Scotland’s Place in the World

8 Feb 2013

Ruth Davidson MSP

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson made a speech about “Scotland’s Place in the World” at the Goodenough College in London.

She was among a number of speakers at the annual TEDx event, which has previously featured several prominent academics from around the world.


“Good evening ladies and gentIemen,

When preparing for this conference, I couldn’t help but notice an entry about the Goodenough College on one website.

It said Goodenough had “an extensive extra-curricular programme, which includes a conference series aimed at examining subjects of international concern”

Well, for an institution founded to provide a high level of post-graduate study for people across what was to become the Commonwealth, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than the place of my country, Scotland, in the world.

I’m sure a survey of attitudes in most places would throw up predictable answers if people were asked to name subjects of international concern.

The future of Palestine; Iran’s nuclear programme, ditto North Korea; Islamic extremism in North Africa and the Middle East; democracy in Tibet and human rights in China; European integration.

I doubt the break-up of the United Kingdom would rank highly, but if the reduction of the influence of the United Kingdom and a potential threat to the future of Nato’s nuclear deterrent isn’t a subject of international concern then I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly attracting interest in Washington for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. And with Scotland’s referendum on independence now less than two years away it is a possibility.

For 300 years Scotland and Scots have played an integral and enthusiastic part in the development and maintenance of the United Kingdom as a nation of global impact.

For a largely cold and wet country of some five million people on the fringes of Europe, to say we have punched above our weight would not get close to an accurate assessment of the role Scotland and its citizens have played in the world.

Now, I don’t intend to indulge in a game of bar-room brag by boasting about famous Scots and their creations, however tempting that may be.

I would prefer instead to look at the circumstances by which those people’s ideas and inventions were able to make their mark on the world how those circumstances may alter in the future.

To explain how Scotland can be comfortable as a distinct nation. But comfortable, too, within the Nation State of the UK.

Political union on these islands since 1707 has been pivotal in providing the stability required for the United Kingdom; stability which helped create the wealth and influence whereby such an impressive institution as the Goodenough College could be founded.

While it was not without its difficulties, the political union of Scotland and the rest of Great Britain was in relatively short order welcomed by most Scots and by the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the authority of the British Crown was actively challenged only by a tiny, dwindling, romantic minority.

Defeat for the Jacobites the following year – the last pitched battle ever fought on these islands – brought to an end religious and constitutional strife which had lasted over 200 years and Britain’s importance as a world power grew apace.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 laid the foundations for empire and with Britain’s internal security firmly established in 1746, the way was clear to confront continental competitors like France without fear of unrest at home.

Victory in the Seven Years War and resulting Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave Britain control of India and North America and the stage was set for the rapid expansion of trade in both goods and ideas.

With cotton, tobacco and, tragically and shamefully, human beings being shipped across the Atlantic, Glasgow’s sheltered deep water western approaches made it an ideal commercial centre.

Then the proximity of raw materials for the Industrial Revolution turned it in to the second city of the Empire, building the ships and locomotives which carried British and Scottish influence to every corner of the globe.

Edinburgh’s expertise in law and finance together with its European outlook on culture and education provided the perfect blend and Scots prosperity was assured until the wane of empire and the gradual collapse of heavy industry after the war.

While the days of Empire are long gone, and rightly so, their legacy is a United Kingdom which retains an influence far outweighing its size –  and the place of London as a truly international metropolis.

And in London men like Frederick Goodenough were able to found institutions like this, with its vision to provide a home for outstanding international students and their families, irrespective of background.

If I may say so, to continue to do so without any state funding is laudable and I commend the Directors and Staff of Goodenough for their excellent work.

But perhaps the biggest mark left by the British Empire was the replacement of French by English as the global language. Directly, that happened because of the emergence of the US as the dominant industrial power after 1918 and the collapse of Imperial Russia.

But had Montcalm defeated Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, and Britain ceded its North American colonies to France, would that still have happened?

But now the union of nations which has proved so successful for 300 years is at a crossroads.

The old Scottish Parliament which last sat in 1707 was revived in 1999 and now the people of Scotland face a choice; do they allow the development of the new Scottish Parliament to continue or do they vote to end that union in a referendum in the autumn of 2014.

As leader of the Scottish Conservatives and member of the Scottish Parliament I am fortunate enough to have a role to play in this process and it will be no surprise for you to learn that I believe that our new multi-layered democracy has so much to commend it and ending it would be a grave mistake.

This is not to say Scotland couldn’t stand on its own two feet as an independent nation. Far from it, it’s just that Scotland can show the world how a distinct national identity can be maintained and enhanced while continuing to play an enthusiastic part in a successful political union of which European integrationists can only dream.

The Scottish Parliament has control over issues closest to home, while Scots also benefit from the security and influence of being part of the United Kingdom.

Far from being distanced from UK politics, not so long ago some English commentators complained about what they saw as the unfair dominance of Scots at the top of government.

The last two Labour Prime Ministers were Scots-born, a recent Secretary-general of Nato was a Scot and so too are the current education secretary and chief secretary to the treasury.

Being part of the UK provides Scotland with a greater international voice.

It can be argued that Scotland, as part of the UK, benefits from 29 votes on the European Council, whereas an independent Scotland would have only 7, giving it influence on a par with nations like Slovakia.

Similarly, as part of the UK Scotland has a direct line into the UN Security Council, is represented in both the G7 and G8 and has access to the world’s biggest diplomatic network with over 270 embassies worldwide.

Without the creation of the Scottish Parliament it is debatable whether the conditions for a referendum on Scottish independence would have been produced so quickly but the irony is that devolution has brought so many positives for Scotland that support for independence is well below levels that existed prior to its establishment.

