THERE are simply no words to properly describe the collective feeling of shock, horror and sadness that we all feel at the brutal killing of Jo Cox. My thoughts are very much with those closest to her – her husband, their two young children, and their wider family.
The tragic events of last Thursday have meant, quite rightly, that campaigning on both sides of the EU referendum has been suspended. But, with just four days left until the polls open, I suspect that Jo Cox – a passionate campaigner for a Remain vote – would want the democratic process to go on. So, although our hearts are still heavy, we must turn ourselves back to the huge question and decision that faces us.
I have consistently made the positive case for Scotland and the UK’s continued membership of the EU, and I do that again today, but also with some hard-headed political considerations in mind.
In terms of the advantages of being part of Europe when it comes to jobs, investment, overall prosperity and living standards, free movement and protection of workers’ rights, I believe the case for continued membership is simply overwhelming.
And I also think that that is something which most people in Scotland agree with.
One of the most striking aspects of this debate from a Scottish perspective is how our view as a nation of our place in Europe has evolved in the last four decades. In the 1975 referendum on Common Market membership, Scotland voted to remain but only by a relatively slim margin, and we were one of the more reluctant and sceptical parts of the UK.
More than 40 years on, that picture appears to have changed dramatically. While I take absolutely nothing for granted about the result here in Scotland, I believe that there is a substantial majority for an “in” vote here, and that can be translated into a convincing win in Scotland for Remain if enough people turn out to vote on Thursday.
That change in Scotland’s attitudes over the last 40 years reflects, I believe, an underlying acknowledgement that being part of Europe, for all the EU’s flaws, has been and continues to be good for us.
But I now want to talk about those hard-headed political considerations.
These are the questions we need to face up to in terms of what kind of country we want the UK, and Scotland to be – and what kind of political direction we want to take.
I said last week that I thought one of the political consequences of a vote to leave Europe would be a seizing of the reins of power at Westminster by a Conservative cabal which would be, almost certainly, even more right wing than that of David Cameron.
I don’t believe for a moment that that is something which the vast majority of people in Scotland wish to see.
And I also want to be very frank and blunt about the potential consequences of this week’s vote for the constitutional debate here in Scotland.
Independence supporters frequently ask me two questions about the EU referendum.
The first is how can you support independence and back Scotland’s membership of the EU? The answer to that is simple – I believe independent countries must cooperate to tackle common challenges. Every member of the EU is an independent country working with for the greater good.
The second question is whether a “Brexit” vote will mean a second independence referendum? Well here is what the SNP manifesto at the recent election said about that: “The Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the European Union against our will.”
Now, let me be blunt – I hope this scenario does not arise. I hope that the whole UK votes overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and to reject the narrow-minded and inward pitch of the Leave campaign leadership.
But I am also clear that if Scotland does indeed face the prospect of being taken out of Europe against our will, then the option we set out in our manifesto must be on the table for consideration.
But that option only arises if Scotland votes Remain next week.
If Scotland votes to leave, then that reason for independence doesn’t arise.
So I’ll be voting Remain for a variety of very good reasons – such as access to a single market of more than half a billion people, free travel across Europe for all of us and for the hugely important workers’ rights and social protections that being part of Europe guarantees.
But if you are basing your decision on what it means for independence, let me be very clear – the only sensible and logical vote is one for Scotland to remain in Europe.
If Scotland votes to leave, then our immediate future will be one inside the UK but outside the EU, at the mercy of a Tory Government led by the likes of Boris Johnson, which is even more right-wing than that of David Cameron and George Osborne.
So I ask you to vote remain on Thursday because it is in Scotland's best interests.