Alistair Carmichael has been the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland since 2001Freddie Dyke

The arrival of Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián to Edinburgh Zoo in 2011 created the most popular joke in Scottish politics. ‘There’s more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs,’ Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters could scoff.

But it was all change at the 2015 general election. Student journalists wanting to talk to a Liberal Democrat MP from north of the border are left with just one option: Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland.

“The nationalism of Alex Salmond is not massively different to the nationalism of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen”

All Westminster constituencies are unique, but that containing the Orkney and Shetland Islands is perhaps the most unique of them all. And, settling into his chair looking surprisingly well-kempt for someone who had just braved the early onslaught of Storm Doris’s attack on Cambridge, Carmichael explains to me why the seat has returned a Liberal MP in every election since 1950 and how it managed to withstand the SNP storm last time out.

“It’s our small island liberalism,” he says proudly. “Yes, that distance does give a disconnect, but we’re a community that is much more self-reliant than others. We manage to be insular as an island community without being illiberal.”

Indeed, himself originating from Islay in the Inner Hebrides, Carmichael is drawing on his own experiences when he notes “a special mentality” comes from being raised on a Scottish island. Yet, he is also keen to stress that this is but a part of his identity, lamenting how “Scottish nationalists focus on a single identity – being Scottish – and consider the British identity as illegitimate. But I’m more than that: I’m European, British, Scottish and an Islander. And I’m quite comfortable with it”, he tells me firmly.

A prominent Better Together campaigner, Carmichael remains dismissive of the SNP’s arguments for independence. In his view, “the nationalism of Alex Salmond is not massively different to the nationalism of Nigel Farage, which in turn is the same of the nationalism of Donald Trump and probably Marine Le Pen.”

Indeed, as we discuss Scotland’s chances of securing a separate deal with the EU, he highlights a “lack of logical consistency” in Nicola Sturgeon’s arguments.

“If it is wrong for Scotland to share her sovereignty with England, why are they so desperate to share it with 27 other countries in the EU?” he asks me rhetorically. “And why is it so important for Scotland to be part of the single market of the EU, which is 15 per cent of our exports, but not the UK single market, which represents two-thirds?”

“I’ve not seen any idea of substance that shows Scotland could have anything meaningfully different relationship [with the EU]”, he sighs. “I wish the nationalists would start making an argument for cooperation across boundaries in Europe in its own right, rather than a sub-species of the Scottish independence argument. But the problem is, they aren’t internationalists: they’re nationalists!” He smiles wryly: “And the internationalist nationalist doesn’t exist, I’m afraid.”

However, for all of Sturgeon’s calls for a separate Scottish deal, could her long-term goal of Scottish independence be facilitated by the whole Brexit ordeal, I ask? Carmichael is cautious in his response, noting with frustration that the SNP do “see this argument [against a ‘Hard Brexit’] as a way of advancing their narrative that Scotland is so different from the rest of the UK that independence is necessary.”

“But,” he tells me, “Scottish independence is not as likely as you would understand from this side of the border” because the SNP are “relying on the same emotional arguments they’ve relied on, which got them 45 per cent of the vote in 2014. Beyond that, they’re now their victims of their own success – they’ve polarised popular opinion in Scotland.” Indeed, he continues, “so many of us are defined by whether we were for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ that I think it’ll be difficult for them to shift people out of the 55 per cent. It’s still an argument of head vs heart.”

“Remember this”, he says. “Nationalism always ends badly. It only ever works if you’re the only country that does it. Because once you have other countries that take that approach, you quickly end up in a race to the bottom.”

Arguably, this is exactly what is occurring around the world right now, I point out. He nods in agreement, before taking a somewhat optimistic view of the situation. “The political debate is now framed between nationalism and internationalism. And this has put Liberals (who are internationalists by definition) back in the centre of politics. I find it quite enlivening.”

I draw him over to discussing what he describes as “the gift of the current Labour Party”. He lets out another sigh. “Nick Clegg said [last autumn] that the government had come up with the most banal cliché ever in ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Well, I think he was right at the time, but what I didn’t foresee was the Labour Party would find ‘respect the result’. In terms of banal clichés, I challenge you to come up with anything better than that.”

“I don’t think you make big constitutional changes by splitting the country”

“It’s odd the Labour Party preach this when it’s pretty clear the Tories don’t respect the result,” he argues. “Think what was on offer when the ballots were cast, the assurances we were given. They’ve gone”, he says, waving his hands in disgust. “The vision we have now is not one that is going to deliver us another £350 million for the NHS: we’re going to become a low-tax, low-regulation economy. Is that really what people thought they were voting for on the 23rd June?”

Carmichael is keen to emphasise the flaws of referendums. In his view, a result of 52 per cent to 48 per cent “tells you nothing more than the fact that the country is split down the middle. And I don’t think you make big constitutional changes by splitting the country.” He grimaces: “Frankly, part of me thinks if we never have a referendum, it will be too soon.”

However, he is equally adamant that “having started this process with one, [a second referendum] is the only way of sorting it sensibly. I don’t see any other way of reconciling the views of the two sides.”

I push him on this, though, arguing that if a second referendum saw the blocking of Brexit, it could see ‘Leave’ voters uniting at the next general election to vote in a ‘Brexit government from hell’.

“I think we’re already there”, he responds wryly, before admitting – struggling to mask a tone of resignation in his voice – that there are “risks to a second referendum he just cannot “see anything better”.

“Welcome to identity politics,” he says leaning down to grab his coat. “This is what a referendum does to a country: it takes an issue of constitutional significance which people might have a view of on, puts it right to the top of everyone’s agenda and forces them to pick a side.”

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