The Coppieters Speech
Wednesday 14 December 2016
Delivered by Alex Salmond MP at L24 in Brussels on the receipt of the inaugural Coppieters Award.
There have been two fundamental shocks, turn-ups or surprises in European history in the last 1,000 years. The first was Leicester City winning the English Premier League last season. And the second was in 1297 when a rag-tag and bobtail army of Scottish peasants laid low the might of Plantagenet chivalry at Stirling Bridge.
This, it should be said, was not absolutely unique. The Flemish peasants did much the same to the French a handful of years later at Courtrai. However, there is no doubt that Stirling Bridge was a turn-up for the books and the reverberations from it whistled around medieval Europe.
Rather like Leicester City, William Wallace came down to earth with a bump the following season at Falkirk. However, in the meantime how did he and his co-Guardian of Scotland, Andrew De Moray, celebrate their historic victory? I can see you are thinking a giant ceilidh is coming on. Well, no – they actually wrote a letter to Lübeck, the headquarters of the Hanseatic League and here I paraphrase from the Latin: “There has been a change, we are back in charge. Could we have our trading concessions back and, listen, be nice to our two merchants who are carrying this letter.”
The Hanseatic League was the medieval equivalent of the single marketplace and the Lübeck letter is the equivalent of the Scottish First Minister saying to today’s European Commission: “Look, we don’t like the idea of full English Brexit, we didn’t vote for it and we are not having it. We hope to be in charge soon.”
Wind the European time clock forward some 450 years, and we find a Scots gentleman, bored out of his mind tutoring a Scots nobleman, writing from Toulouse in France to his friend saying that he was starting to write a new book. The bored Scot was Adam Smith, the friend was David Hume and the book was the Wealth of Nations.
The point is that in the 18th century Scotland was at the centre of the development of European thought and the age of rationality represented by the Scottish Enlightenment ushered in both the French and American revolutions.
Wind that clock forward another century and a half. We find Scotland, 100 years ago, at the centre of European conflict. Our losses as a percentage of the population from the carnage of the Great War are only matched by those of Germany and France.
There are villages in the North East and the Highlands of Scotland where of young men of fighting age no less than half were killed or seriously injured.
And therefore more than most, we have huge interest in the peace to which Europe has contributed over the last 65 years.
The purpose of these three separate stories is to emphasise that Scotland has for a millennium been a European country. In trade, in cultural and scientific advance and development. In peace and in war Scotland has been at the heart of Europe.
Therefore to be told now that against the wishes of the Scottish people that these connections are to be severed, that we are to be reduced to the role of at best a bystander, is not just democratically unacceptable – it flies in the face of our history.
It should not just be unacceptable to Scotland – it should be unacceptable to Europe.
There are many negative things about the Brexit process. It will be intensely damaging to the United Kingdom. Brexit offers nothing but salt and vinegar, as President Tusk memorably put it.
However one of the worst aspects is how the time and effort of Europe will be preoccupied in dismantling part of the European project. What a waste when Europe’s eye should be on the challenges of the present and the future. Europe should be galvanising to repair the weaknesses in the project – a project which Robert Schuman pointed out 66 years ago will not be made all at once or in a single plan.
However, there is an aspect of Scotland’s story which should bring hope to the rest of the continent. We hear a great deal about how the established order is under siege from the forces of right-wing populism. How liberal values, progressive politics and respect for the judiciary are on the retreat across Europe, and indeed the planet.
However, in Scotland it is progressive pro-European forces who are in the ascendancy. The protest against the establishment is expressed in liberal values, and the European Union for all its faults is regarded as a positive thing.
As President Juncker said himself, Scotland has earned the right to be heard. And, as he mentioned to me today, to be listened to in Brussels.
Scotland is not unique in this. In a number of countries forces of change have also emerged from the autonomous left. And yet how have European institutions responded? The answer is not well. When the reactionary vandals are at the gates of the Treaty of Rome then help from all progressive Europeans should be treasured and valued.
We need a Europe where dissent is channelled into fresh hope. We need to lift again the tattered flag of a social Europe. We need to fuel once again the idealist vision that propelled Maurits Coppieters himself – where self-determination of peoples, linguistic and cultural diversity, peace and democracy, could all find a home in a united Europe.
In the coming weeks, the Government of Scotland will be publishing a paper on Scotland’s way forward. How we can maintain our European connections, how the UK could accommodate this without countermanding to the Brexit process across England.
What we need now from the rest of this continent is not just goodwill and encouragement. We need vocal support and the realisation that we have to turn the tide away from all that Brexit represents if we are to build a European home with room for all its nationalities.
Or as Hamish Henderson once put it, in his great anthem, Freedom Come All Ye:
So come all ye at hame wi Freedom
Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom
In your hoose a’ the bairns o Adam
Can find breid, barely-bree and painted room