Alyn Smith MP: "Scotland is hitting all the right notes in Brussels at a time when the UK is hitting all the wrong ones"
With a 15-year career in the European Parliament already under his belt, the SNP’s Alyn Smith has been tipped as a future party leader. Stirling’s new MP talks to Eleanor Langford about his journey to Westminster, independence – and his determination that Scotland will be heard
In March 2019, Alyn Smith sat down after what he believed was his final speech in the European Parliament. Basking in warm applause, his closing words resonated throughout the chamber: “Leave a light on so we can find our way home.”
The Parliament was debating Brexit, days after Theresa May had asked for a delay having failed to get her deal past MPs for the second time. It wasn’t clear when Smith’s 15-year stint as an SNP MEP would actually end.
Nine months later, Smith stood up to make his maiden speech to the House of Commons as the newly-elected MP for Stirling. Surrounded by his SNP colleagues, his remarks took a similar tone to those he made in Strasbourg: “Scotland is a European nation,” he declared, “and Scotland will be heard.”
Though born in the east end of Glasgow, Smith had quite an international upbringing. His father, a builder, was made redundant in the downturn of 1979. His search for work took him to the Middle East, and so Alyn spent much of his childhood in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
His time there still brings back fond memories. “I have sand in my blood,” he says. “Anybody who’s spent time in the Middle East gets that. The second the plane door opens, and the hot dusty air comes in, it’s just a feeling of – ah, there you go.”
After returning to the UK, he studied European law at the University of Leeds, including an Erasmus year in Germany. “I was there for the beer rather than the politics,” he jokes, recounting how he spent his time at the University of Heidelberg learning to fence.
Like many politicians, Smith’s journey to Westminster via Brussels began with a career in law. He’d dabbled in politics before, volunteering for the Lib Dems and Labour as a student, but it was actually his stint as an intern in Brussels which “crystallised” his belief in independence.
“Hang on, we’re bigger than Ireland, we’re bigger than Denmark actually in many ways,” he remembers realising. “Independence is not a wacky concept.” Later, while working in London after graduation he joined his local SNP branch.
It was the establishment of a devolved government at Holyrood in 1999 that propelled Smith into action. “In Scottish politics previously if you were politically ambitious you joined the Labour party and you went to London – and that was it.”
“Then half of them disappeared, usually into the pub, and that was about the height of political ambition,” he believes. However, the reestablishment of Holyrood, with its proportional system, bought a sense of energy and excitement into Scottish politics: “There was a big opportunity for the SNP.”
Keen to cut his teeth, he ran for the SNP in the then-unwinnable seat of Edinburgh West, first for Westminster in 2001, then for the Scottish Parliament in 2003. He lost both times, but still celebrated in the pub afterwards, having hit his target of securing 10% of the vote.
Opportunity beckoned when, in 2004, the much-respected Sir Neil MacCormick retired as a MEP, paving Smith’s way into European Parliament. Despite spending the next 15 years in Brussels, Smith still played a pivotal role in the rise of the SNP at home.
“Because MEP constituencies are for the whole of Scotland, I was able to travel around everywhere and support campaigns, boost candidates, help with discipline, help with training, organise things. So I’ve been intricately involved in the party’s development.”
“The last three years have been excruciating watching MPs pontificate about how Europe works when they clearly don't understand the slightest thing”
For much of his time as an MEP, Smith had little chance to demonstrate his oratory skill. “You don’t get to do rhetorical flourishes in the European Parliament because by the time it’s gone through the Estonian translators, it just becomes something completely different.”
Then came Brexit and the challenges that came with it. Scotland voted 62% to remain in the EU and, in the aftermath of the referendum, Smith received a standing ovation in the European Parliament as he pled his case. “Scotland did not let you down. Please, I beg you chers collègues, do not let Scotland down now.”
“What made this speech different? “It was me contemplating Scotland being removed from the European family against our will – and that gets the blood coursing,” Smith reflects.
And, amidst it all, Smith and his team were forced to endure a “hellish” period of uncertainty. Three Brexit delays meant filling out and cancelling three sets of redundancy notices for his Brussels staff. He felt powerless, watching from afar as decisions on Scotland and Brexit were made without the input of Scottish MEPs.
“It struck me that – much as I love the European Parliament, I love representing Scotland in it – the fight was actually here [in the UK].”
“The last three years have been excruciating watching members of this Parliament pontificate about how Europe works when they clearly don’t understand the slightest thing about it,” he adds. “And that feeling continues even today.”
Smith made the decision to step down as a MEP, and in December won his place in Westminster as MP for Stirling. In a rousing maiden speech, he set out his stance to the Government: “Scotland has not consented to where we are now, and the actions of this House prove that there is a lack of respect for Scotland’s democracy. I have concluded in the years since, along with my party, that Scotland’s best future lies as an independent state in the European Union.”
In fact, writing in The National at the start of the year, Smith said Scotland would now act like a future member of the EU. Despite claims to the contrary, he remains confident that his nation will rejoin the European family someday.
“We’re hitting all the right notes in Brussels at a time when the UK is hitting all the wrong ones.”
In the Commons, Conservative members, including the prime minister, have accused the SNP of “manufacturing grievances” and being “obsessed” with independence. On both claims, Smith remains largely unconvinced.
“We don’t need to manufacture grievance here: we have a genuine real grievance. We’re playing by all the rules of the UK constitution and we’re getting nothing, not even respect.
“The smarter Tories know they have a problem. The smarter Tories know that they can’t talk about the United Kingdom when England has just steamrolled over the objections of Scotland.”
As for independence, “we’re not going to stop talking about it”, Smith states. “This is a queer sort of democracy and this is not the democracy that a lot of people in Scotland in 2014 signed up to.”
His impassioned speeches in the Commons, in Brussels and even on Question Time have attracted the attention of many. Some have even tipped him as a future leader of the SNP in Westminster. On that, he reveals no ambitions yet: “I’m just in the door. I want to be where I’m useful.”
Three and a half years of weekly columns for The National – beginning six weeks before the referendum – have given him an opportunity to put forward his perspective on Brexit, and what it means for Scotland: “I think that that story really needs to be told because there’s a lot of people in this building who are going to try and reimagine history and reinvent it really fast.”
The most recent chapter in that story, the UK’s departure from the EU, is bound to be an emotional one for Alyn: “I’ll be gutted. But I’ve been through that mourning process and back and then through again and back. And the arguments are not over. This is just moving on to the next phase.”