A FORMER SNP cabinet minister has said attempts to portray the EU as a progressive force for good do not reflect reality and that Scotland is leaving "whether we like it or not".

Alex Neil, who sent shockwaves through his party last week when he revealed that he and other SNP parliamentarians had secretly voted for withdrawal, today warns that "Brexit does mean Brexit" and called on politicians, unions and civic society to "seize the moment" and embrace new opportunities to make the country fairer.

The former health secretary, who left Government in May, has written a joint-article with Labour MSP Neil Findlay in which the unlikely allies set out a left-wing case for making the most of the Leave vote, including taking a more progressive approach to trade deals, public contracts and transport.

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Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly warned of the disastrous economic, social and cultural consequences of Brexit, citing threats to employment conditions, equality laws, workplace health and safety, civil rights and efforts to tackle climate change.

However, writing in the Scottish Left Review, Mr Neil and Mr Findlay hit out at language used by "some remainers" that "seems to idolise the EU as a great force for progressive change, distributing largesse to the masses across the continent."

The pair add: "The referendum held across the UK resulted in a leave vote. Brexit will happen whether we like it or not. The democratic wishes of the people have to be respected. To do otherwise would risk a huge backlash and undermine the basic principles of our democracy.

"We need to recognise the reality that the EU is no longer the progressive force it used to be, especially in relation its pursuit of a policy of severe austerity, which is doing so much damage to the people living in the poorest countries in Europe, like Portugal and Greece.

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"We also have to be cognisant of and respond appropriately to the dangers coming from the rise of the far right, both in the UK and in Europe. In France, Austria, Holland, Hungary and Slovakia they are on the march."

In 2014, Mr Findlay, who says he reluctantly voted Remain in June, moved a motion of no confidence against then-health secretary Mr Neil in the Holyrood chamber and accused him of misleading his constituents and MSPs over alleged inappropriate interference in a hospital in his constituency. Mr Neil survived the vote and relations between the pair have thawed with both key figures in a new Cross-Party Group at Holyrood which will embrace EU withdrawal.

Discussing new opportunities, the MSPs say that "Brexit does mean Brexit" but that "we’ve got to ensure it means much more than that". They argue that Scotland is set to be freed from EU state aid rules which, for example, make it difficult for Government to directly support industries like steel when they run into difficulty. They claimed that Brexit could "re-vitalise our coastal communities" as they will no longer have to comply with the Common Fisheries Policy and make it far easier to nationalise rail and ferry services.

Brexit will also mean that payment of the living wage could be a legal requirement for companies winning public contracts, something that The European Commission has banned, and that international trade deals could include provisions that would boost living standards for normal workers in the overseas territories they are signed with.

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They said: "[Brexit] has to be about the politicians, trade unions and civic society in Scotland and the UK seizing the moment and using the opportunities which Brexit throws up to make our country much fairer, where social justice reigns supreme and where we end the dominance of and adherence to the market solutions that have in themselves contributed to Brexit vote in the first place."

An SNP spokesman said: "This article says the democratic wishes of the people have to be respected. We agree the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland have to be respected. There was an overwhelming vote for Remain in Scotland and therefore the SNP is determined to protect Scotland's interests from a damaging right-wing Tory Brexit."