To explain how it works now – Scotland is part of the UK. Same land mass, same currency, same head of state. We elect MPs that sit in the House of Commons, our sons and daughters serve in the same armed forces, we have the same pensions and benefits and we were every bit as proud at the success of the London Olympics as anyone else supporting Team GB. We are one nation.

But Scotland is a country within that nation. And the Scottish devolved parliament grants Scots total control over a wide range of vital services, including health, crime, policing and education. While Scotland has long enjoyed distinct legal and educational systems going back to pre-1707 days, in between decisions were still taken by politicians answerable to a London parliament.

Now, with decisions in these areas taken in Edinburgh, there should be swifter and more accurate solutions to issues as they arise.

While politicians will argue over those solutions – the current Scottish Government is taking different approaches to areas like prescription charges and tertiary education with which I don’t agree — I recognise the value of the Scottish Parliament in bringing decision-making closer to home.

Even without the referendum, the powers of the Scottish Parliament will increase by 2016 to cover areas like income tax and borrowing.

And this idea of national identity is where Scotland differs from areas with secessionist movements elsewhere. If you think of Quebec in Canada or Catalonia in Spain – while there are undoubtedly issues surrounding language and culture there – in Scotland the history of ‘otherness’ the distinction in legal practice, in education has been enshrined in the statue books unbroken through several centuries. The union was also entered into willingly – not through conquest or dominion, but a coming together of nations and peoples to their mutual and lasting benefit.

And when people in Scotland voted in 1997 in a referendum to re-establish a parliament in Edinburgh, to bring competencies closer to home, the idea was about political change. But what’s interesting is how its created a change in the culture of identity too.

Devolution has created a confident, outward looking country that can benefit from both the control over the issues closest to home, while also being part of something bigger, a United Kingdom with a bigger profile internationally.

Cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow remain some of the most visited in the world. Alongside regular draws such as the Edinburgh International Festival, our Hogmanay celebrations and our superb landscape, in the next couple of years, we will be hosting a second year of Homecoming, the Commonwealth Games and golf’s Ryder Cup.

A number of recent cinema blockbusters have been shot in Scotland, again boosting our international profile. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the new Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, the climax of the last Bond film Skyfall, Brad Pitt’s zombie thriller World War Z and Cloud Atlas starring Halle Berry were all filmed in Scotland.

It should therefore be no surprise that Scotland is a destination of choice for tourism, with American news giant CNN naming Scotland as the top travel destination for 2013.

Scotch Whisky is enjoying something of a renaissance, accounting for one quarter of all UK food and drink exports, an incredible statistic. The Asian market frankly can’t get enough of our malts.

Scotland’s computer games and animation industries is ranked third in Europe’s top 50 games developer locations.

Scotland’s culture is strong and remains distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, while being part of the UK for over 300 years. Indeed, in many ways Scottish culture has positively flourished from this relationship.

For me, the years since the Scottish Parliament were established has seen a renewed confidence and brio about embracing our Scottishness.

And just as the Scottish Enlightenment – around the time of the Union with England saw huge contributions in literature and philosophy – think Robert Burns, Walter Scott, David Hume – so now do we see a flourishing in the devolution age of cultural contributions in the popular sphere – plays like Black Watch, the novels of new Scottish writers Louise Welsh and Andrew Nicol, the film scores of Craig Armstrong, the chart music of Emile Sande. Each has international appeal but their Scottishness informs their work.

But that confidence grown up alongside the political developments has also led to some relaxation too. I firmly believe there is no contradiction between being both Scottish and British. And it was interesting to see recently how many people across Scotland took the same view – playing a full and un self-conscious part in big celebrations billed as celebrations of Britishness – the Royal Wedding, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic success of Team GB.

Let me finish by briefly returning to the impending referendum on Scottish independence. As the vote in Autumn 2014 approaches, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland, not least in those countries with their own nationalist movements like Spain and Canada as discussed.

As I said at the outset, the debate is being followed closely by those countries with which the United Kingdom shares a strong relationship. These countries are asking themselves, what implication does the Scottish question have for us?

Though I disagree fundamentally with nationalist politicians on the merits of changing Scotland’s constitutional settlement as I’m sure they disagree with me on the importance of the United Kingdom, I believe that the debate provides Scotland with an opportunity to send a message to the world.

Firstly, the debate over the merits of the United Kingdom can show to the world that divisions of power, such as federalism or devolution can both establish stable countries alongside devolved states with their own sense of identity.

And that identity can be layered. Nationality can be strengthened within a wider union and the devolution of powers can – and in the case of Scotland, has – seen the consequence of a fall in support for full independence.

But above that, the Scottish constitutional debate gives Scots the opportunity to show how a mature democracy can handle such an emotional decision but also, whatever the result, how the two conflicting sides can come back together afterwards to continue to work in the best interest of a country.

I do not know what the next 300 years will bring for my nation. But what I do see from history, is that Scotland thrived as part of the United Kingdom and that as a devolved nation it is continuing to thrive, without losing that identity which makes it distinct.

45 years ago Winnie Ewing – an icon of Scottish nationalism – declared ‘stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.’

It was a dramatic and memorable moment.  But I believe it fundamentally misread the nature of Scotland’s place in the world; that somehow we can only achieve our full potential as a nation through disengagement with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Yes, the world in changing, and Scotland is changing too.  But to believe that we can only make a positive international contribution by cutting ourselves adrift from our partner nations, is a profound mistake.

The world does not need to stop to let Scotland back on, because Scotland never got off.