Stephen Gethins: “People remaining in their own political silos just doesn’t work anymore"
Although he won his seat by the narrowest of margins, Stephen Gethins is philosophical, pragmatic and refreshingly non-partisan about the challenges ahead. The SNP’s Brexit spokesperson talks to James Millar
Stephen Gethins is demonstrating why he thinks the government’s approach to Brexit is wrong – sitting at his kitchen table in his Fife home he is eating a cake and, when done, he no longer has it.
He’s keen to advertise that the Mars Bar cake in question came from the Harbour Café in St Andrews. When you’ve a majority of just two it’s worth trying to curry favour with constituents at every possible opportunity.
But the point is that while Boris Johnson seems to think he can defy the laws of nature with his so-called ‘cakeist’ approach to Brexit, Gethins is a much more pragmatic chap.
He’s a vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group on EU relations, which is essentially the continuity Remain campaign, and he’s keen to work with all comers. The APPG is led by Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry and his fellow vice chairs include leading figures from Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Greens.
He explains: “I think it’s fair to say that those who are progressive around the issue of Europe are coming together, trying to look at ways we can make the situation with Brexit less bad.
“The SNP to be fair has not been scared of marching into the lobbies with other parties if we think it’s the right thing, we voted with Chuka Umunna over the single market for example. And it’s been good to see the Scottish government working with the Welsh assembly government and, when it existed, trying to work with the Northern Ireland assembly as well.
“People trying to remain in their own political silos just doesn’t work anymore.”
As if to show how far he’ll take that approach he talks up a number of Tories, and you don’t hear SNP politicians doing that very often. He singles out new Foreign Affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat, Anna Soubry and veteran Europhile Ken Clarke for praise. As well as the Greens’ Caroline Lucas.
He claims the general election result has changed things, particularly in parliament.
“If you’re to respect the result of the general election, and there’s a lot of talk about respecting the result of elections and referendums, then it would be that there needs to be more of a cross party approach to what’s being done, on the Europe stuff in particular given that this is mammoth.”
The government, seems to have little interest in a cross-party approach while it struggles to come up with a plan that satisfies all wings within the Conservative party alone. Gethins reckons Theresa May’s big speech in Florence only served to underline how much effort the PM is putting in to squaring off her cabinet colleagues rather than focussing on the Brexit negotiations.
Looking back on the 12 months since the last SNP conference with regard to his Brexit brief he sees little progress.
Something that Gethins notes has changed is the rhetoric around EU nationals and immigration.
He explains: “North east Fife is a better place to live because of freedom of movement and the contribution of EU nationals. It’s a richer place to live in.
“The diversity of the society in which we live, the fact people come from all round the world, freedom of movement is critical to that.
“I benefitted from freedom of movement. I went off and worked in the EU, I’d like to think I came back with skills, experience, contacts that I wouldn’t otherwise have had and have benefitted me and my tiny little bit of the Scottish economy since. I want others to do the same. It’d be hypocritical of me to do otherwise.
“If you’re an EU national living here this is as much your home as it is my home.
“Two years ago, if I’d said that you’d have thought ‘He’s at it, that’s unpleasant bringing that into the debate’. Now we’re in a position where I feel I need to say it. That’s the political shift we’ve had.”
Yet some things remain the same. “We’re still in the same mess with government trying to find its way through which underlines that it needs to start listening to the opposition and to others. And this is what happens in a parliament of minorities it means that the opposition have to step up a wee bit as well, we have a responsibility to engage in a positive way.”
Yet the official opposition are nearly as hamstrung as the Tories over Brexit. Gethins seems to have a good working relationship with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer but there are issues elsewhere in Labour with questions over exactly where Jeremy Corbyn stands on Brexit.
He’s keen to contrast Labour conference which was dogged by disputes over whether members would get a vote on Brexit policy – they didn’t – with SNP conference where the very first item of business will be a resolution put forward by Holyrood’s Brexit envoy Mike Russell and himself on the topic.
This conference comes in the wake of that rare thing in recent Scottish politics – an SNP reverse: 21 seats fell at the general election.
Gethins urges a sense of perspective. “I’ve noticed from speaking to party members they’re still good at reminding us that was our second best Westminster election result ever by some margin.
“We won 95% of the seats in 2015, I think for people to argue that the winning margin at a Westminster election is 95% of the seats is quite something.”
Gethins came perilously close to joining the likes of Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Eilidh Whiteford as election night losers.
His majority of just two is, logically, one of the smallest in history. Indeed Mrs Gethins – who gave birth to the couple’s second child mid-way through the general election campaign – could’ve wiped out his advantage and had her husband at home helping out with the baby a bit more if she’d voted for the Lib Dems. (Despite the election being a secret ballot Stephen’s pretty sure she did vote for him.)
The smaller SNP team in Westminster meant Gethins added foreign affairs to his portfolio as well as keeping the Brexit brief.
He says of his expanded role: “It’s exceptionally challenging, especially when you have a young family. It is horrendous for people with families, and for others. But I’m enjoying it.
“As someone who is a passionate pro-European to his core, more so than others in my own party just because of my own background, it’s good to be able to do something. I’m really glad I’m not sitting on the sidelines getting frustrated. Now, I’m still getting frustrated even though I’m in the mix of it but probably less frustrated because there are still some things I can do.”
Doing things is Gethins style. At the end of our chat he’s not taking the opportunity for a cake-induced doze while the baby is having a nap, he’s off to St Andrew’s for the first debate of the university semester. After all, every student’s a potential voter and his majority can only go up.