Scottish First Minister's address at the Trinity College, 29/09/2000

Scottish First Minister's address at the Trinity College, 29/09/2000

In 2000 the Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative (ISAI) organised a major international conference entitled "Ireland and Scotland: Nation, Region, Identity". The event took place in Trinity College, Dublin, and was addressed by the late Donald Dewar, first holder of the post of First Minister of Scotland’s devolved parliament.

Ireland and Scotland: Nation, Region, Identity
Full text of Mr Dewar's speech at the Trinity College

'There shall be a Scottish Parliament': Donald Campbell Dewar (1937-2000) was the first First Minister of Scotland after Devolution in 1999.Last Tuesday, at the Labour Party Conference, I spoke immediately before Gordon Brown. I am not complaining - I am used to it. A few months ago I turned up full of pomp and circumstance at a big business function in Glasgow prepared to star. I found I was the warm-up act for Bob Monkhouse.

Political dialogue is not always easy in my country. There are, of course, persistent practitioners. I met a gentleman the other day who almost literally attached himself to me under the incurable delusion that I was Robin Cook. He conducted a one-sided discussion on the need for an ethical foreign policy through five blocks. Recently I was accused of being an animadverter - someone who talks reasonably fluently, looking at a subject from every side but coming to no very obvious conclusions. It is an art form and one I have been practising for many years without necessarily achieving competence. I have no intention of changing my habits tonight.

I am very conscious of the fact that I am not an expert on Irish or indeed Scottish history and inevitably tend to parade my particular political prejudices. I may do a little of that on the margins this evening. I mention this as a health warning. I am very conscious that there are a very large number of people in this audience very much better qualified than I am to lead discussion on the topics of the night.

One of the by-products of recent developments in Scotland, and indeed the United Kingdom as a whole, is a broader more understanding concern and an appreciation of the Irish connection. In the past the Irish in Scotland have been under-valued, under-researched and too often forgotten. It is partly political - I have a constituency in the west of Glasgow strongly influenced by Irish immigration. I have often been struck by the wish to avoid discussion about the troubles in Northern Ireland or my views on the options being canvassed at the time. The great thing is that tolerance has grown and the tensions which at one time were very evident in West Central Scotland have now very largely faded.

I ought to note at this point that there are skilled commentators who would regard such a view as complacent. But I believe that in terms of the economy and the distribution of jobs prejudice is now almost unknown. Shadows of course can linger but prejudice if discovered is derided. I remember well a by-election in industrial Lanarkshire. There was an ecumenical meeting organised by all the churches. The first question came from a gentleman, apparently a pillar of respectability, whose question to the SNP candidate was that he understood that in an independent Scotland there would be nothing to stop the Prime Minister being a Catholic and what was she prepared to do to combat this very obvious danger. To the spectators it seemed like a voice from another age from another time.

Scotland is a welding of many traditions and peoples. It is not a homogeneous nation. It grew. It evolved. We have over the centuries benefited enormously from the ideas, the inspiration, the cultural patterns of those who have moved into our land.

"Ireland and the Irish have been great forces affecting Scottish history and attitudes in very different ways"

Ireland and the Irish have been great forces affecting Scottish history and attitudes in very different ways. First and most obviously there is the Gaelic tradition which has had and still has so great an influence - a culture which once covered much of Scotland. Boundaries were vague concepts in medieval times. We know so little about the lives of ordinary people all those years ago. I remember a learned correspondence in the Herald, Glasgow's newspaper, about Robert the Bruce and in particular what language he spoke on his family lands in Carrick. After much coming and going, there was a general assumption that it would be some form of Gaelic but clearly no one really knew.

Today there are only 50-60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland but the Gaeltacht is still of enormous importance. It is an entity which stretches from the Butt of Lewis to the Dingle Peninsula in the South of Ireland. I was delighted to hear last Friday in Stornoway that the Western Isles Council has formalised links with both County Clare and the District of Newry and Mourne in Northern Ireland. These developments can only be good news.

There has been publicity recently for a study by David Crystal which suggests that a great many of the world languages are literally disappearing and that a threshold of perhaps 100,000 or certainly above 60,000 speakers is necessary for survival. It is dangerous to work with simple extrapolations. Where a community is determined to keep its language it can and will do so. Gaelic has survived neglect, indeed suppression, perhaps even oppression over many years. Today there is a widespread public sympathy and understanding and the commitment of the Gaelic speaking community are more powerful than any set of statistical projections.

