A EUROPE OF THE PEOPLES
LECTURE DELIVERED BY THE RT HON ALEX SALMOND AT THE INTERCELTIC FESTIVAL OF LORIENT IN BRITTANY - 07/08/2017
It is a great pleasure to be here at this great Festival. And it is a particular pleasure to launch the French translation of my book "Le rêve ne doit jamais mourir" which details the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland from the inside.
Europe still has its fair share of crises at the moment.
Although the danger of right wing populism has been fended off for the time being at least in the very heart of the European project - in France and The Netherlands - challenges still remain to the West and to the East.
Brexit is moving seeming inexorably to a calamitous conclusion for the UK while the Union's bad boys of Hungary and Poland strain the limits of Brussels' tolerance.
Monsieur Barnier's assured handling of Brexit (thus far) gives the illusion that such things can be dealt with without rocking the essential foundations of Europe, although the inability to reign in the autocratic Polish regime (thus far) has given rise to suggestions that it might be better for the bad apples to leave than contaminate the entire barrel.
Meanwhile, the Commission turns a tin ear to demands for democratic expression within its own borders. Apparently as long as a state is a loyal European Union member then democratic entitlements take second place to bureaucratic convenience as Catalonia is finding out at present.
However these multi faceted challenges to the status quo illustrate how Europe has lost the high ground of the 1990s where workers across the continent looked to Brussels for social progress, submerged nationalities looked to the the Commission for support against the centralism of state
government and Eastern Europe, newly free of the Communist yoke, saw their salvation and security in Western liberalism.
Scotland's current position should provide food for thought and the reasons lie deep in our country's European past.
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 two seasons ago. 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 its outcome 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 to 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 from the Battle of Stirling Bridge , and we find a Scots gentleman, bored out of his mind tutoring a Scots nobleman, writing to his friend from Toulouse to say that he had begun to write a new book.
The bored Scot was Adam Smith, the friend, 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 no less than half of young men of fighting age were seriously injured or killed. 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 loosened if not 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. Even among Brexiteers the bright boasts of a 'global Britain' have been replaced by concern about how to limit the damage.
However one of the worst aspects is how the time and effort of Europe is now preoccupied in dismantling part of the European Union. 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 still progressive pro-European forces who are still in the ascendancy. Even after the recent U.K. General Election, the SNP with its unswerving wish to engage with the rest of the Continent, holds a majority of both Westminster and Scottish Parliamentary seats. The protest against the establishment is expressed in liberal values, and the Europe for all its faults is regarded as a positive thing to be close with not a negative to be distanced from.
As President Juncker said himself, Scotland has earned the right to be heard and 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 the Celtic League – where self-determination of peoples, linguistic and cultural diversity, peace and democracy, could all find a home in a united Europe.
Last year the Government of Scotland publish 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. It spelt out clearly what is totally absent from the rest of the UK body politic - a clear and pragmatic vision of how Scotland's European views could be accommodated within current political realities. That paper postulated Scottish membership of the European Economic Area through EFTA as the most practical immediate means of retaining Scotland's historic European horizon.
It would be fair to say that this vision did not get much of a hearing during the hurly burly of the UK General Election which is one reason why the SNP fell back while still retaining a majority (33 out of 59) of Scottish seats. And it is also true that post election the UK Government arrogantly believe that they can afford to allow no concessions whatsoever to Scotland with the enfeebled UK Prime Minister now even refusing to meet Scotland's First Minister.
However wise words stand the test of time. And with each passing month the case for Scotland asserting its distinctive European nationhood will grow stronger as the case for isolationist Britain is exposed as weak and shallow as opposed to 'strong and stable'.
As an article in the Financial Times put it recently,Britain faces one of three outcomes from Brexit: abject humiliation, great humiliation or just humiliation. And, to paraphrase what they used to say
in Ireland: England's difficulty is Scotland's opportunity.
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 the Scots poet 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