been going on for so long. It’s just testing our patience I think.”

Rennie backs the People’s Vote, a campaign to give the public a second referendum on Britain leaving the EU. He believes that the British people should have the final vote on what happens with Brexit.

Rennie is a vocal supporter of the People’s Vote. Credit: The Scotsman

“I think it might be the way to break the logjam because the House of Commons is incapable of reaching a conclusion because it’s as split as the country.”

“The politicians, certainly those who maybe had big Leave constituencies, even though they believe it’s the wrong decision, feel a pressure to follow through on the vote and I think if they were to agree to put it back to their constituents to finally sign it off that might help the ease and flow of this.”

“Members of the public say they’re exasperated with it, they don’t really understand it and they just want the MPs to get on with their job.”

Rennie believes that Westminster cannot just make a snap-decision deal because if they do, “then we end up with something that we’re lumbered with for generations to come and it would have an impact on our way of life and our economy”

The North-East Fife MSP believes that the Prime Minister deserves “credit for resilience” but believes she has “a lack of sensitivity and agility to build up relationships” in the withdrawal negotiations.

“I think she’s a wee bit tone deaf. She’s not got the flexibility, the agility to engage, build trust and listen to nuanced arguments.”

“In many ways, what should have happened, if we recognised this from the very beginning, there was a massive conflict between the needs of the economy and, for instance, what people thought they were voting for with Brexit, which was tighter immigration. The government haven’t gone out to explain why this is a real threat to our future and I think that’s an abdication of responsibility.”

“I think she did not prepare the groundwork, she effectively closed down the argument from the very beginning by talking about ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that brought no clarity to what she really meant.”

He is worried about how a deal May strikes might impact the people, and businesses, of his constituency.

“They’re desperately needing good, quality workers and they need to get them from abroad because there just aren’t sufficient numbers here.”

“Those businesses are going to be directly affected by the Brexit immigration decision and I think the government by just ignoring that conflict is storing up an awful lot of problems for itself because either it lets down the public or it damages these businesses and neither is satisfactory.”

Last week saw Jeremy Corbyn write Theresa May a letter that outlined a five-point plan for a softer Brexit. May responded, she agreed to talk with the opposition leader and there were politicians who spouted a rhetoric of compromise between Labour and the Conservatives.

Rennie believes Corbyn has been “cynical” through the Brexit process. Credit: Sky News

But Rennie remains sceptical about the two parties working together.

“Corbyn has been quite cynical through this process but he’s sought to try and exploit the Conservative’s discomfort and division for his party’s advantage.”

“He’s also trying to play it both ways so as not to upset either part of his support so there is a strong group of people, probably the majority of his voters say that we should reject Brexit and have a People’s Vote but there is an insignificant minority who think the opposite.”

Rennie believes Corbyn wants a deal done, but that “he doesn’t want to have his fingerprints on it” so that if he’s ever prime minister, then he is void of responsibility.

“He’s playing politics, he’s playing to his party’s advantage rather than the country’s advantage. The chances of them reaching an agreement are low, a crunch-point will come when he has to make up his mind.”

Last October, at an SNP party conference, Nicola Sturgeon insisted that Westminster’s chaotic handling of Brexit made her “more confident than ever that Scotland will be independent.”

With SNP pushing independence, I asked Mr. Rennie for his thoughts regarding SNP’s behaviour during the Brexit negotiations.

He said that he “plagued Nicola for months”, trying to get her to be a strong supporter of a second vote on Britain leaving the EU.

“We need the First Minister of the country advocating something that is really important for our future. Scotland did vote, by quite a substantial majority, for staying in the European Union and so I think she’s got quite a responsibility to fix that rather than just settling.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP party conference last October. Credit: The Guardian

The Scottish Lib Dem leader believes that Sturgeon is using Brexit as a means of pushing the SNP’s political agenda, “there is no doubt that she is relishing the potential impact of Brexit.”

“She thinks this is a big chance to get independence.”

He thinks that a lot of people will have changed their minds about Scottish independence after the Brexit mess and that the difficultly in leaving Europe mirrors how hard it would be to split from the United Kingdom.

“I think a lot of people will be turned off by the scale of the change in prospect; breaking up a 40-year-old union is one thing, breaking up a 300-year-old union will be something else.”

The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to run the 2017 general election on the notion that they were opposed to Brexit. I wondered if there was any form of Brexit that Mr. Rennie and the Lib Dems could put up with.

“Nothing is better than what we’ve got. I can’t see us ever supporting any kind of Brexit.”

“Either you lose influence over the rules or you have economic impact, either way you’re hit and I can’t see why we would settle for that.”

A study by Survation, looking into how people would vote were there to be a second referendum, found that 82% of 18 to 24-year-olds would back Remain.

Rennie is deeply concerned about the effects Brexit will have on students in regards to the Erasmus scheme and the European research area.

“Students are the ones who will lose most from withdrawing from Europe.”

“It’s going to have an impact on students who want to go on and do research and that will also have an impact on funding for universities which will in turn impact every other part of education and student life.”

“I’m not saying there is going to be a cataclysmic effect from day one, I think it will be a slow decline over a number of years, but the job opportunities that will be available will be much more limited than they currently are.”

“Younger people are more outward looking internationalists, compassionate, caring about the rest of the world. I think that is the most disappointing aspect of Brexit, we are sending a message to the rest of the world about who we are.”

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