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Scottish Parliament Speech: Crichton University Campus (September 2007)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I congratulate the Government and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning on their response to the threat to the Crichton campus. They have turned a problem into an opportunity. In my short speech, I will suggest ways in which they and we can turn the opportunity into a renaissance.

We have heard much about exploiting Scotland's energy endowment - sun, wind and wave - but we must remember the endowment of the mind. In summing up his tumultuous mental life, our greatest modern poet and founder of the Scottish renaissance, Hugh MacDiarmid, quoted William Blake: "Energy is Eternal Delight". We, too, can exploit cultural energy and the heritage that it leaves. Rescuing and expanding Crichton is the right challenge at the right time, for the following reasons.

We can draw a circle with a 50-mile radius that has its centre in Crichton. MacDiarmid was from Langholm. His 19th century counterpart Thomas Carlyle - coiner of the "cash nexus" and "the condition of England" - wrote his greatest work in the hill country to the north of Dumfries. From Weimar in 1828, the great Goethe congratulated Carlyle on his Scottishness and remarked how national difference energised culture and its communication.

Crichton lies at the centre of one of the half-dozen great cultural landscapes of Europe - regions in which the blending of nature, tradition and intellect has had extraordinary effects. The Solway region is traditionally the debatable land, but it is truly comparable to the Tuscany of Dante and Michelangelo, the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller or the Geneva of Voltaire and Rousseau. This is the country of Scott, Burns and Hogg, and south of the Solway is the country of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Ruskin. This is the country of "Redgauntlet" and the literary ballads; of the great ballad tradition that can be measured against the Greek epics or the Hollywood westerns; and of tides of ideas. From the ideas of the Solway region set out the rechristianising of Europe after the dark ages and the reordering of a broken world in 1918 - from Ninian's Candida Casa to Woodrow Wilson's Covenant of the League of Nations.

That is the inheritance. We must teach it, for our civilisation is in a tight place that requires intellect and not emotion - in Carlyle's terms, a "seriousness amounting to despair". That reminds us of the thriller, "The Thirty-nine Steps", and of old Peter Pienaar - Buchan's invention - who always said, "We must make a plan." We should forget about the bean-counting that brought about the threat and think instead about higher education as a birthright. Scots such as John Anderson, Lord Brougham and James Stuart pioneered mass higher education. Forty years ago, in the Open University - in which I was a tiny cog - Scots such as Jennie Lee and Walter Perry married that to new educational methods and communications technology. Such methods are changing yet again with the web and e-mail, which enable the facilitation of niche markets, regional studies and cultural tourism. As costs fall, the potentialities for local communities such as the Scottish south-west increase.

The Crichton's and Scotland's future lies with summer schools, compact seminars and cultural projects that are aimed at the new kind of tourists, who come from educated backgrounds and want to contribute to second homes to which they feel they belong. We have seen how much the Celtic renaissance in Ireland depended on its culture as much as on pharmaceuticals or software.

This is an age in which higher education has gone walkabout. The innovations that I have mentioned do not cost much, but they take tact, co-operation, and a stimulating environment, and they are all actually or potentially present at the Crichton and on both sides of the border in the partnership that they foresee, which is one of good neighbours, not one of strictly laid down laws of sovereignty and the like.

This is our chance for a new type of Britain, or a new type of union between equals and neighbours. I hope that we take that chance.

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