We have made great strides with Gaelic medium education, Gaelic broadcasting and now with encouraging education in Gaelic symbolised perhaps by the Sabhal Mor Ostaig which stands so handsomely just outside Armadale on the Sleat peninsula and which will be an integral and increasingly important part of the University of the Highlands and Islands as it develops. I was there recently. There was a great ceilidh in the evening and a shinty/hurling match in the afternoon though I fear it might fall rather far short of the atmosphere of 80,000 in Croke Park.

There is no doubt that the legacy of Gaelic culture has permeated the whole of Scotland. The written word may be a mystery but Gaelic song has become one of the hallmarks of cultural revival. Someone like myself who has not got the language can still appreciate and connect with all sorts of Gaelic cultural expressions. I defy any Scot to hear a Gaelic psalm led by a Presaenter wherever he may be in the world and not know exactly what he was hearing.

"There is no doubt that the legacy of Gaelic culture has permeated the whole of Scotland. The written word may be a mystery but Gaelic song has become one of the hallmarks of cultural revival"

But Irish influence is not simply part of the great traditions, important though they are stretching back to Iona to the Book of Kells, the storytellers and the Lordship of the Isles. Ireland has also had a major influence on Scotland in much later times and in a wider context.

For long enough, indeed arguably from Harlaw to Culloden, the Highlands with its Irish influence was seen as a dangerous savage land by lowland Scots. Indeed there are examples of the Highlands making common cause even with England in the stand against the efforts of the medieval Scottish Kingship to extend its influence. But when Scotland was reinvented in the early 19th century by Walter Scott, by Lady Nairne by the new romanticism the rehabilitation of the Highlands was well under way. Pitt the Younger discovered the virtue of the Highland soldier proven in the North American wars on the Heights of Abraham. Soon romanticism had produced a vision of Highland culture. Victorians had begun to admire the wilderness and the Queen herself had built Balmoral.

In the intervening years however there had been much trouble. The population of the Highlands grew right through to the 1820s till checked by the collapse of the kelp industry the arrival of the cheviot and the black face and the great economic famine of 1847 which provided a traumatic backdrop to the clearances. We shared with Ireland, the potato blight and all that that meant. It was a terrible time though it is worth remembering that the Highland Chieftain was in many ways as culpable as the great noblemen living opulently in London. After all there were plenty like MacLean of Coll who cleared Rum sending almost the entire population to Canada in 1826. The island ultimately passed to the Marquis of Salisbury who introduced deer.

One of the great links with Ireland is the land question and the conscience of Mr Gladstone. He showed a remarkable grasp in 1885 of the issues lamenting that in Scotland the Highland Chieftain had "gradually found that the rearing of men paid him in a coin no longer current and took to the rearing of rent instead". There is a splendid exchange between the Grand Old Man and Sir William Harcourt, the then Home Secretary, recorded in Gladstone diaries. Apparently Mr Gladstone was reading John Stuart Blackie on the "Scottish Highlands and the Land Law". Blackie, as some of you may know, was a polymath whose range stretched from lectures on Plato to the war songs of the Germans. Gladstone rather dryly recorded in his diary "I am reading Blackie and the crofters thus far wholly without advantage". A few days later Harcourt replied to the effect that "Blackie is a commentator who too little learning has made mad". We all know one or two like that.

"IT is helping the Highlands overcome the challenge of distance from markets and offering opportunities across the country. It is a trail that I know has been very effectively pioneered here in Ireland"

Irish influence certainly contributed to the Land League of the early 1880s led by such men as John Murdoch. It is perhaps interesting to note that Murdoch visited the school at Braes in Skye in early 1882 - around the time of the Battle of the Braes a great incident in Highland history, although perhaps small of scale when compared with experiences in Ireland. His visit to the school was long remembered. One of the children years later recorded that he was "the first man I ever saw wearing a kilt". The teacher refused to allow Murdoch to address the children in Gaelic insisting they speak English. Despite the romanticism, the language and the culture it represented was still under very real pressure.

The Highlands are now in a very special sense a success story. The population of Scotland in 1970 is almost exactly the same as it is today. The increase in the Highland population is 20%. It is not all oil and Inverness. Last year was a record for inward investment in the region. It is particularly encouraging to see the Highlands benefiting from new technology - lithium batteries in Thurso, call centres in Dingwall and Kinlochleven, the creation of jobs in Stornoway. IT is helping the Highlands overcome the challenge of distance from markets and offering opportunities across the country. It is a trail that I know has been very effectively pioneered here in Ireland.

