If you hadn’t noticed, the first minister with her cabinet in tow met sundry Europeans resident in Scotland yesterday at an ‘EU Nationals event.’ I tweeted a warning to the innocents and less-than-innocents attending:
Like many, I can be a bit more acerbic on that ephemeral medium than elsewhere, but I see no reason to resile from anything I said in my tweet.
As you can see I have a healthy scepticism about the reasons the meeting was called. That’s not to say I don’t feel sympathy with EU citizens living and working in the UK. I voted to remain in the EU, I have been disgusted at the racism and hostility meted out to some Europeans in the wake of the ‘Leave’ vote, and I admire immensely people who have come legally to make a better life for themselves in the UK. But a democratic decision has been taken and the question now is how to make the best out of it (a lesson nationalists failed to learn in 2014).
Anyhow, if you want to see for yourself what the meeting was like the Scottish Government have done the right thing (you see, I do say that occasionally) and put a video of the whole session on YouTube. I watched the first half hour. There’s a production quirk – the first seven minutes show only the title of the meeting – but here are my conclusions from those first thirty minutes.
We were told that 450 people were attending. But the occasional shot of the audience showed plenty of empty seats. I do wonder if that number was those who had accepted an invitation to attend. Did they all turn up? [Update 18 August: I am reliably informed by someone who was at the meeting that about 330 attended]
The first minister’s entrance was characteristic. She was brought on after the cabinet to a scattering of applause and the obligatory mobile phone photos from the audience. Her opening statement dealt with the situation the audience might find themselves in: ‘You have done us the privilege of making Scotland your home …’, although many might have thought they were making the UK their home and just happened to end up here. But it was the sort of peroration she might make to fellow politicians in parliament, full of phrases like ‘the initial phase of an economic stimulus plan’ and ‘the job of the Scottish Government is to find the best arrangements and optimal conditions for Scotland to prosper.’ My goodness, she does lack the human warmth to empathise and communicate meaningfully with people who may indeed be feeling very uncertain of their future in the UK.
In inviting questions (about 25 minutes in) the minister chairing the session, Joe Fitzpatrick, grouped them in threes. I first saw a politician do this in the early years of devolution, a junior Labour minister as it happens (no fear or favours here). It’s a great device for politicians. Under the guise of moving things along and fitting in more questions they are able to (a) gently bypass more awkward issues in responding to, in this case, three questions at a time and (b) avoid follow-up comments from individual questioners who may be unhappy with an answer.
I watched the first group of three questions. Fitzpatrick had asked people to identify themselves when asking a question. Unbelievably, the first questioner (in the middle of the front row) not only didn’t give his name but was also only a European in the sense that he was clearly a native Scot. He said he was asking about tuition fees for a Czech friend. Hmm. The second said she was speaking on behalf of an organisation (Nurse Scotland? I didn’t catch the name) and asked a practical question about Scottish Government involvement with the UK’s negotiations. The third seemed to be a Czech academic from Glasgow University who asked one of those long questions that’s really a statement – about what Cameron was alleged to have said to the Czech prime minister after the referendum. His tone was strident.
I gave up at this point although you don’t need to. I suspect those first three questions told me most of what was likely to follow – a mix of partisan prompts (someone unkindly described them to me as ‘plants’), genuine issues, and rants.
In some ways the most interesting aspect of the meeting was part of the publicity that preceded it. The day before the meeting a German couple called Thomas and Elke Westen who live in Fife told the BBC they ‘had decided to leave the UK as they no longer felt welcome following the Brexit vote.’ Some scurrying round by sceptics on Twitter revealed – did you guess? – that they’re SNP members with a long history of activism in the party. What a surprise. (The BBC amended their earlier report when they discovered this) The Westens were apparently at the event and were invited to meet the first minister after. Do these random coincidences of SNP membership, allegedly under-threat foreign nationals, and meeting with first minister remind you of anyone else? If not, check out the case of the Australian Brain family (here and then here). The SNP, to put it unkindly, have form in this area. [Update 18 August: it now emerges that at least two other questioners at the meeting have SNP/Yes connections – Italian/Kenyan Carole Magoha and Lithuanian-married-to-a-Scot Viktorija Macdonald]
Let’s end with something the first minister said to her audience yesterday:
You’re not bargaining chips you’re human beings.