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I Worry About Scotland, Not About Possible Independence (March 2012)

On 12 March 2012, Chris was awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the German Federal Republic in recognition of his lifelong contribution to German-Scottish understanding. This was his acceptance speech.


Avenel, Melrose - where I wrote this thank-offering - figures at the start of what's chronologically the first Waverley novel, ‘The Monastery’. It guards the entry into the abbey-town of Kennaquhair. Kennaquhair: 'Don’t-know-where' like Thomas Carlyle's 'Weissnichtwo in Sartor Resartus'. My life has been about decoding words, and making friends. This about both.

Carlyle received the 'Pour la Merite' from Bismarck in 1874. An ominous precedent? But, tracing back, there's always been a Scots-German hin-und-her.

My mother, now 94, studied French and German at Glasgow. She visited Berlin in Olympiajahr 1936. ‘When we saw that man at the swimming finals.’ A lifelong Liberal, in Motherwell in April 1945 she wheeled me in a pram when she voted for the first SNP MP, Dr Robert McIntyre. She has never forgiven herself.

From Walter Scott's Kelso and Edinburgh - the high school and college - I went in 1969 to Jennie Lee's Open University. In Bletchley its federated '12-group' teams, based on BBC practice, enabled us to crack 'distance learning' just as Bletchley cracked 'Enigma' in 1939-45. I was guided round it by Tony Jay's corporation man, a gift from Charles Hadfield, who ran the Central Office of Information and - for fun - revived England's canals.

I read R L Stevenson's 'Prince Otto' about what our country would be like when we moved to Tuebingen. This ‘gaberlunzie prince’ explored the farms, the mills, inns and forests, the branch lines of the good, small-state Germany E M Forster remembered in ‘Howards End’: the culture of Meiningen or Weimar. The question he got - ‘Are you, sir, a Red Progressional?’ - still demands an answer, after that terrible gulf of 1933-45.

'Red Progressional' was what life in the Eberhard-Karls Uni, the Ebert-Stiftung, 20 years of Freudenstadt conferences, was all about. I could take the OU system, and remodel it. 'Freedom to teach' allowed this. The key issue was feedback: testing whether it worked. At the OU we did this by 'marking exercises' - at Tuebingen seminar papers had the same effect - I wrote the approach up in a bumper book for the students.

Scotland and BaWue had also a 'small state' advantage, when big general questions could lead to repetition if not plagiarism. 'Starting local' made students work with originality towards general issues. The seminar did what its founder Leopold von Ranke wanted: found out capabilities and encouraged a sort of apprenticeship through 'Hiwis' or research assistants.

These included among others Paddy Bort: and who in Scots folk culture, Holyrood, drama, lit crit, doesn't know him? Carola Ehrlich, sent on exchange to Oxford Brookes, found her Sergeant Troy, skedaddled with him to Cornwall on a motor-bike, and by studying the writer and educationalist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch made herself expert in Tom Nairn's 'synthetic regionalism'. Christine Frasch who, before running my Holyrood office, gave 'Harry Potter' a pioneering seminar treatment.


But the darkness of 1933-45 persisted. It could cripple and even for the young, history didn't compensate. A concert programme of 1942 from Tuebingen offered the 'Lorelei-lied' ('dichter unbekannt'). The poet was Heine, a Jew. When the great Berlin-born cartoonist Vicky Weisz took his own life in 1966, Michael Foot - in a broadcast memorial unimaginable on today's BBC - quoted Heine: 'I too was a soldier in the army of progress, and I too fell'.

Upsides came in 1989, when I covered via German TV the fall of the wall for the Scotsman and the BBC. Virginia adapted Lady Eden on the Suez canal: the wall was crumbling in our drawing room. The son of the last provost of Melrose ran the British Council in the old DDR. Ian Frater motored me through east Berlin to the Brandenburg lakes and allees of Theodor Fontane, who toured Scotland in 1859, and took the ballads back with him. The return of English-language teaching was brilliantly done by the council's Frank Frankel, who went from London's East End to St Andrews. A later appointment, alas Scots, closed all the council's branches down. These were followed by the consulates.

This propelled my Kleinstaat response. London is fascinating - I know Vaughan Williams' 'London Symphony' by heart, screeds of Dickens, Wells, Betjeman, on the City, Thames, Metroland - but we're not the 'United Kingdom of London'. The old universities helped more, whose history I helped to write. Our two best Scots-born historians have been Oxford men: the late Colin Matthew of the 'New Dictionary of National Biography' and Hew Strachan with his stunning history of the first world war.

