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Scottish Parliament Speech: Scottish-Polish Connection (October 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I am grateful to Shirley-Anne Somerville for securing tonight's members' business debate on a topic that has long been close to my heart, as I hope I will be able to show in my speech. As a historian, although an altogether minor one compared with the irreplaceable Polish Scot, Neal Ascherson, I have an interest in Scots-Polish friendship as it goes back long in history.

The rudest lines in all the poems of Burns - I will not quote them in a family chamber - were pro-Polish and Thomas Campbell, another Scots radical, was a hero to Polish liberals. He wrote eloquently

"And Freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell".

There was a migration to Scottish mining districts of Poles, first between the 1880s and 1914, and then during and after world war two. Many servicemen came, some of whom married and settled. As someone told Neal Ascherson, they could all dance like Fred Astaire. My closest childhood friend, the social anthropologist Charles Jedrej, who died last year, was from that background.

Scotland has an ageing population and we need younger people as skilled workers. Besides, Scottish nationalism is not exclusive. In the words of the First Minister, we are a mongrel nation and proud of it. In the middle ages, we were unique in having five ethnic groups and a peaceable enough make-up. Our links ran abroad, particularly to the Baltic.

We have many Polish workers and families in my constituency. We felt that it was necessary to open up a dialogue with such a large and hard-working community that faces the same issues as local residents. The problems that they encounter are, of course, aggravated by a language barrier that often prevents them from receiving help, so it is important that they have access to local councillors and MSPs. We have a long-established Polish club in Kirkcaldy and the number of Polish workers who live and work there, not least of whom is my assistant Mariusz Szewczyk, who came up with the notion of decorating Kirkcaldy's esplanade with wind-powered lamps, has helped to rejuvenate the town. If anyone can get that, Mariusz can.

To give people the opportunity to access help, we set up the Kirkcaldy Scottish-Polish group so that people can communicate with each other and overcome the feeling of being isolated. It provides a platform for Polish citizens who are living in Kirkcaldy to discuss their special needs and hopes for their lives in Scotland. We hold surgeries and meetings, which already reflect great interest among Polish people from Kirkcaldy and the kingdom, and we post articles about matters of general community interest in Polish on our website.

On 31 May this year, I supported Kirkcaldy's international children's day and sports day, which was a successful event organised by the Polish club. More than 1,000 people took part on one of the rare days of light and sun that we had this summer. The Polish school is another active and successful local organisation that assists residents with applications for grants to help the children who attend. Such activities have led to an improved relationship with the Polish consulate and brought wider attention, as is evidenced by the formation of the parliamentary cross-party group on Poland.

Scotland is in need of expertise and skilled personnel. Nevertheless, many of our new Polish Scots are employed in jobs that are far below their qualifications. A competence centre that combined bringing migrants quickly up to speed in the English language with providing training and equivalency tests to enable Polish and other migrants to have their degrees confirmed - about 40 per cent of them have degrees - would be good in this context.

A year or so from now, Glasgow will open probably one of the world's greatest transport museums. It would be excellent if it could commemorate the genius of the Pole Joseph Conrad, the novelist of the sea when the Clyde built the ships and the close friend of that other exotic, Don Roberto Cunninghame Graham, the first president of our own Scottish National Party. It was Conrad, of course, who said in one of his novels, about a character who appears in it: "He claimed Scottish ancestry, but what ambitious man has not done so?"

It was a nice compliment from an elegant Pole, and something that I hope we will be able to repay.

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