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Scottish Parliament Speech: Arbitration (Scotland) Bill (November 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Arbitration will never make the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end; we do not go around the squares of great European towns and see statues to the unknown arbitrator - although he probably is unknown. We find statues to generals and martyrs - which reminds me of George Bernard Shaw's lovely phrase to the effect that martyrdom is the only way to achieve immortality without talent - but we do not find statues to people who exist to prevent wars.

As far as I know, no arbiter was in business at the time of the Schleswig-Holstein question. That dispute between Germany and Denmark was so complex that Lord Palmerston, the then British Foreign Secretary, said that only three people understood it: one was dead, one was mad, and the third - Lord Palmerston - had forgotten all about it.

That sort of thing can be important. Not a lot of members will know about the Venezuelan crisis of 1896, in which Britain nearly went to war with America. America's President at that time was the sensible figure of Grover Cleveland, but we nearly managed to send our battleships steaming in the direction of New York, because someone let a process get out of sync. The situation had to be retrieved by the Oxford academic whose biography I wrote - James, Lord Bryce, who was a product of the University of Glasgow. From that crisis was created the Anglo-American arbitration treaty, which has coped with the relationships between our two countries from then up to the present.

A much more serious incident that nearly brought Britain and America to blows was almost totally of Scottish creation and Scottish resolution. It was the business of the Confederate steamship Alabama, which was built in Birkenhead by a Scottish shipyard owner whose name - we are not likely to miss the nationality - was Macgregor Laird. He forgot - whoops - to inform the British Government that the ship was due to sail. Another Scotsman, W E Gladstone, winked at it because he sympathised with the American Confederacy at that time. The Alabama sailed and proceeded to sink or capture most of the federal marine. At the end of the civil war, the Americans approached Gladstone, who was by that time the Prime Minister and who had shifted from his enthusiasm for the Confederacy to being a proponent of democracy, and said, "What about it, then?" The result was the first important international arbitration case. Under the settlement that was made in Geneva in 1871, Britain stumped up $15 million for the damage that was inflicted on the American merchant marine. Even given that the exchange rate at that time was roughly $4 to £1, that made a considerable dent in the British Exchequer. That established the process of international arbitration, which is one factor that has governed the famous special relationship between Britain and America. It was jaw-jaw - or better, money-money - rather than war-war from then on.

It is intriguing that the British representative at the arbitration was Sir Alexander Cockburn, who was from a well-known Edinburgh legal family. He sat later on the bench as Lord Cockburn. Some years later, he came up in conversation when his great-grandson, Evelyn Waugh, was asked by a friend, "Evelyn, is there anything that you really regret?" Waugh said "Yes - that I was not born the descendant of a peer." The friend replied, "But you're the descendant of Lord Cockburn." Evelyn Waugh said, "Yes, but he was a useful peer. I want to be descended from a useless peer." Lord Cockburn was a very useful man in setting up the system of the settlement of disputes.

Arbitration is a way of preventing heroism. We have heroism and wars, and we have boring meetings in Geneva. However, the result of the latter is considerably greater progress in civilisation. Civilisation was invented in Scotland in the 18th century by Adam Ferguson of the University of Edinburgh; it meant to him simply a state that decides its disputes in a court and not by force of arms. We in Scotland ought to be particularly proud of that.

The Scottish Government has done well in taking and running with the idea of making Edinburgh a centre for peaceable and expeditious settlement of disputes. We have considerable expertise behind us, which I have gone on about at some length, but we have also the expertise that we garnered during the 1970s and 1980s, as the minister suggested, by being the power that had most to do with the North Sea and the tremendous new technologies that had to be integrated into legal frameworks. We did not just create the science of positioning, which enabled for the first time from the creation of the world - depending whether one views that as a single act or something stretching back several thousand millennia - a floating object to remain absolutely stationary in the water. That was done down at Ferranti and at Racal in Leith. We also perfected the simple and effective solution of disputes between oil countries and between the people who extract oil from the North Sea.

We therefore have a background that gives us tremendous effect when it comes to suggesting good paradigms for the way in which Governments and private concerns can conduct themselves and come to safe, expeditious, unheroic and boring agreements - as long as they do it in Edinburgh. We will have many more of those, given the spread of international linkages, such as multi-user railway lines and the use of different sorts of pipelines, which may go in one direction for oil and in another for the return of carbon. Such business will come to us if we work out expeditious means of settling disputes.

In an age when the virtual world is advancing on us day by day, why not use computer programmes to do so much of the boring and tedious work for us, so that in number-heavy cases they can present us with the options and allow people to come to rapid settlements? If I may conclude with an appalling pun, you know IT makes sense.

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