Transcript of lecture by Andrew Marr

 

  • Andrew Marr, broadcaster and writer, gave the Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture on 20 August 2007. The event at Edinburgh International Book Festival was chaired by 'Sunday Herald' political commmentator Ian McWhirter. We also have a recording of the 2007 lecture.

Ian, thank you very much indeed for that [introduction]. It's absolutely true that Ian is to blame for me arriving in front of the microphone in the first place and he may well live to regret it.

I have various disabilities. One is that I can't sit down and think at the same time. And so I'm going to stand. And another one is that - I think it goes back to school - I find it almost impossible to sit and listen to somebody reading something out. It drives me almost insane with boredom. So with your permission I'm going to be talking 'off the cuff' tonight - extemporary - although I have thought quite closely about what I'm going to say.

Home thoughts from abroad

This is the Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture. It's a great privilege to be standing here and delivering something under the banner of a man I regarded as a very, very fine human being - an excellent politician too, but also a very fine human being first and foremost. My wife took me to task for describing him in that book as looking like a 'dyspeptic heron'. She said it was cruel, but I think it was accurate and I think that he would have understood the spirit in which it was said. I think he would.

At any rate, if I'd had a title for tonight it would have been 'Home thoughts from abroad', because I'm now based in London. I have been for a long time. And it's absolutely clear to me that we are all of us, even in this age of the internet and the ethernet and the virtual realities that surround us, very much formed in our views by where we live. Geography matters a surprising amount even now. I am a different person in London to what I am here. I spend quite a lot of my time down in Devon in the west country of England and I am a slightly different person there as well. Geography - place - matters.

And so when I say 'home thoughts from abroad' I am obviously raising the question as to whether London is abroad so far as the Scottish audience is concerned. Now, my conclusion will be that it is not yet. But if the opinion polls bear any kind of relevance at the moment then it is likely to be abroad at least in some sense. I think that moment when the question is asked in the opinion poll 'what do you think is going to happen?' is very, very important. And the fact that 60 or 61% at the weekend said that they thought Scotland would eventually become independent is in many ways more significant than the answers people give to the question of how you would vote now. And pollsters, proper pollsters - psephologists with experience - will explain why that does matter. But it was a significant moment I thought.

Left-wing Scottish roots

But having said that geography matters, I want to start off by talking about where I come from in a different way - where I come from politically. Because this is not purely out of ego I will explain why I think it matters as this goes on. I come from a family which was, with one minor exception, wholly Scottish so far as we can go back. I was born and brought up in Scotland. When I went south to university I had been out of Scotland during my entire life for less than a week. I was as saturated in Scottish politics and culture as it's possible for a 17-year-old to be and I came from quite a political family. It was a Unionist, now would be called 'Conservative', family. My great-grandfather was the last Unionist Lord Provost of Glasgow and my earliest political memory is being stuck in the back of my mother's car as she fruitlessly chased votes around the byways of Perthshire.

As a boy, being pointy-headed and obsessive about reading, I read my way through [Walter] Scott's 'Tales of a grandfather'. I read my way through D K Broster and Nigel Tranter and latterly John Prebble. And I absorbed the kind of pith and marrow of what I would call 'romantic', close to 'racial', nationalism. In the sense that when I drew pictures of battles or had my little model soldiers it was always the Scots against the English. I had absorbed really quite deep down the notion that the English were arrogant, devious, unpleasant, not to be trusted and very alien. It's the kind of nationalism I look back on now with intense embarrassment. It is so pernicious and stupid that Mel Gibson is its standard-bearer around the world. Possibly the stupidest man in Hollywood.

But then I grew up a little bit and I moved forward and I discovered the sort of Scottish socialist tradition and I became a left-wing, if not nationalist then left-wing, home ruler. I came to it through literature. I came through [Hugh] MacDiarmid and other writers who I discovered when I was at school. And that was something that stayed with me for quite a long time. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign for Scottish Parliament and radical Scotland and that group of people who in the 1980s campaigned for a Scottish Parliament, and many of them for independence, but for a clear purpose. What they wanted - what we wanted - was a socialist Scotland. And there was a sense that Scotland was a distinct and different country.

