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Scottish Parliament Speech: VE Day (65th Anniversary) (May 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I thank Stewart Maxwell very much for lodging the motion. About this time of year, three years ago, just after being elected to the Parliament, I was waiting for our oath taking to be shown on the television when my father, at 92, started up, jabbed his hand towards the TV and said, "There's Harvie." He did not mean me or Patrick; he meant his cousin, Sir George Harvie-Watt, who was being shown in a big open car with Winston Churchill, driving in London on VE day.

Harvie-Watt was Churchill's principal private secretary during the war. My father's role was much more modest. He was in the Highland Light Infantry, then he went to the air force. He had the sort of war that many servicemen had, which was one of colossal boredom interspersed with terror - that was when he was on convoys to the United States and was the officer of the watch. Of course, even on the large liner that he was on, it was always possible that you would be overwhelmed by U-boats.

I made my political debut in 1945, when I was wheeled in my pram by my mother when she went to vote for Dr Robert McIntyre to be the member of Parliament for Motherwell. He was the minister's son, which was why she voted for him. To her horror, he got in. She has never voted Scottish National Party again. A couple of weeks later, I was out in my pram demonstrating for allied unity, with little American, British, French and hammer-and-sickle flags. However, it was not as straightforward as that. The second world war tends to be rather sentimentalised by a lot of us, but it hit Scottish society hard. There were 50,000 dead. There were much larger numbers of dead in the merchant navy in the second world war than there were in the first world war. Others died as bomber air crew or prisoners of the Japanese.

In world war two, Britain was not the great power that it had been in 1914 to 1918. Then, had the arsenal of the Clyde stopped functioning, the central powers - Germany and Austria - would have won. However, Scots industry was fully engaged in world war two under a remarkable Secretary of State for Scotland, the Labour politician Tom Johnston. As Rob Gibson reminded us, Scotland provided the great junction for the transatlantic convoys, which went south to the English ports where the D-day preparations were being made, and north to Archangel and Murmansk in the icy, dangerous dark, described by the novelist Alistair MacLean in his best book, "HMS Ulysses". A third writer, Captain Hamish Henderson, who fought his way through the desert over to Sicily in what he described as the last classical war, then up the spine of Italy, described the fate of both sides in one of his "Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica", in a poem called "Seven Good Germans" - good, of course, because they were dead. However, when the soldiers investigated the dead men's wallets and that sort of thing, they discovered that the Germans had the same sort of lives as the Scots or English soldiers who had killed them. It is there that the words that I used in a contemporary history of Scotland come from: "There were no gods and precious few heroes ... They saw through that guff before the axe fell."

My father's cousin, Tom Notman, was of that company. He shared the pacifist views of Jimmy Maxton, a friend of his father, who was a Glasgow minister. However, Tom Notman won the military cross for evacuating soldiers of both sides from Monte Cassino in the summer of 1944, only to be killed about two months later at Lake Trasimine. I was born shortly after that, and I bear his name.

That reminds us, I suppose, that there were many casualties apart from the troops. We have that wonderful monument in Edinburgh castle that recorded the range of people who became involved in the first world war: the firemen, sailors and nurses. In the second world war, that range included the evacuees and refugees - those who were caught up in a war and made into enemies by actions that they had no part in. In that regard, one thinks of the tragic fate of the Scots Italians being deported to the United States who went down with the Andorra Star in the Atlantic. Angus Calder, who wrote "The People's War: Britain, 1939-45", has reminded us of how Britain changed at that time and how the Beveridge report led to the creation of the British welfare state.

The least that we can do for soldiers and other people involved in war - the women at home, the refugees, the people looking after the victims of terrorist action - is to ensure that they are commemorated in the way described in the motion. My father has never claimed his badge, but I will encourage him to do so. I will also do what I can to help the veterans so movingly remembered today to get what they deserve.

 
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