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Scottish Parliament Speech: United States of America and Canada (Engagement) (May 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Ten years ago, I visited the town of St Andrews in New Brunswick. It is a beautiful town, dominated by the Greenock church of Scotland and by birdseye maple. The place was originally in Maine, USA, but after the war of independence, its empire loyalist folk towed its buildings on barges across the St Croix River, and set them up in Canada. We have heard of refugees, but I think that that is one of the very few examples of a refugee town.

We sometimes talk rather too much about our influence on the declaration of independence. Scotland's role has always been very lively in North America, but also very ambiguous. Robin Harper brought us that sad tale of the Cree in Alberta. I remind him of the last novel by John Buchan, who was Governor General of Canada in the 1930s. "Sick Heart River" is an extremely sensitive ecological examination of the problems of being Canadian at that time.

Our orientation towards North America started off in the 19th century with our anti-slave movement. We can speak of that experience with some expertise, because we still had our own slaves - our miners and our salt workers - until 1800. We inspired Abe Lincoln with his love of Burns and freedom, but there was also a conservative element that we donated to southern society. Mark Twain was on the tail of that in the 1880s, blaming the civil war and southern culture on Walter Scott - too many saltires, too many majors and colonels, too much Gothic prose, and too many klansmen, with a ‘k’.

"We have heritage and we have correction," was what a politician from South Carolina said to me about the prospects for the state, which is not a very industrial part of America. There were two great alternatives: they could get girls to wear white dresses, sit in colonial mansions and shout "Fiddle-de-dee!" from "Gone with the Wind"; or they could show people round the prisons.

They say that the only place that George W Bush knew of in Europe was Scotland, which he had visited while he was a student. We are told by Newsweek that, every morning, he turned to the writings of an obscure Scots theologian called Oswald Chambers. Believe me, a theologian has to be really obscure for me not to have some notion of him. Basically, he told Dubya every morning that he was doing God's work - which is what we are now coping with today.

That worked to our benefit, however. Think of all the expensive members of the House of Representatives who are enjoying golf at St Andrews, paid for by Washington lobbyists, whose numbers exploded from 10,000 to 26,000 under President Bush. Those lobbyists stuffed representatives' pockets, with $50 million coming from one pressure group alone - come on, Westminster MPs, where have you been all this time? We could do well out of one sort of relationship, but we will have a lot to answer for. On the other hand, our own Canongate Publishing secured the rights to the work of an obscure senator from Chicago called Barack Obama and ran with them.

In the 2008 election, American electors threw out rule by giant corporations and corrupt politics. That would have brought joy to the second-greatest Scottish economist who, alas, died in 2006: John Kenneth Galbraith. He wrote a wonderful book that can be read almost as a contemporary history: "The Great Crash of 1929". Again, we have had massive frauds, notably that involving Enron in 2002, which should have inspired intervention. Instead, they promoted Westminster complacency attractive enough to encourage the migration to London of the Sarbanes-Oxley refugees and enough dodgy ingenuity to confuse poorly budgeted regulators. Special financial instruments hit the UK hard because of Gordon Brown's light-touch regulation. J K was, once again, spot on when he wrote: "On the whole, the greater the earlier reputation for omniscience, the more serene the previous idiocy, the greater the foolishness now exposed ... the social historian must always be alert to his opportunities, and there have been few like 1929." Until 2008, that is.

The worst connection with North America that we can promote is such complicity in financial jugglery or freebies for lobbyists. The best is a link that promotes democratic thought and action. I will highlight one such example. Ideas are under way to establish a series of Scottish studies centres and programmes at US universities - something that Ireland and the Irish-American community have pulled off in the past with great success. Perhaps the most advanced current project is being discussed for Princeton University, where Galbraith lectured. Such promotion of Scotland at American universities will not only boost knowledge generation and academic co-operation but boost US awareness of Scotland, which has already been heightened by the Government's homecoming initiatives. It may spark long-term interest in Scottish literature, culture and products, benefiting Scottish exports, and it will make young Americans look towards Scotland as somewhere to visit, study, train and work - provided that Westminster's short-sighted new immigration regulations do not spell the end of the valuable internship programmes that we offer in Scotland. My colleague Kenneth Gibson has warned of that.

As one contribution to knowledge transfer and co-operation, and in homage to John Kenneth Galbraith - who ever wrote with more wisdom and wit of the "non-potable Scotch" of his Ontario boyhood? - I ask the minister to support the efforts of Scots-American academics to establish a Scottish centre at Princeton. And why not name it after the great Galbraith himself?

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