One of my highlights of any Scottish Liberal Democrat conference is Party President Malcolm Bruce’s speech. This is a man who has spent his whole life in politics working for human rights and international development. There isn’t much this man does not know about international relationships. His observations are always worth listening to.
I’ve been aware of a whole load of cybernats bumping their gums about his speech at the weekend, quoting a couple of bits completely out of context. So, the best way to remedy that is to publish the whole thing so that you can see where he’s coming from.
Nowhere did he compare Scotland to South Sudan. In fact, he says he sees why South Sudan needed to be freed from its lawless neighbour. He talked about how the international community had worked together to help South Sudan and how the UK was the first to send an ambassador. Malcolm’s story of South Sudan is a positive one in terms of that international co-operation – and illustrated how Scotland as part of the UK, how he, a Scot chairing a UK Parliament Committee, could help this fledgling nation.
Yes, he mentioned some other countries where a destructive drive for independence had been damaging.
His remarks may not fit with the SNP’s narrative that everything in an independent Scotland would be hunky dory and that it would be a land full of prosperity, love, peace and fluffity bunnikins. Malcolm warns of the dangers of fragmenting the world in to a succession of competing countries.
Now, Malcolm has absolutely nothing to prove when it comes to championing Scotland’s cause. I remember how as leader he led us into the Constitutional Convention, how he railed against the Tory Government’s refusal to establish the Scottish Parliament we so badly needed. Our Parliament is founded on years of hard work by Malcolm and others. Their sweat and words and persuasion and negotiation and engagement made Holyrood the strong institution that it is. I will absolutely not stand by and let anyone denigrate his dedication to and passion for Scotland. We could have asked no more of him.
He may not agree with SNP policy, and some of the robust arguments he uses may not be to the taste of the nationalists on the internet but who cares?
As SNP activists selectively quote Malcolm, you can see Joan McAlpine’s article in full in which she compares England to a domineering husband perpetrating an abuse of power. It’s clear where she’s going with her line of argument. The thing that strikes me is that marriage in itself has an inherent co-dependency that’s actually quite good. Having someone to share the risks and rewards of life is actually quite a good thing.
Anyway, here’s what Malcolm actually said. Read and enjoy.
In December I spent a week in the newest country on the planet. It is 98 per cent dependent on oil revenues which are currently astopped because the export pipeline has been shut down.
South Sudan achieved its independence last June after decades of war and following a Comprehensive Peace Agreement and Referendum brokered by the international community.
The country, which is also riven by internal disputes and often violent inter tribal rivalries has to build itself from scratch. It has no power or water system, only a few miles of metalled road and a severe shortage of people with basic literacy to run anything. Almost everything, food materials and skilled labour has to be imported.
The country has a President, Salva Kir, who recognises the challenges and some able ministers. It has huge support from the international community – notably the USA, the UK – the first country to recognise South Sudan and appoint an ambassador – the European Union and the United Nations.
I quite understand why continuation of the south within Sudan was not an option and I hope and pray that it will succeed in overcoming these challenges and become a viable country.
This experience led me to reflect on the nature and circumstances of independence and to look at the cases being made for others to become independent.
It was a sobering list of countries like Republic Srpska, S Ossetia, Kashmir, Basque Region, Catalonia, Chechnya, Greenland, North Cyprus, Transnistria. Do we really want the world to break up into a growing list of tiny countries nursing their grievances through the international community?
Indeed divergences can be magnified when countries go their separate ways. Consider Czechoslovakia. Since Slovakia seceded the GDP per capita of the Czech Republic has risen to $25,600 while Slovakia’s stands at $16,288 with higher unemployment and inflation.
There are currently recognised to be 196 states in the world with about 50 with varying degrees of aspiration to join them. Alex Salmond says he doesn’t want Scotland to be better than other countries but equal but where does that end? Scotland cannot be equal to the United States anymore than Montenegro or Malta can be equal even with British Columbia or New South Wales.
Talking of Alex Salmond, having shared a platform with him when he was wearing tartan trews – a concession to the creation of the Scottish Parliament – I know he has long asserted he will not wear a kilt in Scotland until independence has been achieved.
I will yield to no-one in my determination that every aspect of the debate from economic, through historical, legal, cultural and social must be considered in consummate detail but I have to say that I can think of one overwhelming reason to reject his plans and that must be to protect the people of Scotland from the sight of Alex Salmond in a kilt.
On the more serious implications of breaking the world into an ever growing number of competing nation states I found this on a website looking at the potential for new countries.
“Does it really make sense to have 200 separate nations to quarrel with each other and to waste our precious and fast diminishing resources? The real problems are greed and intolerance. We need to educate our children and control our politicians. Let’s make them work for us instead of for themselves. To quote John Lennon ‘Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too. Imagine all the people Living life in peace… You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will be as one’
Maybe that is just an updated version of the great Englishman, John Donne’s words, “No man is an island, entire of itself” and that is precisely the basis on which Liberals will back individuals against abusive states and back human rights laws and conventions against those who want to dismantle them.
That is precisely why Liberals will always be upholders of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and must view with scepticism the motives behind any attempts to change them.
Of course, there are practical facts that must be addressed. Since the Council of Europe expanded to its present level of 47 member states the European Court of Human Rights has been overwhelmed with cases and not been given the resources to deal with them.
That, of course, is why our own Human Rights Act giving British citizens the quicker and cheaper option of taking their case through the UK Courts commands our support.
But we must be vigilant at any attempt to subordinate the European Convention of Human Rights to national jurisdictions. In particular, not only must the right to appeal to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg be protected but also the right to initiate a case there.
It is all very well for people to be outraged over our own current inability to extradite Abu Qatada – I understand that. But that is no reason to suggest that the ruling of UK Courts can set aside the judgements of the court in Strasbourg.
The UK has an exemplary record of implementing court rulings if somewhat slowly at times. But that is very different from the situation that prevails in other countries – notably Ukraine and Russia.
The UK has eight cases outstanding at the European Court of Human Rights. Russia has 100,000 cases for it.
It is a moot point whether Russia gives much regard to Strasbourg but if a country of the UK’s standing were to suggest giving national court judgments precedence it would limit Council of Europe members’ influence over Russia and undermine those within Russia fighting for Human Rights and the rule of law.
As a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I supported the Rapporteur on the Mikhai Khodorkovsky case. On one occasion I addressed a seminar of the New York School of law entitled “are we back in the USSR”. The answer was brutally honest. The situation is much worse I was told since Putin came to power. There are now more KGB trained agents in positions of power than was ever the case under the Soviet Union.
The case of Sergei Magnitsky is still more harrowing. As a lawyer advising a UK businessman, he was arrested and so brutalised that he died in agony while in custody. Details of those who inflicted this mistreatment have been published by Magnitsky’s supporters, who have called for an investigation and prosecution of those responsible and a refusal of right of entry into democratic countries.
This has been ignored by the Russian authorities who have allowed key witnesses to disappear and are proceeding with a posthumous criminal prosecution against Sergei Magnitsky contrary to Russian law.
Yet Vladimir Putin is set to be re-elected as President after a laughably fraudulent election where no credible alternative candidate was allowed to stand. No doubt if one could translate recent street demonstrations in Russia to Scotland the slogan would be clear. Putin must be put oot!
Before you begin to consider the economically uncertain world in which we live and in which the SNP want to cut Scotland adrift, this is the confused international background we face. It is quite extraordinary that we should be considering cutting historic ties and launching ourselves into this maelstrom.
For more than 300 years Scotland and its people have been defined as a distinct nation with a proud legacy. From the eighteenth century enlightenment through the industrial revolution and the scatterlings of Scottish engineers, accountants, traders, administrators, soldiers, sailors, tea and rubber planters and countless more, Scots of every kind have shaped the modern world.
It is not an accident that Banff is the jewel of the Canadian Rockies or that the last spike to link the east and west coast of Canada was driven at Craigellachie. Across the Americas, Africa, Asian and Australasia Scots have left their mark.
I have had the privilege to visit many of these places and view from the other end of the telescope how the UK and Scotland are viewed. It is perhaps part of our character to be self critical but wherever I go I find many people who look to the United Kingdom with respect and often admiration and affection.
Scottishness is a distinct part of the British character that is recognised and respected. But Scotland is also part of what Britishness means too.
Why would we reject that? Why should we cut ourselves off from what has shaped our character? Why should we shrink the footprint we make in the world?
We can be Scottish and British or we can be just Scottish. Why limit ourselves?
The UK is not a great power anymore and we do not aspire to be. But nor are we peripheral. When Alex Salmond sneers at the UK’s seat on the Security Council or role in NATO, Europe, IMF and the World Bank he is not just being anti British, he is relegating Scotland to the margins.
If these things count for so little, why do Brazil and India aspire to their own role with UK support? On many of the big councils of the day Scotland is directly or indirectly inside the room.
We are a long way from a world where all nations are equal. Liberals are striving for that and for institutions that give a voice to people as people rather than nations.
That, of course, is why we are so firmly committed to our UN Overseas Development Assistance obligations focussed on poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.
You know I suspect that most people think that Scotland’s main commitment to overseas aid is in Malawi, Sadly, this country is not in a good place and High Commissioners have been withdrawn.
In fact, of course Scotland is the home of half of the headquarters of the Department for International Development (DfID) located at East Kilbride. The UK development budget is currently £8.5 billion and is set to rise to £11 billion.
I have heard nothing as to how the SNP would find £1 billion a year if they were to stay true to Scotland’s share of the UK’s UN pledge. Or indeed, what would happen to the more than 500 jobs based in Scotland in support of the UK’s development policy.
Whether we are talking of DFID, the BBC, the World Service, the British Council or other internationally renowned institutions the question we have to ask ourselves is why would we want to disassociate ourselves from such expressions of our culture that the world so admires and of which Scotland is such an integral part?
Scotland’s role in these could never be replicated under a tartan ten per cent.
I am proud to have been the first leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. In that role I led our delegation in the Scottish Constitutional Convention which laid out the framework for the Scotland Act.
We should not allow the SNP to forget they walked out of that process after attending just one meeting – and then only for the purpose of walking out. Similarly, they took no part in the Calman Commission which is putting into practice some of the tax suggestions considered by the Convention but not then agreed on.
Throughout the process of delivering a Scottish Parliament the SNP have totally disengaged on the straightforward grounds that the SNP existed quite simply for independence nothing less.
So let us be quite clear. Now the SNP has a majority in the Scottish Parliament it has the mandate for one constitutional question only. Should we become independent or remain in the United Kingdom?
For Liberal Democrats, we are on the road to a federal United Kingdom but that can only be taken forward once Scotland has decided to stay as a self governing part of the UK.
It is also a decision for the whole of the United Kingdom. It concerns intimately the people of Wales and Northern Ireland. But it requires England to be recognised as a self governing part of the UK too.
Building a Federal United Kingdom is a Liberal Democrat mission but the first step is to secure the backing of the people of Scotland to stay in the family. We are surely stronger together.
The world will look on in astonishment if the UK were to break apart. We would all be the weaker. Ask the Canadians how Quebec separatism damaged them economically and politically.
The constitutional debate will define how we deal with the world. Liberal Democrats hold the strongest hand for the simple reason that we have consistently held out for what all the evidence suggests the people of Scotland want – Home Rule within the United Kingdom.
So let us – Liberal Democrats – raise the banner of federalism high. Let us – Liberal Democrats – lead a proud Scotland to a dynamic role in a reformed United Kingdom. Let us – Liberal Democrats – show a country comfortable in its own skin and at ease with the world – a truly United Kingdom.