Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP MP for East Lothian, in the House of Commons on 15 January 2020.
As is customary—and, I believe, correct—I will start with a tribute to my predecessor. Martin Whitfield and I disagreed fundamentally on Scotland’s constitutional situation, but in many other aspects we were at one. I am conscious of the fact that he was tenacious in opposing Brexit, and equally assiduous in representing his constituency, so I know the standards that he has set. He will continue to reside in the constituency, where I will no doubt bump into him.
It was the same for those who went before him. My own colleague George Kerevan was equally assiduous. Prior to that, the constituency was represented by Fiona O’Donnell, who continues to serve the county as a Labour councillor in East Lothian. It goes all the way back to the late, great John P. Mackintosh, who set the standards and template that everybody who has represented East Lothian since has sought to aspire to.
As my colleague George Kerevan pointed out, I have a link to John P. Mackintosh because an assiduous campaigner for him—indeed, someone who has sought to keep his memory alive—is Arthur Greenan, who was also a tenacious campaigner for George Kerevan and an equally vibrant one for me, despite his age. Arthur is one of those to have made the political journey from being a Labour activist and voter to becoming an SNP activist and supporter. It is a journey made by many, and one that I tracked myself when I was privileged to write a biography of arguably Scotland’s greatest ever MP who never was, the late, great Jimmy Reid.
My constituency has endured changes, but it has stayed the same in many ways. It continues to roll from the Lammermuir hills to the banks of the Forth. It contains fertile land, bonny beaches and, indeed, fine folk. Some industries, such as mining, have gone. Other industries, such as renewables, have come—which is why it is important and appropriate that I am making this speech at this juncture in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. We build around those new industries, but they are still based around the vibrant towns and villages of both the historic county and the wider modern constituency. East Lothian’s people remain undiminished in their grit, determination and decency, and indeed—as a new arrival, I know this—in their warm and welcoming nature, as thousands seek to move to the expanding county of East Lothian.
There are historic links to my constituency in this institution, and not just through those who have been elected Members. When I first arrived here last month, I came across a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who is well known in my constituency, in the town of Dunbar. He is not viewed as the Lord Protector; far from it. He may not have been as brutal there as he was at Drogheda, but people still suffered at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, when his English army killed thousands of Scottish soldiers and captured thousands more. Those who were captured were marched south, with many dying en route. They were taken to Durham cathedral, where thankfully a memorial now recognises what they suffered. Many died in incarceration there. Of those who were released thereafter, some were given by the Lord Protector to the army of France. Others were sent to do drainage work in the area of the Wash in southern England. Others still were transported to Barbados and to the Americas.
But some good did come from this, because in 1657, seven years after serving their penal servitude, some of those Scottish soldiers banded together to form the Scots Charitable Society of what is now Boston, which is argued to be the one of the oldest such charitable organisations not just in the United States but in the western hemisphere. They keep contacts with the community in Dunbar, as indeed did the Scottish Prisoners of War Society—because such an organisation does exist, with many American members, and they had a re-enactment of the battle last year.
You can move along the A1 as well as you can move along the corridors here. Moving along the A1, after some 50 miles I come to the small town of Tranent, and equally moving along the corridors here, I came upon a recognition of the Earl of Liverpool—there is, I think, both a bust and a painting of him. The Earl of Liverpool is the third-longest-serving Prime Minister, but in the town of Tranent he is better recalled because he was a British military commander when the massacre of Tranent took place in 1797. Twelve men, women and children were slain because they opposed the imposition of conscription. He was then the military commander for east central Scotland. He was not responsible for the order to fire, but he was culpable, and indeed took the blame, according to the Lord Advocate—but he obviously went on to greater things and became Prime Minister in 1820.
The Earl of Liverpool’s links with Scotland do not end there, because this year is not just the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, when my country’s nationhood was enshrined by those who cherish it and have it at its heart, but the year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenary—the 200th anniversary—of the 1820 uprising, or insurrection, when working people in Scotland campaigned for and demanded the universal franchise. Indeed, having seen what had happened just the year before at Peterloo, they pledged that they would not just take it lying down. We will remember them.
The Earl of Liverpool is remembered because he signed the death warrant for John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson. He had them hanged and then beheaded—the last time such punishment was used in the United Kingdom. We will remember them in April because they fought for the universal franchise—for the right of working people, as hon. Members mentioned earlier, to have that vote. Nineteen others, including a child, were transported to Botany Bay, and only two made it home to their native land.
Centuries on, of course, we have the universal franchise: not just working men but working women have the right to vote. It is for that reason that I and my colleagues are in this Chamber today. I have no doubt that if the situation was the same as it had been in 1820, it would have been a representative of the rich landlords because they were an oligarchy back then.
But we do face challenges, because we have a Tory Government who are no more reflective of the people of Scotland now than, arguably, under Henry Dundas. That is why I will continue to emulate the good constituency work of those of my own party and, indeed, of others to represent the fine people of East Lothian. Equally, I will remember the memories of those who went before who struggled for our native land to retain its identity and to advance the interests of working people. Indeed, as I come to the conclusion of my speech, I remember that one of the banners under which those who went to their doom in 1820 marched was “Scotland Free or a Desert”.
As we sit in a debate on a Queen’s Speech that talks about a transformative agenda, many in my constituency, especially the most vulnerable, fear what will happen to the welfare state and the NHS, and the gains made by our parents and our grandparents. We will, as with our forebears, defend the rights of working people and the gains that we are entitled to expect, and we will defend our nationhood. Thank you for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker.