"a good global citizen": Alex Salmond's speech on Scotland's role in the world

Alex Salmond gave a speech this week at the opening of Glasgow Caledonian University's new campus in New York. He spoke of the role he wishes an independent Scotland to play in the world.

Alex Salmond
9 April 2014

Alex Salmond - wikimedia

Thank you, Pamela (Gillies) it’s a pleasure to deliver this inaugural lecture, as Glasgow Caledonian becomes the first Scottish university to establish a campus here in New York.

It continues a long tradition of Scottish educational influence here in the USA. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Scottish universities were recognised as models for some of the leading American centres of learning; including Princeton - at that time the College of New Jersey, where John Witherspoon from East Lothian was a very influential president - Brown, Pennsylvania, William of Mary and Columbia here in New York.

The campus also demonstrates this university’s growing global reach. Glasgow Caledonian already welcomes students from more than 100 countries. You have associations with universities in Brazil, China, the USA, South Africa and India.

Your Chancellor, Muhammud Yunus, is known round the world as a champion of equality, sustainable prosperity and justice – to the extent that he has been recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize, a US Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His values are reflected in the wider work of the university. They shone through in the passion for social justice, and especially gender justice, demonstrated by my good friend Professor Ailsa Mackay - the feminist economist who made a significant contribution to public policy, and whose recent passing was mourned by so many across Scotland and internationally.

Muhammud Yunus’s values are also demonstrated daily by the College of Nursing in Bangladesh, which you manage together with his Grameen Foundation.

They are also shown by the Climate Justice Resource Hub you established last October, partnered by the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation.

And we can also see them in action here in New York. They are shown by the close ties you have established with the United Nations, as a signatory to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Management. They are also demonstrated by some of this campus’s early initiatives on ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry.

In all of this, you’re living up to your motto - “for the common weal”.

“Common weal” is an interesting term. It’s auld Scots and means the wellbeing of all. And it’s very relevant to the theme of my speech this evening. I’m going to talk – not about how great Scotland is, but about the contribution we have made, and have yet to make, to the rest of humanity; to the wellbeing of all, the common weal.

This week - Scotland week - is a good time to reflect on that.

President Bush’s Tartan Day proclamation of 2008 acknowledged Scotland and the USA’s “long shared ties of family and friendship””.

From time to time various surveys have suggested – and I really love these numbers - that almost 30 million people in these United States claim Scots or Scots Irish ancestry, although the official census figure is only around 10 million.

I just adore that concept. 10 million in the census, 30 million claimed ancestry. It means there’s 20 million people across the United States who perhaps aren’t officially Scottish, but wannabe Scottish! Has there ever been a greater compliment ever paid to any nation?

So as far as we’re concerned, with due deference to the official census figures of the United States, we’ll settle for the 30 million – and more. I take it as a great encouragement that so many millions of additional Americans are claiming links with Scotland. They are very, very welcome to do so.

The Tartan Day proclamation also recognised the enduring contribution to the USA made by Scots and those of Scottish ancestry - for example individuals such as Andrew Carnegie, John Muir, the father of the US’s national parks, or Grace Murray Hopper. She was a pioneer of computer programming who also served as a rear admiral in the US navy. She received the ultimate modern accolade four months ago – she was honoured with her own google doodle!

And the relationship between our countries has always been about ideas as well as people. Tartan Day itself, on 6 April, marks the anniversary of the sealing in 1320 of the Declaration of Arbroath – a document whose principles of elective governance are seen as having influenced the US Declaration of Independence. It’s certainly the case that Scottish thinkers such as James Wilson and Princeton’s John Witherspoon - who would both have been well versed in the Declaration of Arbroath - were signatories to the Declaration of Independence, and influenced the ideas which were then crystallised in 1787 in the US Constitution. Of course, Benjamin Franklin himself was an honorary graduate of St Andrews University.

There’s a pleasing symmetry there. One of the first and most exciting tasks of an independent Scotland will be to devise a constitution for our new nation. And in doing that we will undoubtedly look for inspiration to the US constitution – still the supreme example of how such a document can embody a nation’s dearest and most enduring principles.