God's chosen nation

And I think you can trace this all the way back. I think what has happened to Scotland - and this is a very brief and crude précis - is that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, Scotland grew up in the sense of regarding itself as a particular special devout nation. Scotland was going to be the good Protestant nation, the good Protestant country. And because of the Act of Union and the important of the Kirk [Church of Scotland] for so many hundreds of years as the voice of Scottish opinion this sense of the chosen people, God's chosen nation, stayed quite deeply connected to Scottish identity. Of course that happened in a way that would now be considered completely unacceptable. It was violently anti-Catholic. There would have been no John Reid in high office in those days, or many of the others. But nonetheless it was very closely connected to a sense of Scottish identity.

And I think what happened in the 20th century - it's a well known phrase - is that we got 'spilt religion'. This sense of the godly nation, the godly people spilt out into politics. And the very, very assertive aggressive and often self-righteous strain of Scottish socialism established itself with the same sort of firmness that the Presbyterian hegemony had. And it happened very, very fast. And so the myth of 'Red Clydeside' - which is partly a myth, partly true - and the sense that Scotland was just basically more democratic, because of 'The Declaration of Arbroath', than the English or anybody else. Was more egalitarian, was more open and liberal to outsiders. And there are a few asylum seekers probably, in the tower blocks in Glasgow, who could take issue with that these days. But this became quite rooted and that was the purpose behind a lot of the home rule movement.

The home rule debate

And the question that I want to ask now, having been away for such a long time, is … when it comes to the home rule/nationalism debate - so lively and so of the moment now - the bit that seems to me to be to be missing is 'what's it for?' 'Why would an independent or a home rule Scotland be better and different?' Now I think there are some very interesting answers to that. But what I find quite bemusing looking at it from a distance is that the essence, if you like, of the politics which is 'what is the vision - the different vision of Scotland that is worth campaigning for and getting hot-under-the-collar about?' What is it like in terms of its tax base, in terms of its universities and schools and education and architecture and the way society fits together? That part of the argument seems to me to have been pushed to one side so that we can have more of a rancorous, and I think ultimately rather demeaning, argument about the exact detail of who pays for what and the precise details of voting systems.

So there are two different ways towards whatever happens next. One is a series of, as I say, rather demeaning arguments about whether English voters are paying slightly too much or too little towards the care of some 90-year-old woman in a home in Argyllshire. Whether the precise number of Scottish MPs at Westminster is judged to accurately reflect the power of Devolution and home rule north of the border, and all the many arguments surrounding this. For instance the latest one would be what happens to the various subsidies around council tax if council tax is abolished in Scotland? All those sorts of second-order political arguments which brim up and fill up the national media and the papers, become the only thing you can hear. And the question 'what's it for?' is pushed to one side. And this is happening at a time when the whole notion of political progress is less supportive, less enthusiastically endorsed than at any time in modern history.

Unpopular politics

I think the most important political thinker at the moment is a man called John Gray. I don't know how many of you know of John Gray's writings. He is hugely provocative. I find myself screaming with rage quite often as I read books like 'Straw Dogs' and 'Black Mass'. But in essence what he argues is that the notion of progress in an Enlightenment sense, partly invented in Scotland, which has driven so much politics ranging from Marxist politics through to George Bush's neo-Conservatism, and hence the Iraq war, is an utter delusion. There is no progress. There is no final state at which we will end up when we know how the world is put together. When we have knowledge and when we know the proper relationship of different classes and people inside societies to each other. When we've got it sorted. That is never going to happen he says.

And I think it's interesting that his books are hugely popular, particularly with young people at the moment, because we have gone through a period when politics as a trade, as something to support, has never been so unpopular. Political parties have tiny memberships now. Politicians have very, very low status in society. And of course the great irony is that the Scottish Parliament has come about that very moment. At the very moment when people appear not to regard politics - parliamentary politics - seriously Scotland finally gets a Parliament. Oops! And I think some of the problems that have occurred over the last few years have been for that reason.

