Sunday, April 26, 2015
English French German Spanish

Scottish Parliament Speech: School Curriculum (Scottish History) (January 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

The mark of the patriotic citizen is often less pride in his or her country than shame when it betrays itself. Let us think of Robert Burns's "parcel of rogues", James Joyce's "centre of paralysis", or Hugh MacDiarmid's splendid phrase that to stay in Scotland meant "being trampled to death by geese".

When we remember our history, there is a negative mood to it. As my old friend Iain Crichton Smith wrote, it is like coming back

"from a warm room
to an old castle
hissing with ghosts."

That element of Scottish history is not value free or terribly classroom friendly. Yes, there is a girn element in it, but try to extract a Scottish history from a British account and what do we get? Let us consider Simon Schama's preposterous BBC "A History of Britain" and the six references to Scotland in the final volume.

History cannot teach lessons, but it can recreate a political landscape and show where changes occurred and what long-term effects were caused. It starts and ends local. I learned that at Kelso high school, where my fine teachers of history and geography were both Scots and English, but they lived in the shadow of the ballads and of David Hume.

I want to mention this David Hume quotation because it is so marvellous. When he gave up writing history in the middle of the 18th century, he said that he had given up because he was "too old, too fat, too lazy and too rich".

I wish that I could say the last few words, but I cannot.

Scottish history in its various episodes has also been British, European and world history. That does not make it as much unionist as ambiguous, which I will show by exploring one particular episode. It is highly relevant today, and it is perhaps our country's finest hour. I phrase this as an exam question. Subtract the Clyde munitions district from world war one and Germany would have won: discuss.

The Germans had not expected that a peaceable industrial region would convert itself in a matter of months into the biggest arsenal in the world. The district supplied the western front with tanks, artillery, aircraft and, above all, high-explosive shell. It made good the losses inflicted on the merchant marine by the U-boat warfare.

The adaptation was crucial but it ruined the Scottish economy. It was like the peasant in the Chekhov story who for a bet raises a huge load on to a cart, then falls exhausted and never rises again. By 1922, Scotland had gone from "workshop of the world" to "that distressed region". It was a shattering reversal and - this is the contemporary relevance - one from which the small manufacturing level of our economy never recovered. We saved ourselves in the big industries by nestling in the fur of the great beasts: the railways, which became a British entrepreneurial project in 1923; the banks; the British state; and ICI - the classic example of the large British company, which was sold about six months ago to the Dutch. Our entrepreneurialism was maimed. In the 1970s, we did something similar with North Sea oil - astonishing technical feats were followed, again, by exhaustion.

Now, with those experiences, which are accessible only through our history, we face having to adapt to an amazing third chance: the renewables revolution - God be praised. That is crucial. This time, we cannot afford to get things wrong.

We must not exaggerate Scotland's position and our historical landscape but keep them in proportion - Scotland in proportion to the infinite, as MacDiarmid once put it. We must get things right in schools, not by exaggerating the importance of our country's experience, but by equipping people to analyse how we got from there to here, as MacDiarmid said.

As the great German liberal Gustav Stresemann said - to be echoed by that fine English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams - to be an internationalist, one must first be a nationalist. That is not to produce any particular programme but the line of the disinterested patriot.

I return to a quote from a poet who was also an economist - Alexander Gray. It moved me in Germany and it moves me today. It is:

"This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who toil here
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone."

That man was a liberal and not a nationalist, but the attachment to a place is not dishonourable and I hope that I will die still believing in it.

Home > Politics > Scottish Parliament Speech: School Curriculum (Scottish History) (January 2008)