The establishment of a new constitution is one of the great tasks awaiting an independent Scotland. It’s part of the huge opportunity that the referendum gives us – we can decide the country we want to become, the Scotland we want to see, the Scotland we seek.

As part of that, I want to look today at the contribution an independent Scotland will make to the world. I’ll outline our intention to be a good global citizen, working in partnership with countries across the planet. I’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy - should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves.

Ministers in the UK Government often talk about the concept of a global race, as though the international economy is a sport where there are several losers for every winner. But there are some – and they are the most important - aspects of the global economy in which we have to ensure that everyone’s a winner. Else we will all be losers.

Scotland’s economy is highly competitive – it’s one reason why we outperform the rest of the UK on inward investment. We are confident of our ability to succeed in the international marketplace. But that’s very different from seeing the world as a race, where the deserving forge ahead while others lag behind. In reality, our prosperity is bound up in the wellbeing of others. We should see ourselves as a partner to other nations, not just a competitor

That links to another point. You can aspire to be a great nation, without desiring to be a great power. The USA is both. But most nations can’t be. And they reduce their chance to be a great nation, if they pretend to be a great power.

For most countries, greatness can only come from influence, not force; from soft, not hard power; from enlightened self-interest, not self-interest alone. It will come from their people, their values, their reputation and their ideas. And it starts with good governance at home.

Each year the United Nations publishes a Human Development Index. It measures things such as life expectancy and quality of education, rather than just looking at economic output. On that index, 11 of the top 20 nations have fewer than ten million inhabitants. Norway is number one - the UK number 26.

The USA, incidentally, is number 3 – so large nations certainly can flourish. However it’s clear that many smaller nations are succeeding, using their natural advantages – including flexibility, speed of decision-making, and the ability to define clearly their national interests and their economic strategy.

Those advantages are helping them to exert a strong and positive influence on the wider world.

Norway has gained global recognition for its peace-making efforts in conflicts and disputes – for example in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Columbia and the Middle East.

You could also look at Ireland’s role in peacekeeping; Switzerland’s contribution to humanitarian efforts; Finland’s reputation for research and development; or the way in which Singapore is widely studied for its approach to economic development.

The overall point is clear. Countries can exercise influence through the scale of their ambition and the strength of their ideas, rather than the size of their armies, their populations, or their territories.

That will be true of Scotland, too. If you think for a moment about Scotland’s past, the reason I’m here in the USA at this particular time is because of ideals of liberty and elective governance which were distilled in the Declaration of Arbroath almost 700 years ago. And in Central Park, where the Scotland Week run took place on Saturday, there are two statues of Scots – they’re both of writers; Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Of course Scotland has a proud military tradition. Indeed when Senator Jim Webb of Virginia wrote a book about the Scots and Scots-Irish influence in America, he called it “Born Fighting”. But I’m happy to be the representative of a country whose most celebrated figure, Robert Burns – with the third most statues of any secular figure across the planet– is not a soldier, but a poet.

The military significance of Scots and Scots-Irish Americans such as John Paul Jones, Ulysess S. Grant and George S. Patton has been immense, but Scotland’s most cherished contributions to the USA relate to values and ideas - the constitutional thinking of James Wilson, the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the environmentalism of John Muir.

And the key to the international reputation of Scots is not our hard-won reputation for being bravehearts in battle, but our hard-won reputation for invention which generated prosperity –for example James Watt’s condensing steam engine, the bicycle, the television, the telephone, the fax machine, the MRI scanner, penicillin – inventions which defined modernity - all the way up to Dolly the Sheep!

The list of inventions is so long that an American historian, Arthur Herman, went so far as to assert that Scotland had invented the modern world.

There’s a link between those things and this launch. When I was a boy, I used to ponder on why Scotland invented so many things. And of course, nobody had told me that it was because one of our first inventions was also the most important of all – we were the first society anywhere in the world to introduce free universal education, from the 16th century. And because we had more people who had the ability to invent than anywhere else, we reached the stage where, in Arthur Herman’s phrase, it sometimes seems as though Scotland has indeed invented the modern world.

