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Issue 20 - Politics alive and well in Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


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Politics alive and well in Scotland

With the United Kingdom in the grips of General Election fever, I am not at all surprised that some of my trans-Atlantic and pan-European friends remain baffled by the defining differences between our Scottish and United Kingdom parliaments. I can assure them that there are many of us here in Scotland who are equally challenged.

However, we are only two terms into our reinstated Edinburgh legislature, and such institutions do take time to settle down. Added to this, there is still some uncertainty as to which and who does what, but that is easily remedied. Put in a nutshell (sic), Holyrood looks after Scotland’s domestic interests while the bigger picture is administered from Westminster. Then there is our representation at the European Parliament in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, but I really don’t want to go into that just now.

Suffice it to say that despite the misgivings of many of us, our devolved system of government seems to be working remarkably well. Taking into account the UK as a whole, Scotland’s economy appears to be flourishing as never before, as witness the building and retailing boom in our inner cities.

Three First Ministers in six years and the fiasco surrounding the building costs of Holyrood have not exactly helped, but the advent of a more localised legislature has justified the politicians’ claim that it would bring power closer to the people. And that it undoubtedly has.

Where else would you find an elected Senior Citizen’s Party MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament)? With 129 elected representatives, we have 27 Scottish Nationalists, 18 Conservatives, six Scottish Socialists, a Hospital Campaigner, seven Scottish Greens and two independents. No party has an overall majority, and the 50-strong Labour Party only holds power through a 17-strong Liberal Democrat coalition. This suits the Scots. Nobody gets above themselves or if they do, they soon get reigned in.

Party politics aside, however, it has to be recognised that for almost three centuries, Scots have made an unproportional contribution to the Westminster parliament, furnishing seven British Prime Minsters in the last century alone. And what a formidable line up they have been: Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration which endorsed a Jewish homeland in Palastine and led to the creation of Israel in 1948; Henry Campbell-Bannerman, son of a Glasgow Lord Provost , who at one time served as secretary for war under William Gladstone (another Scot); the New Brunswick-born Andrew Bonar Law; the Lossiemouth-born Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald; the canny Harold Macmillan, grandson of a Highland crofter; the gentlemanly Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and the incumbent Edinburgh educated Tony Blair.

Although I did once encounter the latter as a guitar-strumming schoolboy in the late-1960s, the only one of these I can claim to have known even slightly was Sir Alec, latterly known as Lord Home of the Hirsel, a kindly, gentle aristocrat whose family long ago terrorised the Scottish Borders with their battle cry, “A Home! A Home!” (pronounced ‘hume’).

On three occasions I visited him at his home near Coldstream, and vividly remember the day he took me to see one of his favourite pools on the River Tweed where he loved to fish. Agreat countryman, he was never happier than when he was walking to hills of his Berwickshire land.

Well into his 80s he was always willing to turn up for speaking engagements, and always showed an interest in the younger generation, penning a book entitled Letters to a Grandson.

I telephoned him a few months before he died at the age of 92 and much to my astonishment he answered the phone himself “I don’t get out much nowadays,” he explained. “So I sit by the phone and have a chat with people when they call.” He then went on to talk about Sir Fitzroy Maclean, another great Scottish politician and one of his contemporaries. Harping back to his distinguished Foreign Office career, I still find it hard to imagine Sir Alec going head-to-head with Hitler, Mussolini and President Kruschev, but he undoubtedly did and the world we live in today owes him a great debt.

But then that is what has always been so remarkable about the Scots. When your ancestors fought at Flodden and there are 800 years of political intrigue in your blood, including the odd decapitated relative, you are not very likely to take no for an answer.