There are other links, connections, influences. There was the very determined migration of Scots from Ayrshire and the South West into Ireland in the 18th century. I was surprised on a recent visit to Dublin to hear it suggested that there was a surviving language based on those events. More important inevitably was the Irish influx after the great famine. A year or two ago I was at a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Glasgow. It has as an enormously long and honourable tradition built over the years but there is an interesting period of quietude. Around the early years of the 19th century there was no resident Catholic priest in the City of Glasgow. There was neither need nor demand. It is a remarkable thought given the way the face of the City changed. An astonishingly large number of my constituents claim at least a grandparent from Donegal. The Irish community is now established, growing in prosperity. Its mark can be measured by the names of those who write well in Scotland today, Willie McIlvennys, Andrew O'Hagans and many more.

"There is a great debate about the future of the United Kingdom and how it is affected by devolution"

There is a great debate about the future of the United Kingdom and how it is affected by devolution. The founding text is Linda Colley's analysis of forces that welded together the mosaic that became Great Britain.

From Scotland's point of view and more importantly from England's, there were indeed powerful reasons for union. One was the need to secure the Protestant Succession; another was to shut the back door against the French. These may sound very strange considerations but 1709, 1715 and 1745 were to be reminders of the troubled times against which the Union was meant to guard. The Succession Act was snubbed by the Scottish Parliament with no guarantee that they would follow England in passing over a major scatter of Catholic successors, to install that least romantic of figures, George Elector of Hanover.

For the Scots there was compensation for the Darien Disaster - that unfortunate ill-starred, ill-equipped attempt to open up a Scottish colony in the wrong place at the wrong time. Entrance to the English colonial markets did ultimately bring prosperity. It was a connection that had the odd ironic twist. Lord Bute was the first Scottish Prime Minister in Britain. He had also the distinction of losing the American colonies. Henry Dundas, Harry IX, ran the East India company as an outward bound adventure for Scots. Tobacco made Glasgow rich. All forms of trade flourished.

Linda Colley records with remarkable skill the political, but equally importantly the cultural reasons for union. She argues that most of these are now irrelevant and have gone. It is back to Britain having lost an empire and found no role. The implication is that the future is uncertain and that in the age of the European Union and devolved government within the United Kingdom where will the movement end?.

Scotland has always maintained a remarkable sense of identity within the Union. This is largely due to the terms hammered out in 1707 which ensured the survival of the Kirk, the primacy of the legal establishment, the future of the Universities - preserving their very separate and ancient traditions. It was a structure that survived and was reinforced over the years by the great if ill-distributed wealth generated by Victorian entrepreneurial skill. There was a growing cultural confidence but the key fact is that this did not lead to or rely on political expression. Cultural pride is particularly important in both Scotland's present and past.

"Scotland is not parochial. Of course as in every community there are those for whom the next street is a foreign country. They are not typical"

You can take much time arguing about the nature of the nation state. This morning on the radio learned men were suggesting that Denmark was the most "nationalist" country in Europe. That is building heavily on a snapshot vote which I freely confess disappointed me and many colleagues. I take the academically simplistic view that nationhood is not necessarily built on race and can only be defined in terms of a coming together of peoples who wish to be regarded as a separate political entity. Language, economic expediency or necessity, the existence of a long tradition may be governing factors. All of this may be underpinned by cultural identity but that identity does not necessarily take a nationalist form.

Scotland is not parochial. Of course as in every community there are those for whom the next street is a foreign country. They are not typical. Scotland is a small place on the edge of the European continent. It has never been a credible strategy for the Scots to turn inwards, to ignore the wider world. That was never going to be the route to prosperity, to a vigorous cultural life, to a vigorous society.

Take the economy. Scotland is a trading nation. That has been the case for long enough. What brought the Dutch influence to the towns of the East Neuk of Fife? Trade. What supplied the cotton mills of Lanarkshire and absorbed their product? Trade. What were the ships on the Clyde built for? Not to sail up the canal to Edinburgh, but for trade. We have not lost this trading outlook. In manufactured goods alone, Scottish experts exceeded £20 billion last year. And this excludes the exports to our largest single market - the rest of the UK.

This international perspective is reflected in other ways. Scotland has been a favoured destination for inward investment for many years. Inward investors come because of the supply of skilled labour, the scientific and engineering base, the quality of life, access to UK and European markets, because Scotland is a good place to do business. Inward investors have brought jobs and prosperity to Scotland. The Scottish economy has absorbed the benefits of this international exposure, the technological developments, the introduction of new products and processes, the alternative management practices.