That’s why one of the proudest achievements of this Scottish Government was to restore the principle of free tuition for university education; and it’s why I’m so delighted to be here to celebrate the work of one of our many world-class higher educational institutions.

Education has been central to Scotland’s greatest contributions to the world in the past; it will be fundamental to them in the future.

So based on our own past, and the example of other countries, there’s no doubt – none whatsoever – that an independent Scotland could make a significant contribution to the world.

Like all nations, of any size, we would work in partnership with other countries – either in formal or informal alliances.

The other nations of Britain and Ireland would remain our closest friends as well as our closest neighbours. There is already a British Irish Council which includes the UK and Irish governments, the three devolved governments of Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland, together with the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Its secretariat is already based in Edinburgh. After independence, the Council will include three independent countries, rather than two.

A good analogy is with the Nordic Council. It includes Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, together with Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Alund Islands. It is meeting today in Reykjavik to discuss the sustainable exploitation of natural resources. It was founded in 1952, and has been a model of successful co-operation between neighbours for more than six decades.

Scotland will also be an enthusiastic member of the European Union – free from the visceral distrust of Europe which stifles political engagement at a UK level, and instead will make a positive contribution on key issues such as energy, climate change and digital technology.

We will be a constructive partner in NATO. We won’t have nuclear weapons – nobody seriously believes that a nation of five million people should be a nuclear-armed power. But we will co-operate fully and constructively with our neighbours and partners, like the 25 Nato members – out of 28 – which are not nuclear powers.

And we will join 193 other members of the United Nations, demonstrating a strong commitment to international law, and working with partners from around the world

We will become a sovereign nation, and we will choose to pool some of that sovereignty for a wider good. As an independent country, we will embrace the interdependence of the modern world.

And we will seek to make a particular impact in areas where we have special strengths or expertise. I want to give three examples of that - climate justice; international development; and arbitration and conflict resolution.

Scotland is determined to play a leading role in developing the clean energy technologies that will help to generate sustainable electricity in the future. Last year, 46% of our net electricity demand was generated by renewable energy. But our potential lies not just in generating our own energy, but a significant part of the European Union’s renewable energy needs.

We’re exceptionally well placed to do so, given our research base, our engineering heritage and our huge natural resources. Our work on clean energy has drawn praise from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

But we also recognise the environmental and moral imperative for action now. That’s why the Scottish Government launched a climate justice fund two years ago – the first such fund to be launched by any national government.

Climate justice is the idea that nations which have benefited from industrialisation should help less developed countries to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The urgency and importance of the concept was underlined by last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Professor Tahseen Jafrey of Glasgow Caledonian joined me in the film which was made two years ago to mark the launch our fund. Professor Jafrey has subsequently led the great work of Glasgow Caledonian in launching its climate justice resource hub.

The Scottish Government’s Climate Justice Fund has been endorsed by Vice President Al Gore, and has received strong support from Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose Climate Justice Foundation works so closely with Glasgow Caledonian.

The Fund is currently helping communities affected by climate change in Malawi and Zambia – for example by improving their access to clean water, and educating and empowering women so that they can play a leading role organising their local communities.

It is small in terms of the overwhelming scale of the problem – tiny, in fact - but it is making a real difference to people’s lives.

It’s consistent with the approach we take in our wider international development work.

For example another world-class Scottish University, Strathclyde, runs a programme we fund to provide renewable energy for villages in Malawi.

Schools in those villages can now attract teachers more easily – it used to be almost impossible, because teachers didn’t want to live in places without electricity. In the village of Bondo in Malawi, a small-scale hydroelectric power scheme means that babies are now born safely in a well-lit room – previously, doctors and nurses had to work by candle-light. Mobile phones can be recharged – connecting the community to the wider world and giving access to services such as banking. And the town has installed a communal television so that the villagers can watch the soccer world cup this coming summer!

