Maiden Speech of John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
“Mr Speaker, right hon. and hon. Members, I am grateful for this opportunity to deliver my maiden speech, and on such an important subject. I am honoured to represent East Dunbartonshire. For those who do not know my beautiful constituency, Dunbartonshire is an ancient land, and one that has always fascinated outsiders, from the Romans to Margaret Thatcher.
“It is said to be the Scottish constituency that fascinated the late Prime Minister above all others. “How could it be”, she used to ask her Scottish Ministers—younger Members might not know that there was once a time when the plural tense could be used about Scottish Conservatives—“that such a prosperous constituency, with more than its fair share of douce hooses and perhaps the highest percentage of graduates in the whole country, keeps returning non-Conservative MPs to the Commons?”
“Not for the first time, Mrs Thatcher misunderstood Scotland. The Prime Minister who believed that the reason the Good Samaritan attained lasting fame was that he was rich enough to become a philanthropist—who, indeed, visited the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to labour that point in her Sermon on the Mound—did not realise that East Dunbartonshire rejected Conservatism for many reasons, and not least precisely because it had one of the highest percentages of graduates in the country. It is a thoughtful place.
“Mr Speaker, you well know of the towns of Bearsden, its name shrouded in mystery, and Milngavie, bane of a thousand newscasters who have fallen into the “Milngavey” trap. You will have heard of Lenzie and Kirkintilloch, of Westerton and Bishopbriggs—a town, as the name suggests, with pious origins, having been granted to Jocelin, Bishop of Glasgow, in the 12th century by King William the Lion. The Caledonians, the Picts and the Vikings battled it out for control of my constituency’s fertile soil and ancient sandstone hills. Some claim the Romans called Dunbartonshire the province of Vespasiana.
“Perhaps; in any event, it was a place they could not hold. Running across Dunbartonshire to this day is the Antonine Wall, named after Antoninus Pius, who ordered its construction in AD 142 to defend the mighty armies of Rome from the locals. The Antonine Wall was the northern-most point of the Roman Empire. Having fought and conquered Hispania, Gaul, Germania and, of course, Anglia, the Roman legions were halted in East Dunbartonshire, just outside Bearsdenia—as it might have been called had they been allowed to stay.
“We underestimate my constituents at our peril. It was not just the Romans who found the locals difficult to woo. More recently, my MP predecessors have often been reminded of just how tough the locals can be.
“Over the past few decades, East Dunbartonshire and its earlier incarnation, Strathkelvin and Bearsden, have been represented by MPs from all the major parties. Margaret Bain was one of three outstanding nationalist women to represent Scotland in this House in the 1970s, the others of course being Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald. Maggie snatched the constituency in 1974 with a majority of just 22 votes. She went on to lose at the next election, but she left a legacy of respect and affection. Norman Hogg, John Lyons, and the late lamented Dr Sam Galbraith held my seat and its predecessor for the Labour Party. Michael Hirst was an inclusive Conservative whose misfortune was to be in situ when Scotland turned against the Tories.
“My immediate predecessor, Jo Swinson, held this seat for 10 years, arriving as the baby of the House, before—famously and rightly—bringing her baby to the House. She was, as many Members will know, tenacious. The lesson is clear: East Dunbartonshire voters are not sentimental when it comes to political defenestration. I am acutely aware of the lessons of that history.
“Many think of East Dunbartonshire as a prosperous place, and it certainly has many advantages. It is the constituency with the longest life expectancy in the country, and it is also a constituency with excellent state schools, which may explain the large number of graduates.
“I find myself agreeing with the central tenet of the motion. We all know how vital education is to growth, not just for the benefit of the economy but for the individuals who, of course, benefit from it. Education has transformed the circumstances of my own family. Like all her relatives, my grandma, Janet Stant, left school at the age of 12—in her case, to go into domestic service—and was self-conscious for ever thereafter about her reading and writing skills.
“My mum left school at 14. because she had to go to work to support her family when her dad was killed in a shipyard during the Clydeside blitz. From my earliest years, I heard from both of them, and from my dad, about the importance of education. They did not care what I studied; all they cared about was that I should study. I went to university, the first member of my family to do so, first to Glasgow and then, with a scholarship, to Harvard. Such privileges would have been impossible dreams for my immediate forebears.
“For me, and for many people of my age, free education was key. As an SNP politician, I take immense pride in the fact that my party has championed free tuition north of the border. For me, it was immensely depressing to see some of my contemporaries—on both the Conservative and the Labour Benches, sadly—who had themselves benefited from free education voting to pull the ladder up and away from future generations. Unfettered access to education and training is, for me, the mark of an improving, ever more civilised society. It is also, of course, the key to social mobility.
“Earlier in my speech, I mentioned some of the benefits of living in my constituency, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a place of uniform privilege. In recent decades, post-industrialisation has brought pain in the form of unemployment. Kirkintilloch is one of several places in the constituency that have been hit hard. A fine market town with ancient roots and a legacy of outstanding architecture, it was a hotbed of the industrial revolution. It had a booming textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the 20th century shipbuilders were the principal employers.
“Until 1984, the town made the iconic red phone boxes and red pillar boxes which are known around the world. As in other areas, however, manufacturing jobs were lost, and successive Westminster Governments gave too little thought to what would replace them. That apathetic detachment in the face of radical social and economic change planted the seeds which led to the seismic political events of last year and this year in Scotland.
“The radical tradition is not a new development in my constituency. The great Thomas Muir, sometimes described as the father of Scottish democracy, had his home at Huntershill, which, tragically, is now under threat from its unappreciative custodians on East Dunbartonshire council. A champion of parliamentary reform and a leading light of the Friends of the Scottish People Movement, he was shipped to Botany Bay as a punishment for inspiring the people with his dream of a democratic franchise. Undeterred, he escaped to France, where he was lauded as the foremost proponent of a Scottish republic.
“In the House this week, we have found ourselves debating the Scotland Bill, the latest in a long and sorry sequence of Westminster attempts to appease Scottish national aspirations. It is as inadequate as its predecessors. Events north of the border on 7 May have deep roots which are, I suspect, little understood in this place.
The SNP is engaging with the current proposals in order to improve them, as we promised our electorate we would. We have made it clear that we want to see the findings of the Smith commission delivered in full, and then some. That is the only appropriate response to an unprecedented election that has seen Scotland return a national movement: 56 SNP Members of Parliament were sent here with 50% of the popular vote. That is a mandate that the Prime Minister could only dream of.
“The Prime Minister promises that he will listen. He promises that he will respect Scotland and its Government. We shall see whether he matches fine words with deeds.”