WITH the majority of folk attending Saturday’s public meeting on a second Brexit referendum in Lerwick straight after taking part in a march calling for just that, it was a little unsurprising that a show of hands at the end of the event was overwhelmingly in favour of a ‘people’s vote’.
Over 100 people gave up two hours of their Saturday afternoon to hear from speakers from a range of political viewpoints at the Town Hall on the so-called ‘people’s vote’, and give their own perspective from the floor too.
Around 80 folk, banners in hand, had started a march from the Market Cross not long before at 2pm – showing support for those doing the same in London – and fifteen minutes later they were sat in the Town Hall eager and ready for a slice of hot debate.
But there was little debate. Preaching to the converted? Perhaps, but there was a cross-party consensus that Brexit is dangerous – economically and culturally – and that a second public referendum is the way forward.
The messages of support for Brexit were few and far between. No-one from the local Conservative branch turned up to speak, leaving Prime Minister Theresa May a sitting duck, nor did any fishing representatives, who would have no doubt spoke up for leaving the European Union (EU) and its disliked Common Fisheries Policy.
Those who did accept their invites to speak, however, were local Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, SNP man Iain Malcolmson, Women for Independence’s Zara Pennington, Labour’s Johan Adamson and Janet Ainsworth of the Shetland Pension Justice Group – all of whom who were concerned by the Brexit process.
With the Shetland public already sitting comfortably and so eager to get going that meeting chair Willie Shannon was still en-route for the 3pm start, organiser Jonathan Wills opened up the floor to ask for folk’s thoughts on the issue.
Nearly three years ago 56.5 per cent of voters in Shetland backed staying in the EU – as did every other local authority in Scotland.
Councillor George Smith – at strains to stress that he was speaking on a personal basis, not on behalf of the council – said Brexit was a “disaster” that had been inflicted on the country.
It set the tone; one woman said Theresa May had made a “dog’s breakfast” of the whole situation, and Robina Barton claimed voters were not informed enough when they put pen to ballot paper in the EU vote back in 2016.
“I have great reservations about the first vote – I don’t think it was a democratic process,” she said. “People would be more well informed [in a second referendum] than they would have been last time.”
“I have to say that in the last several months I have not heard any politicians saying anything true – it’s all about damage limitation now,” Barton added.
The Brexit process was turning into an “act of national self-harm,” she concluded.
But Nathan Leask argued that we do not know for sure what the outcomes of Brexit would be – and that these could be positive.
The media had been too negative about the opportunities, especially the BBC, he said.
There was also mentions from the floor of a ‘Norway plus’ Brexit and also how tariffs will affect the fish industry, while an EU national got the crowd on her side after saying that despite living here for 35 years, she wasn’t allowed to vote in 2016’s referendum.
“If there’s a people’s vote we have to include the people who live and work in the country,” she argued.
It was easy to forget about the panel of invited speakers watching on underneath the Town Hall’s imposing stained glass, biding their time, as the public had their say with some amount of vigour.
As the chairman arrived, Wills read out a message on his phone from Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who could not attend after becoming “double booked”.
The Lib Dem said that all parties must work together to “allow people to end this Brexit madness”.
His colleague Tavish Scott said that while there were some arguments for leaving the EU, there were plenty for staying in it.
He pointed to three of the nine local fire fighters who fought the recent devastating Fair Isle Bird Observatory blaze being French, adding that the Europeans living here made for “one of the most compelling arguments for getting rid of Brexit”.
Johan Adamson warned that it would be a “complete mess” if the UK left the EU with no deal.
She added that things were “so far removed from what we were promised”.
Iain Malcolmson, meanwhile, carried on pointing the finger at the Tories, who had been “arrogant, incompetent and negligent” in organising the first vote.
He said former Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the first referendum, “should be made responsible for this fiasco that he created” – although Malcolmson noted his desire for the EU to be reformed.
Janet Ainsworth expressed concern about the number of EU nationals working in care who could leave the country as a result of Brexit.
“We need more EU nationals coming in,” she said, to a hefty applause.
Zara Pennington noted that “what people didn’t vote for was closed borders” – and she added that “in a democracy it’s so important to be able to change one’s mind”.
It was back to the floor, and local National Farmers’ Union representative Cecil Eunson – who agreed that a no deal Brexit would be a “disaster” – went against the grain by saying things “need to move on”.
He said the farming industry is always on the go and the sooner an outcome is agreed the better.
“The uncertainty will go on and on – what will the question [for a second referendum] be?”
Talk soon shifted to the voting age of the first referendum, which unlike the Scottish independence vote two years’ prior did not give 16 and 17 year olds their say.
Malcolmson said some of the best debates in the ‘indyref’ process were found in schools. “These kids know it’s their future – they’re not stupid,” he said.
One punter, meanwhile, said Brexit was a reflection of how the country looks outwards in a global sense.
“I think the importance of mobility and free mobility of people actually has an impact on how we see the world,” he said. “It enriches the community.”
Robina Barton touched on an apparent rise in far right extremism in some parts of the UK, like the North East of England, and how that may have played into the first EU vote.
“There’s a large element of racism in a number of people’s motivation to leave,” she said.
Former councillor Jonathan Wills, meanwhile, remarked how there were shields from a number of European countries adorning the walls of the Town Hall.
He argued that the EU was a symbol of peace in a post-war world, and while he noted that the Common Fisheries Policy has “never worked”, this was something that could be revised.
Wills said a people’s vote was a “last chance to get this insanity stopped”.
Councillor and crofter Allison Duncan expressed worry about the effect Brexit will have on health treatment as well as medicine stocks, while Gary Robinson – proudly sporting a blue EU t-shirt, the organisation’s 12 gold emblazoned on his chest – said the effect things might have on UK nationals living abroad has been overlooked.
He said his son, who lives in Sweden, is due to apply for citizenship there – something he would encourage anyone in his position to do.
“I hope this ends in a public inquiry,” Robinson added.
Chairman Willie Shannon, remaining impartial, closed things by saying Shetland had always had been an outward-looking community.
“I think Shetland has a lot to be proud of,” he said.
It was left to Wills to propose a resolution for attendees to vote on, which said that “this meeting supports a people’s vote on Brexit, including the option to remain in the EU, with the franchise to include all EU citizens resident in the UK and all citizens aged 16 and over”.
As if controlled by a puppet master from above, up shot the majority of hands in the Town Hall – and Shetland had its say.
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