Unfortunately, Malawi didn’t qualify for the World Cup...and even more unfortunately, neither did Scotland... but they will at least get to enjoy watching the Team USA compete in Brazil!

The point is that Scotland’s development programme is already having an impact. We could make an even bigger impact as an independent nation – co-operating with the rest of the UK and with other nations when appropriate, but also making our own distinctive contribution.

There’s an organisation in Washington called the Centre for Global Development, which ranks the overall impact of countries’ policies on international development - not just the total amount of aid given. The UK ranks eighth on that Contribution to Development Index, which isn’t that bad. However almost all of the top 7 countries are of a similar size to Scotland. The top three, in terms of impact per head of population, are Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Sweden is an interesting example, having passed legislation to ensure that it considers the impact on developing countries of all of its policies.

We have made it clear that an independent Scotland would also promote policy coherence – we would take a “do no harm” approach, ensuring that our support for international development is not undermined by other government policies, which impact adversely on developing countries.

From our first budget, we would meet the United Nations target of donating 0.7% of our Gross National Income to international development. In fact, we would enshrine that target in Scots law. And we will give careful consideration to cancelling unjust debts.

I’ve said that in terms of domestic policy, Scotland could be a progressive beacon, setting a positive example as a country which combines fairness and prosperity. Those progressive aspirations also hold true internationally. To adopt an expression much used by President Clinton, we will use the power of our example, not the example of our power.

And the issue of developing nations’ debt provides an example of a third way in which Scotland can make a contribution to the world. With our expertise in financial services and law, we will aim to become an acknowledged centre for debt arbitration – the sort of role which can be more easily carried out by smaller nations than by those with vested interests at stake.

Scotland has already set up an international centre for energy arbitration, which I launched last October. The centre - run by Dundee University and the Scottish Arbitration Centre - has now published specialised arbitration rules, and promoted its services at an event here in New York last Thursday.

Scotland is also in an excellent position to assist peace and reconciliation efforts. In recent years we have already hosted important discussions such as those that led to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which helped progress devolved government and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Scotland also hosted the first dialogue outside the former Soviet Union between parliamentarians from the South Caucasus. In 2003, delegations from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan discussed the frozen conflicts of their region.

There is much more that we can do as a sovereign state to host and support these initiatives. And our current democratic journey provides a helpful context – as we decide our future in a context based entirely on consensual, civic, non-ethnic and peaceful principles.

Sometimes we get frustrated about the quality of debate, particularly on the internet. However we should remember that in a century of striving for home rule and independence, nobody has lost their life arguing for or against Scottish independence. Indeed, nobody has had so much as a nosebleed. That’s not unique, but it’s a very, very precious thing.

We’re now engaged in a consensual constitutional process which will be decided at the ballot box. Again, not unique - but rare - and something which should be cherished.

Ladies and gentlemen, I said at the beginning, that Glasgow Caledonian’s motto, “for the common weal” is an auld Scots phrase.

When the Scots Parliament was adjourned in 1707, the speaker, Lord Seafield, described it as “the end of an auld sang”. The Parliament reconvened in 1999. When it graduates to being an independent parliament, Scotland will have a new voice in the world, a new sang. And the song we sing will be of the Scotland we seek.

  • We seek a Scotland where sustainable prosperity goes hand in hand with solidarity and fairness.
  • We seek a Scotland which makes a positive contribution to the world, as an equal partner in the family of nations;
  • We seek a Scotland whose importance is judged on its usefulness to the rest of humanity, not on fading imperial grandeur;
  • We seek a Scotland which applies its ingenuity to mitigating and addressing the great environmental challenges of the world;
  • We seek a Scotland known for helping others as well as promoting itself;
  • We seek a Scotland guided by enlightened self-interest – in how we run our country, and how our country relates to the rest of the world.

Independence doesn’t guarantee that we will become that Scotland we seek. But it gives us the powers we need, in order to do so. It places decisions about Scotland’s contribution to the world in the hands of the people who live and work in Scotland. It gives us the power to act for the common weal. And that in itself is a song well worthy of the singing.

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