Andrew Wilson: Voice of Scotland’s future

THE best speech I ever witnessed in my short time in the Scottish Parliament was one of the first, writes Andrew Wilson

Donald Dewar making his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA
Donald Dewar making his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA
Donald Dewar making his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA

When Donald Dewar opened the Parliament on 1 July, 1999, he gave a magisterial account of Scotland’s political story and of our Home Rule journey.

Students of our history would do well to seek it out now as we contemplate our next step along the “journey without end”. It was a unifying moment from the man and certainly his finest hour.

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I congratulated him that day and he looked at me quizzically over his spectacles as he reached for my hand. It was like he was waiting for a punchline from the cheeky young chap in front of him. It never came.

I can still hear his voice now, 15 years on, and it stirs me deeply when I do. He was intoning the echoes of our history that we could hear in our hearts as we came to that moment. Beautifully put, he concluded on hearing “the wild cry of the Great Pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace”.

But he didn’t rest in sentimentality: “The past is part of us, part of every one of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.”

His words and voice echoed round my mind this past week as I contemplated the import of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, which is being commemorated in Stirling this weekend.

I confess to deep unease about it, which probably demonstrates I still have my own growing to do. My unease is rooted in any moment that pits Scotland against England and defines our identity by who we are not, rather than by who we are. Or worse still, anchors our outlook in ages old grievances about the past rather than confident choices for the future made with self-reliance at heart.

That is not to say that any aspects of our history should not be taught and understood. Of course they should. But they should not be called in evidence when prosecuting our arguments about what we should do next, other than in ensuring mistakes are not repeated.

Once upon a time the fringe group that was then the nationalist cause in Scotland gathered at Bannockburn as its main rallying point. It is not for me to question that choice as it was made in another era when lighting a small candle of hope was hard enough.

But it is interesting that one of the finest speeches given at such a rally focused on the need for the Scottish cause to define itself positively by ambition not negatively against the country to our south. Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who spoke in 1930, was a truly great figure. A Liberal MP, he was also the first president of both the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. He got the point of what the true message had to be 84 years before the moment we stand in now. Remarkable.

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As people and as a country I agree that the only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come. And, happily, we have come a very long way.

On both sides of the debate I hear echoes of decades old arguments and old time religion and prejudice that don’t represent the truth of where we are headed, whatever choice we make on 18 September.

So while it may be great fun and emotionally charging to misrepresent and deprecate the case of your opponent, it means you ultimately will lose because you fail to understand what’s driving it.

A former prime minister recently arrived in Scotland to charge that the whole vote was built around the Bannockburn date because it is essentially anti-English. Awful, cynical and self-evidently wrong on all counts, as is clear to anyone who lives and experiences life here.

When you have to “mis-brief” (as a Treasury mandarin admitted) or misrepresent and mock to win, then any short-term victory will be swallowed up in long-term defeat – because we live in a reforming era where truth will always out.

I don’t know how Scotland will vote in 80 days. But I do know that the celebrations of this weekend will not affect a single ballot paper.

Historians will spot that so much has changed fundamentally in the character of Scotland’s democratic story. That is not to say we are incapable of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. We remain truly world class at that. But I am certain that we are growing increasingly accustomed to holding real power over our own lives. How that translates into governing choices remains to be seen. But my hopes remain high.

Donald Dewar punctuated the last big step on our home rule journey and he did so very well.

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His words were designed to pass the baton from centuries of struggle and toil into the hands of a newly democratised Scotland. Where that country chooses to go now is up to us all. We still hold the baton. We should never let it go. And we must always keep looking forwards. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW