BREXIT Secretary was never Michael Russell’s official job title, but it’s what he became known as during five years at the forefront of political change.

Now the veteran politician, who stood down last month, has looked back on his difficult relationship with Westminster in an exclusive interview with the Sunday National ahead of the five-year Brexit anniversary on Wednesday.

Russell, who led on EU withdrawal for the Scottish Government from September 2016 until his retirement, has told how matters between Edinburgh and London became increasingly strained over that period as key personnel shifted.

“I’m not sure there were people who were particularly sympathetic to Scotland,” he says of the UK team in place at the outset of the process, “but I don’t think anyone we were dealing with a few years ago was as hostile to devolution and to Scotland.”

“Brexit has become about English sovereignty,” he added.

Russell, who represented the Argyll and Bute constituency for the SNP, was appointed Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe shortly after the referendum votes were counted in 2016 and ended his Holyrood career as Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs.

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The role saw him lead on inter-governmental relations and take part in high-level talks on policy and process over the movement of people, trade, education, legal rights and more as Scotland sought to have its Remain majority respected and reflected in matters related to EU withdrawal.

During the five years since 2016, it also saw Russell speak critically of the UK Government’s approach to Scotland. In evidence to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee he described the Scotland Office as “not necessary”, relations between the government as “poor” and Theresa May as “not a person who seems willing to listen”. In March 2020 he called Boris Johnson’s administration “the most hostile, arrogant, heedless and thoughtless UK Government in many generations” and he described Michael Gove as having attempted “nonsensical gaslighting” over claims about the involvement of the Scottish Government in latter-stage Brexit work.

The Scottish Tories, he says, “were as surprised as anybody else,” at the outset of the process. “The Tories who were involved at that time – [David] Cameron, David [Davis], May – it was a slightly different approach. Things got worse incrementally. I’m not sure if the reason for the change is that things often get worse incrementally or if the real hard liners in the Conservative Party continued to push in the background.

“When I think about dealing with Davis, let alone Damian Green, they were not hostile to Scotland in the way that Johnson, Gove and the rest of them are.

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"They will talk the language of cooperation and consultation and they’ll do the opposite. That has been a growing formula since Johnson became Prime Minister. It’s become the dominant discourse.

“There are still people in the Scottish Conservative ranks who find this whole thing unpleasant and distasteful. They are hidden away and in the minority and not prepared to speak.”

Announcing his retirement in March 2020, Russell said it had been “particularly distressing to have to see Scotland dragged out of Europe against our will”. “It’s amazing what you forget and how the whole thing has transpired,” he told the Sunday National of the past five years. “I wasn’t at the count because I was going to Mull the next day. I went to bed assuming Remain would win and woke up about half past three with my wife saying ‘you better look at this’. The ferry from Oban was like a large surgery with everyone looking to talk about what had happened and what it would mean.

“We were still quite hopeful then that it wouldn’t mean very much. The thing has simply gone from bad to worse. Looking at the experience since December 31, I think even Unionists must somewhere in themselves have a doubt that this is feasible even in the short term.

“I’m not optimistic. Independence is more essential than ever. To me, there is no other answer to this. This is a deeply retrograde step which is not going to be reversed by the UK. If that’s a route that we don’t take then this is going to be in every sense very costly indeed. Brexit has become the rolling back of any semblance of believe in power being held elsewhere.”

The UK Government and ministers say they’re working to benefit the whole of the UK and aim to work with devolved governments.