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Issue 7 - A Golden Age

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003

 

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A Golden Age

JACK MCCONNELL, SCOTLAND'S FIRST MINISTER, TALKS ABOUT HIS HOPES AND INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS FOR SCOTLAND IN A GOLDEN AGE, BY RODDY MARTINE

Walking down Sixth Avenue in New York during Tartan Day, I felt a sense of immense pride. I was proud to be Scottish, proud to be promoting
my country on the world stage and proud that so many Americans wanted to share in this celebration of Scotland.”

Looking back on 6th April 2002, Jack McConnell, Scotland’s First Minister, was simply endorsing what all of us present on that day felt. It was an astonishing sight to witness wave after wave of Scottish bandsmen swarming up that canyon-like Manhattan street in recognition of Scotland’s contribution to the fabric of that great city and that great continent, especially in the aftermath of September 11th, seven months earlier.

For almost 30 blocks, spectators stood five deep on the pavement, and through donations and sponsorship, the spectacle raised over half a million dollars for Marie Curie Cancer Care in Scotland and Gilda’s Club Worldwide in New York. It also raised Scotland’s profile on the world stage immeasurably.

Yet, back home the applause was muted. Somehow, Scotland finds it hard to come to terms with its celebrity abroad, and can only make snide comments about junketing when its politicians are seen networking elsewhere.

This is something that Jack McConnell has had to learn to live with. Since replacing Henry McLeish as Scotland’s First Minister in the first Scottish parliament for just under 300 years, he has brought a measured toughness to the role. It was never going to be easy. The bear-pit that was the last Scottish parliament in 1707 gives an insight into the machinations of a forum of Scots, any forum of Scots.

Nothing much has changed.

Yet Scotland itself is changing, and since its arrival on 1st July 1999, Scotland’s devolved parliament has surprised many of its sternest critics. Inevitably, there have been successes and failures. The spiralling cost of the parliament building, still under construction, is an increasingly uncomfortable debate. There are mountains to climb towards improving education, healthcare and transport. There is a crisis in the fishing industry, and issues of inner-city and rural deprivation need to be confronted against a backdrop of rising voter apathy.

The Holyrood parliament is here to stay, which makes it all the more important that its role alongside that of central government in the UK is clearly defined. Which has the greater influence on our everyday governance, the Scottish Executive at Holyrood or the Scottish Office at Westminster? Or will the European Parliament ultimately decide our destiny? The Scottish electorate needs to be convinced.

Crucial to all of this is Scotland’s self-image, often discontented and defensive, and its romantic image abroad, which has to some extent become trapped in a time-warp.

Momentarily, Jack McConnell reflects on the view from his windows at Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence. He goes on to talk about the cultural regeneration of Scotland’s cities – Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee – and the opportunities to enjoy football and golf, both national passions. The highlight of Tartan Week, for him, was hearing Alyth McCormack from Stornoway, gold medallist at the 2002 Mod (Gaelic literary and music festival), a young girl who delighted the American audience with her Gaelic songs.

These examples, for him, encapsulate the best of a modern country with the best of the old. He is not alone in believing that a Scotland, with a strong sense of its own worth, could be on the brink of a golden age.

Born in Irvine in 1960, Jack McConnell was brought up on a sheep farm on Arran. Educated at Arran High School, Lamlash, he went on to Stirling University where he was elected president of the Students’ Union. From 1983 he worked as a maths teacher, and became a member of Stirling District Council in 1984, becoming leader in 1990. He is married to Bridget, who is director of cultural and leisure services for Glasgow City Council, and they have a son and daughter.

Appointed General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party in 1992, Jack was held largely responsible for its 1997 election success and the subsequent devolution referendum. As Scottish Labour’s Environmental Affairs Spokesperson in the 1999 Scottish election, he was elected MSP for Motherwell & Wishaw. Serving as Minister for Finance, then for Education, Europe and External Affairs, he became First Minister in November 2001.

At the age of 43, his rise to take on Scotland’s top job has been rapid, but then, for everyone involved in the renaissance of Scotland’s political landscape it has been a fast learning curve. And to some extent this might explain why he is so readily prepared to embrace the bigger picture, to recognise the immense international influence of Scotland’s diaspora and to grasp the ready-made social and commercial networking channels made available through events such as Tartan Day in the USA and Canada.

