The Brexit process has somewhat dominated Michael Russell’s final years in the Scottish Parliament.
The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs is one of the most high-profile politicians to have announced his departure from the Scottish Parliament in 2021, and is one of the SNP’s “big hitters”.
As part of his portfolio, he was personally responsible for the task of representing the SNP administration in Brexit talks.
Mr Russell recently dismissed the behaviour of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Westminster officials in handling Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) as “arrogant and stupid”.
The Brexit Secretary said there is “no doubt” Brexit is “foolish” and is something that “Scotland didn’t vote for”.
It is reckless and stupid to be in a position where we’re also having to deal with Brexit and there’s no need to.”
He added: “That is the most extraordinary, anger-making, annoying, unpleasant thing imaginable.”
Mr Russell described the decision to progress with Brexit in the midst of the pandemic, rather than opting for a further extension, as “frankly culpable”.
He added: “It is reckless and stupid to be in a position where we’re also having to deal with Brexit and there’s no need to.
“Even if they wanted to pursue that course, there was an extension on offer and in the midst of the worst crisis that we could probably imagine, not to take that was frankly culpable.”
‘Referendum could take place next year’
The electorate’s recent experiences with Brexit and Covid-19 have “focused people’s minds”, the MSP claims.
With 18 polls in a row now showing a majority of Scottish people favour Scottish independence, the SNP veteran has never seen such a “consistent lead” in his lifetime.
Independence is “coming”, he claims, but his party first has to “make the case and the argument and make it clear”.
The MSP said the SNP government intends to publish a “draft bill” before the Holyrood election in May, which they will pass if the “people of Scotland support it”.
When asked when he would want a referendum to be held, Mr Russell said: “I think a referendum could take place at any reasonable stage next year but I’m not going to put a limit on it because it could take longer or whatever but I do think it will take place.”
Name: Michael Russell
Member: Argyll and Bute
Born: Kent, England
Education: Studied theology and then Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University
Career: Worked in television and media prior to establishing his own media company, Eala Bhan Ltd
Political career: Chief executive of the SNP between 1996 and 1999. Elected as MSP for South of Scotland (1999-2003); MSP for Argyll and Bute (2011-present). Served as Minister for Environment (2007-2009); Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution (February 2009-December 2009); Cabinet Secretary for Education (2009-2014); Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe (August 2016-June 2018); Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations (June 2018-February 2020); Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (February 2020-present)
Mr Russell has a long history in the SNP, joining in 1974, and working as the party’s first full-time chief executive from 1994 to 1999.
He recalls the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a “remarkable event”, with the late Sir Sean Connery attending the opening as a guest of the family.
“There was a really positive atmosphere up at the top of the Mound because parliament was in its temporary home in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall,” he said.
“It was Winnie Ewing, as the oldest member, who got to sit in the chair and oversee the taking of the oath and then to make that remarkable speech, starting with the words ‘the Scottish Parliament adjourned in May 1707 and hereby reconvened’ and that was remarkable, thinking of that continuity.”
The 67-year-old said he decided more than a year ago that this would be his last term in parliament, as another five years was “too much”, especially covering the 23 inhabited islands which make up his constituency.
The senior minister was successful in being elected the SNP president last year, a role traditionally held by a senior, long-serving politician.
But on his decision not to stand for election to Holyrood again in 2021, he said: “I thought it was fair to me, to my wife who retired as a headteacher some years ago, that I didn’t do that.
“I’m not going to be idle. There are lots of things I want to do.
“I’ve seen a really fascinating time in Scottish politics and it remains fascinating and there is still a lot to do and I shall enjoy watching some of that.”
On regrets, he said: “Politics takes you away from home a lot.
“I have a son (for) who perhaps I wasn’t at home as much as I would want to have been. He doesn’t appear to be any worse for it but I have regrets around that.”
The Argyll and Bute MSP thinks the Scottish Parliament is “without a doubt” the biggest political change in in the last 21 years and has “transformed Scottish politics”.
Scotland is also a “different place” and a more “confident place” compared to that period when the national parliament was just starting out but the parliament still has a lot of “potential still to fulfil”.
He added: “It has, in my view, after a bit of a shaky start, done well. As a fully independent parliament it will have to learn those rules and learning is always tough but I think the question isn’t has it fulfilled its potential but has it done its job?
“To the best of the ability of its members, it has done its job. It needs to keep its feet on the ground, it needs to be very accessible.
“We should be conscious of the fact we are always there for the people of Scotland.”