"What has to be decided is whether this is the politics of identity rampant and unstoppable, or whether we can co-exist within a United Kingdom and take a more relaxed view looking out to a wider Europe"

Scotland is an open economy. We are open to new ideas and best practice from across the globe. We play our part in the global economy.

What about cultural identity? Two vignettes. Look back to the Scottish Enlightenment of the late 18th Century. The coming together of talents can be seen on the walls of Edinburgh University's courtroom. Clearly the University Authorities wanted an equivalent of a team photograph. They sent for the local man to paint portraits of the luminaries of the day. The result is magnificent: in a room by Robert Adam hung with portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn - William Robertson, the historian: Adam Ferguson, the philosopher, who pioneered sociology (some would argue it was a great mistake); Playfair and Carstares. To these can be added Hume, Scott and Adam Smith.

Look today to the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. Together they are a tremendous Scottish success story. Both draw much of their strength from Scottish support and their vitality from Scottish performers and the Scottish cultural repertoire. But both reach out to an international culture and international audiences - and both succeed.

I recommend Lord Cockburn's Memorials as one of the great diaries of the 19th century. A classic work and the man largely with Jeffrey responsible for the 1832 Scottish version of the Reform Act constantly mourned what he saw as the death of all things Scottish. He splendidly condemned all this talk of Bannockburn 'and such nonsense' as doing great harm to the cause of Scotland - the virtues of a distinct culture. Scotland was building North British railways, North British engineering companies, North British hotels.

But there was a subtle change. Scottishness became more and more pervasive. It found an echo even among the highest in the land. In 1884 the Scottish Office was founded, brought in by the Tories in the unlikely human form of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. My favourite example is Henry Campbell Bannerman who in 1885 changed his notepaper. He lived in a fake French chateau in the Perthshire village of Meigle - if you look at his notepaper Belmont Castle moved from NB to Scotland in 1885.

I welcome the growth, welcome the renewed interest. I am excited by the way in which English courses and history courses now accept and require knowledge of our country. I believe it may even be possible to persuade the press to move beyond the constitutional question and to recognise that politics can encompass policy. What has to be decided is whether this is the politics of identity rampant and unstoppable, or whether we can co-exist within a United Kingdom and take a more relaxed view looking out to a wider Europe.

"Scottish home rule has long been an ambition of the Left in Scotland. Heavily influenced by Irish nationalism, efforts were made to bring in Home Rule Bills in plenty in the Twenties"

Scottish home rule has long been an ambition of the Left in Scotland. Heavily influenced by Irish nationalism, efforts were made to bring in Home Rule Bills in plenty in the Twenties. Nationalism of course has grown. The SNP from its founding in the late 1920s had a slow and largely unnoticed start. In 1951 the Party fought only two seats in the General Election and yet by 1974, a mere 20 years later, it won 11 and got 30% of the popular vote. It is important however to remember that in the year 2000 the party is still finding 30% a difficult barrier to cross.

The SNP have of course the advantage of having all Scotland to draw on. They are not linguistically based as is the case with the Welsh as the Catalans or indeed nationalists in Quebec. It is often difficult to read the political runes in Scotland. The big break through for the SNP came in the north-east round Aberdeen. At one time in my career I represented South Aberdeen and I was surrounded by solid Tory seats represented by such worthies as Jock Bruce Garndine, Bob Boothby who had just retired to the Lords and Patrick Walridge-Gordon - Tory majorities that looked immovable. Those voters were the most unlikely nationalists, voting as they had over the years with uncomplaining zeal for the Conservative and Unionist Party. Now they vote nationalist. The question is what do they believe?

Is it no more than the south-north divide which makes Whitehall and Westminster unpopular on the Tyne as certainly as on the Clyde? Is the collapse of heavy industry blamed on Governments although part of change that has affected every Western nation? Is it because globalisation has in fact encouraged people to put a new emphasis on their roots, upon a sense of identification with the area from which they come. Is it the disintegration of class hiding an ideological void into which nationalism has grown? I do not believe that the future lies with the politics of identify certainly in Scottish terms. There is and should be a welcome for the loosening of the bonds, the more relaxed view of local decision making which now marks Westminster. I do not believe that devolution is a stepping stone, a process which leads inevitably to independence. I believe it is an end in itself and that Scotland will hold to that.