“It’s all about seizing opportunities and learning to work together,” he says. “If you ask an American businessman for his image of Scotland, it is very instructive. While there is a consensus that the very name opens doors, they say we spread ourselves too thinly. We don’t appear to have one focussed body to co-ordinate all the organisations and identities we have to offer.”

It’s not that any of these various identities need to be diluted, he adds hastily. It’s just that they need to be harnessed into a united front that says SCOTLAND to a world audience.

“Too often, when abroad, we go by the name of the committee we represent instead of calling up the overall recognition of where that committee comes from. What we have to sell under one banner is the diversity of SCOTLAND, what that represents in total.”

On the tourism front, therefore, he wants to see a far greater liaison between such bodies as the British Tourist Authority, VisitScotland, the British Council, the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Enterprise. A breakdown in communications has existed for some time now, which he believes the devolved government must put right.

This is why the Scottish Executive has launched Global Scot, a co-operative project to forge closer relationships with senior businessmen worldwide. Also, Helen Liddell, Scotland’s Secretary of State at Westminster, is fronting up Friends of Scotland, a more widely-based initiative targeted at harnessing the global goodwill already felt towards Scotland. The common aim is to create a cohesive image for Scotland internationally.

McConnell has recently returned from five days in Sweden at the behest of the UK Ambassador, John Grant. As a Scot himself, Grant is only too well aware of the problems affecting tourism and inward investment – to some extent the strength of the pound sterling and, in particular, the absence of direct flights.

To this end, the Scottish Executive has set up a Route Development Fund to work with airline planners and set up routes through Scotland. However, Scotland is never going to be able to compete with London as an air hub, so it is equally important to promote Scotland in London and to improve and develop relationships with London-based agencies.

“We need to provide incentives for new routes to be opened up to and from Scotland, but not just so that people in Scotland can go on holiday. Our priority is to bring visitors and businesses in,” Jack explains.

He cites the car and passenger ferry service from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth to Zeebrugge in Belgium as a notable success. But then, European relationships have always been good. Scotland has entered into a friendship partnership with Catalonia, and with the Tuscan Regional Government. We will shortly become signing partners with North Rhine- Westphalia where, being half-industrial and half-rural, with a similar political make-up, there are immediate comparisons to be made.

Of course, there are several different categories of countries to concentrate upon when building international relationships.

In Europe, as he says, the image of Scotland is well-established and strong trading links already exist.

The association with North America is also fundamental, and there is still an enormous fund of goodwill in the old Commonwealth countries, especially in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Scotland has also maintained a good track record with the larger Asian countries such as China and India.

“Colonial Scots did certain things in the past that we might have cause to be ashamed of today, but in terms of building schools and churches and introducing medicine and the rule of law, they did a lot of good, and this is widely recognised,” he says.

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, a pre-eminent educational and research organisation, has this year invited Scotland to participate as part of its summer programme –in itself recognition of the country’s increased international profile. To quote the Smithsonian’s website:

More than one hundred of Scotland’s finest musicians, storytellers, cooks, craftspeople, and scholars will demonstrate and celebrate the living traditions that make and sustain Scotland’s distinctive culture. From the Highlands and Islands to the Borders, inner-city Glasgow to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the shop floors and mills of Dundee to the oil fields of Aberdeen, Scotland’s heritage, regional cultures, and occupations will be highlighted and honoured.

Around 40 different events involving Scottish institutions such as the National Museums of Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland and the Scottish universities will take place from April to June, culminating in the Smithsonian’s 36th Folklife Festival (June 25th – 29th, July 2nd – 6th), which this year celebrates the living traditional cultures of the Republic of Mali, Scotland and Appalachia.

Overall, the programme is expected to attract an audience of 1.3 million visitors, and will touch around 40 million through press coverage estimated to be worth of $12 million. McConnell sees this as yet another enormous opportunity for showcasing Scotland’s cultural history and the way in which it is developing in the 21st century.

One year into the top job, and three and a half years into Scotland’s new, turn-of-the-millennium parliament, Jack McConnell appears relaxed and very much at home in the stylish drawing room of his Bute House headquarters.

But he is under no illusions and is bracing himself for the Scottish parliament election in May when he and coalition partners, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, face a strong challenge from the Scottish National Party, with the Scottish Conservatives, Greens and Scottish Socialist parties picking off the remaining votes.

Only then will it be known if the Scottish electorate decides to endorse the first term of its fledgling parliament or to give it the thumbs down. Either way, it will be surprising if Jack McConnell is not returned to Bute House.