Cambridge gave Edinburgh Victor Kiernan, Harry Hanham and Geoffrey Best. Chris Smout came from there to revolutionise our social history, then create our environmental history - Scotland before - and if we're not careful - after the Scots. There are, minister, an annual 22 billion tons of coal-equivalent, howling, blasting, splurging around us - even, occasionally, shining.

We have to mend our own country. Scotland was in 1914 what the Berlin general staff forgot about - not just its industrial power but its 'intelligence': the maps, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, which John Buchan would use to deadly effect. Since the 1920 slump first industry then information has ebbed.

In the 1970s enough manufacturing remained - about 30% of GDP - to make North Sea oil a reconstructor. Thatcher fumbled this, so did we. It's now down to 14%. Look at the black farce of the Edinburgh tram. When last summer I visited San Francisco and found the famous cable trams had been invented by a Scot, Andrew Hallidie, I had to accompany this information with Private Eye's famous ('Shurely shome mishtake?' Ed.). We are addicted to the car. In Stirling 11% of council employees 'walk, run or bike' to work; in Copenhagen or Tuebingen three times more.


About one's future at 67? Get things in order. Give books and archives to people who can use them. I look after my parents and try to act for friends now gone: John Brown, Angus Calder, Julie Brotherstone, Friedel Glaeser, Carola Ehrlich, Phil Williams, Neil MacCormick, Jane Morgan, Horst Trossbach, my wife Virginia.

Fighting a plutocracy that says it's here to help, but spies and manipulates, lets finance loot ordinary people. My wife used to say, brandishing a copy of the Financial Times's shameful 'How To Spend It': 'Aren't you glad you're married to me and I don't want one of those?’ - meaning a giant Aga, a four-wheel-drive, a Riviera villa.

But we see here that good can come from wealth rightly used: Bob McDowall's 'Summerhall' and Ricky Demarco - the spirit of the place - have all the anarchic energy of east Berlin when the wall fell. Perhaps this can even cradle the geotechnologies that can reverse our self-destruction. Alison and I read on a plaque beside the Landwehrkanal: 'On 13 March 1848 the Berlin workers tried to storm the Stadtschloss, singing as they fell the words of the Scots poet Robert Burns'. It was in my old Holyrood constituency that the achtundvierziger Fontane looked from Kinross kirkyard out over Loch Leven and decided to write about his Brandenburg as Scott had written about Scotland.

I worry about Scotland: not about possible independence - for I wrote 'Fool's Gold', about North Sea oil, and Norway did far better out of it than Britain. In fact England would have thriven on an independent Scotland's investment. Ironically, Germany became the real beneficiary of Mrs Thatcher: where the oil cash went.

But the oil is running out. $10 a barrel in 1999; it's gone up twelvefold since. By 2020 it will be above $200. The age of Daimler and Ford is ending. Germany and China and even Arabia know this. Does Scotland? Our last shipyards are building aircraft carriers for which we have no planes. We want to put a second road-bridge over the Forth. Will we have cars to run on it?

We stand, though, on the edge of a new railway age. In 1988 I wrote in Germany's official Design Report that its module wouldn't be the Bismarck-to-Hitler one of a man with a pack and a gun, but a girl with a child in a buggy, a family with their wheelies, a pensioner - me in 10 years? - with two sticks.

Before then, get the web to work as an educator, not an informational quagmire. I'm having a shot at this in 'Clan Scotland': little guides for schoolkids modelled on Argyll's 'Scotland the Brief' - before I fall over. Get the flysheet.


Finally - an die musik! My father taught at Edinburgh's Craiglockhart College, where Wilfred Owen wrote the poems that interpellated Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem': recently and hauntingly broadcast from Tuebingen's 'Stiftskirche'. Dietrich Bonhoeffer worshipped there: the man George Mackay Brown made the modern parallel to Saint Magnus Martyr.

Yet my own mind is moved more by miniatures, by Johannes Brahms and his piano works, which he taught to the young Frederic Lamond from Glasgow. His opus 10 derived from the bleakest Border ballad: 'Edward, Edward'. His last piano pieces seem equally stark. But at the end, his 'Four Serious Songs' - settings of St Paul's first Corinthian epistle, from the Lutherbibel, or from the King James' Bible, determined on in our Burntisland Kirk in 1601 - wrestle with this, to surge out with trust in endurance and love:

Nun aber bleibet Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, diese drei,

Aber die Liebe ist die grosseste unter ihnen;

Die Liebe ist die grosseste unter ihnen.

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