We have had many alarms and excursions at Holyrood but substantial solid success. Carving a legislative competence out of a unitary state is no easy matter. This year we have passed 12 Executive Bills covering a wide range of issues too long neglected. At Westminster even with sharp elbows in the legislative queue we would be lucky to get two significant Scottish Bills in a session.

The outstanding characteristic is stability. Opponents of devolution now vie to declare their loyalty and their intention to make it work in future. No one wants to go back to what was. Nationalists may on occasion gather strength on the basis of a protest vote. They are the available option for the discontented. Clearly my own Party has taken a knock in the polls over recent weeks. That does not mean that there is a genuine increase in support for independence. Indeed the most recent poll which brought for me a certain lack of cheer had devolution at 55% support and independence at 24% crumbling and falling from previous highs. No one can be absolute on these matters. There are fascinating questions about the significance for example of the different performance of the Nationalists in polls recording Westminster as distinct from future Holyrood choices. The SNP promises are always higher when asked about Scottish Parliament elections perhaps because they are seen as exclusively a Scottish option irrelevant at Westminster level. Mr Hague has been making some fairly warlike noises about changes that he might want to introduce to meet the challenges of change. He should remember that devolution was introduced by Westminster and could not have been implemented without the solid support of my Cabinet colleagues. Mr Hague suggests two classes of MPs with Scottish representatives excluded from voting on what he would define as matters of exclusive English interest. This is a solution examined and rejected by Gladstone all these years ago. It would create different classes of MP in an unacceptable way. I do not believe it would work. If those seeking change see the West Lothian question as a problem what validity is there for them in a proposal that might leave a UK government without a working majority for its 'English' in inverted commas programme.

"I am asked what I am. I am a Scot, a citizen of the United Kingdom and someone who has a very real interest in the future of the European Union"

Scotland is not a place turned in on itself. You see it in the assimilation in Scotland of migrants - Jews, Poles, Italians, Asians - not, to be sure, without some tension, but certainly without the bitterness which has too often marred the intermingling of other peoples.

Devolution does not mean a parochial Scotland. It does not mean a return to the kailyard. Inwardness is not the Scottish experience of the past. It is not the Scotland that I know. It will not be the future.

Scotland has always had this international perspective. But the great periods: the Enlightenment of the late 18th Century, the great entrepreneurial explosion of late victorian times, the cultural renaissance of the twentieth century, so important to Scotland's sense of identity, have all occurred within and benefited from and enriched the United Kingdom. They are arguments not for separation but part of the case for a strong Scotland within a strong United Kingdom. And to recognise that is not to belittle or undermine what is Scottish.

Devolution does not, will not, separate Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a common heritage, economic links, shared experiences, challenges and opportunities. I believe that we are stronger together, weaker apart. I keep meeting journalists who tell me that there is a deep anger in Westminster about all matters Scottish. I find it rather odd that the front runner in the election for Speaker is a Scot and that does not appear to be a factor which has in any way adversely influenced his prospects. In devolution, we have a settlement which builds on the strengths of the UK. It puts what is best managed in Scotland to be managed in Scotland. It leaves what is best done at the UK level at the UK level. It recognises our community of interest. It recognises our rights and responsibilities within that community. By getting the balance right, we strengthen our shared commitment to the UK, we reinforce the union.

Devolution is a tribute to the maturity and flexibility of the Union and its ability to adapt to meet the needs of its constituent parts. The whole country, all of us, can take credit for that. Devolution will work, not because of clever drafting or the political equivalent of fancy footwork, but because there will be the good will to make it work. The good will is there because we have a shared outlook on the world. And the roots of that run deep.

When I was a young politician I was influenced by John P. MacIntosh, the brilliant if idiosyncratic member for East Lothian. Intellectually he made an enormous contribution to the devolution debate - one of his particular enthusiasms was dual nationality. I reject those who take Linda Colley's arguments about the relevance of the 18th century justification for union to mean that there are no bonds in the 21st century. In a Britain where people inter-marry and inter-mingle both socially and economically, this is evident nonsense.

I am asked what I am. I am a Scot, a citizen of the United Kingdom and someone who has a very real interest in the future of the European Union. I suspect that those priorities and preferences still govern the thinking of the majority of Scots and will continue to dictate the outcome of the continuing argument about constitutional arrangements within Britain.

The Scottish First Minister Mr Donald Dewar
Speech at The Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative Conference, Dublin, Ireland, September 29th 2000

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