Politics is coming back

However, and here is the last sort of major point that I want to make before we open it up for discussion and challenge, I think things are changing. In 'The History of Modern Britain' basically what I was saying about the history of Britain from [19]45 to now is that it was the defeat of politics by shopping. What happened was we were given a whole series of political visions - the new Jerusalem, the new Elizabethan age, and the technocratic white-hot heat society of [Harold] Wilson and so on. And indeed [Margaret] Thatcher's re-moralised Grantham vision. And on every occasion we said: 'No, thanks - we'll carry on. What we want is stuff. We want lots of nice bright shiny colourful stuff please. That's what we really want. Stuff your politics!'

However, at the end of that period I think we're in a new place for some very hard practical and obvious reasons. I think that, and this is in declining order, the least important issue probably at the moment in a sense is terrorism - but it's a big issue - and therefore the security of people and the re-emergence of the security state. There is the burning problem of the very, very large number of people at the bottom of the heap who simply aren't getting any better off, aren't being educated - the good society problem.

And right at the top of the list there is climate change, which I think is such a big issue that politics has barely begun to grasp how big the change is going to need to be in how we live our lives, how we're taxed, how we behave. Some of the choices that people are going to have to be forced to confront are so horrible for nervous democratic politicians that they just don't want to think about it. And yet we're all going to have to think about it. And therefore, for these reasons, politics is coming back in a big way.

Education and climate change

I can see the beginnings of the bones of an argument about a new form either of home rule or nationalism - and I'm not sure how great the difference is ultimately going to be by the way - which would go back to the Scottish exceptionalism and make the case for Scotland being a particularly different country.

I can see, for instance, one of the great issues in front of everybody today is the struggle to increase educational standards. The West is falling further and further behind. All these things are anecdotal - we live by anecdote - but I remember being on a plane on a long haul flight and there was a Chinese woman and two or three Chinese kids in the row in front of me. And it was an overnight flight. Most of the flight was sleeping. These kids had maths books open. And the minute they nodded, their mother hit them across the head. And I thought: 'Yeah, we do have a problem'.

There's a great book 'The Democratic Intellect' which some people here will know, by George Davie, in which he talked about the vast success of Scottish universities in the 19th century when Scotland really was the most intelligent, most educated, advanced place in the planet. And one of the reasons for that was that in the four year Scottish university course the first year was engaged in every people being taught philosophy so they understood how to think before they then moved on to what they were going to think about. Scottish universities were distinct from any other kind of universities at the time. For quite a long time Scottish schools had a similarly distinctive reputation.

Now all of that has gone. Scottish schooling, Scottish universities are regarded as just another part of the sort of mediocre mush across the western world - well most of the time. And I wonder where the political and educational intellectual drive to turn that around, to make Scottish universities the kind of places that are talked about across the world, is going to come from?

If you turn to climate change, Scotland has particular problems and particular advantages. It has the particular problem of being a relatively northerly, relatively sparsely inhabited part of the country where, therefore, the costs of getting power and the costs of moving people around are relatively high.

And yet at the same time large swathes of Scotland are relatively clean, empty. It's surrounded by all the sources of renewable energies that other much more populated, densely packed, southern states would love to have. I can see the beginnings of a radically different Scottish energy policy.

Time for a new discussion

Now those are just personal examples and they may be the wrong ones. But where is the discussion which starts from there which says we want to be governed in this particular way because we want to get to this place? We want to be this kind of society. We want to be different. Not simply because we're cross about the English, we're cross about this, we're cross about that. But we have a bigger vision.

And I suppose my plea at the end of this is that we have that kind of discussion about Scotland's political future and not the kind of discussion that's about percentages and subsidies and the voting systems of different lines of different tiers of Government.

Because if I can sum up where I think we've got to in this very interesting period of Scottish politics I would say that Scottish nationalism has not demonstrated why and Unionism, interestingly, has not demonstrated why not.

 

 

Recording of the 2007 lecture   |   NLS Donald Dewar Lectures page



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