Meeting date: Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 November 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Remembrance Commemorations, Business Motion, Decision Time, World Stroke Day and Stroke Care (Covid-19)
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Remembrance Commemorations
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- World Stroke Day and Stroke Care (Covid-19)
I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the campus. Please observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber this afternoon.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23291, in the name of Graeme Dey, on remembrance commemorations. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.15:29
Each November, Scotland comes together to pay tribute to and honour the brave men and women of our armed forces, who for generations have served to protect the liberty and freedoms that we all enjoy today. The poppies that we wear are a tangible symbol of remembrance and the enduring courage, loyalty and commitment of our regulars and reservists. They show that, no matter how much time may pass, their sacrifices, alongside those of their families and loved ones, will not be forgotten.
This year has seen some truly significant anniversaries of key events of the second world war. On 8 May, the nation commemorated the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe, marking the fall of Nazi Germany and the end of conflict on the continent. On 12 June, it was 80 years since the battle of St Valery—sometimes known as the other Dunkirk—which saw outstanding bravery displayed by the men of the 51st (Highland) Division, who won six Victoria Crosses and many other medals for their valour in the face of inevitable defeat. On 15 August, the nation commemorated the 75th anniversary of victory over Japan day, which marked the end of conflict in the far east, when the second world war—a war in which more than 50,000 Scots lost their lives—was finally brought to a close.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of talking to Jack Ransom, who was one of the last surviving prisoners of war forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railway, which was also known as the railway of death, and Jenny Martin, who was born in a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore and spent the first three years of her life under armed guard. Their experiences, and the experiences of millions of others around the globe, should not be forgotten.
Those anniversaries might be some of the last significant commemorations in which we will have the opportunity to directly thank the veterans of those events for their service. The Government therefore worked in partnership with Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland, with support from the armed forces in Scotland, to plan an appropriate series of events to mark the dates. The May 2020 bank holiday was moved to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE day. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to carry out some of the commemorative events, such as the planned VIP reception for second world war veterans on VE day, followed by a parade and a concert for the public, in the manner that we had intended, due to the risk of public gatherings spreading the virus and endangering lives. That risk also significantly impacted the nature of remembrance Sunday commemorations at the weekend.
The decisions that resulted in restrictions to events were not easy ones to take, but it is right that we prioritised suppressing the virus to save lives. We will continue to work with our partners in the hope that we will be able to arrange a suitable alternative date next year for the live events that have had to be postponed, which will allow us to host the veterans who would otherwise have attended this year.
However, there have been many achievements in enabling commemorative events to proceed safely in some form throughout the pandemic, and I take this opportunity to acknowledge the incredible efforts of veterans charities, local authorities and local communities in adapting to ensure that they took place. In particular, I commend Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland for the enormous amount of work that they have done to ensure that commemorative events have been able to take place safely and successfully. I appreciate how challenging that has been, given such uncertainty and the efforts that have been required by a huge number of staff and volunteers to manage them.
Arguably, in terms of reach, those events have been an even greater success than normal as a result of the efforts that were made. They have reached millions of people across the country and, indeed, across the world. The various live broadcasts that Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland produced for VE day, VJ day and the anniversary of the battle of St Valery have reached more than 6 million users on social media, with the virtual events being viewed more than half a million times. I know that they are not the same as a real live event, but that shows members what can be achieved. I pay tribute to the innovation and imagination that our veterans charities have shown in difficult circumstances.
The hashtag #StValery80 reached more than 137 million social media users globally, with 450 pipers around the globe taking part in what was the largest ever mass participation piping event. They performed the march “Heroes of St Valery”, which was composed by Pipe Major Donald MacLean, who was one of those who were captured during the battle.
For VE day, Legion Scotland hosted an online commemoration service, at which the First Minister delivered a reading. That was followed by an online concert that featured many of the artists who had been due to take part in the planned event in Princes Street gardens. Representatives of the armed forces joined the First Minister for a two-minute silence outside St Andrew’s house, and a flypast of Royal Air Force Typhoons took place over Edinburgh castle.
Following the success of VE day, Legion Scotland took a similar approach to victory over Japan day, with a virtual service of remembrance and a tribute concert that featured the stories of some of the incredible men and women who lived through the war in the far east.
The Scottish Government worked with Poppyscotland to create educational resources to mark both events, which were made freely available to schools. Following the announcement of school closures, Poppyscotland digitised those resources and made them available for pupils to support home-learning activities.
As many of us are aware, Legion Scotland also provided victory medallions and letters of thanks to second world war veterans prior to VJ day as an appreciation of their contribution to the allied war effort. I know from speaking to a number of those veterans and from their letters to me how much that was appreciated.
Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland have looked to replicate that success with a programme of virtual activities around remembrance 2020. The national service of remembrance, which took place on Sunday at the Scottish national war memorial in Edinburgh castle, was broadcast by the charities via their Facebook and YouTube channels. They will also broadcast a virtual service of remembrance for armistice day tomorrow, from around 10.45 am. I encourage everyone who can to join that service and the two-minute silence at 11.00 am. For members of the Scottish Parliament, a remembrance opportunity will also be facilitated in the Parliament.
The work that has been undertaken for those events and the numerous local services that are being held across Scotland honour the fallen and afford an opportunity to support veterans and recognise current service personnel. They are also vital in ensuring that our young people continue to learn about and engage with the impact of conflict and the cost of war, and they ensure that our young people are proud to honour those who sacrificed their future for our tomorrow.
I reiterate our continued support for the Scottish poppy appeal and the important work that it funds all year round in the armed forces community across Scotland to help those who have served, those who are still serving and their families by providing the care and support that they urgently need. The poppy appeal relies on the dedication and hard work of a huge number of volunteers across the country without whom it would be impossible to raise the vital funds that are used to deliver support to former service personnel and their families. All moneys that are raised in Scotland go back to the armed forces community here. As veterans minister, I give my personal thanks to all who are involved in that.
In particular, I note Poppyscotland’s innovative merchandising. Last year, badges that featured the crests of football clubs alongside the poppy were introduced. That range has been refreshed this year, and a range featuring the badges of Scotland’s historic regiments has been introduced. I am pleased to have been able to rotate between my brand-new Aberdeen FC lapel badge and one featuring the crest of the Gordon Highlanders, which is the regiment in which my grandfather served.
Scotland has a large and vibrant armed forces community, and the role of the charity sector is essential in delivering valuable support to veterans throughout Scotland. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the chamber when I extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has worked on behalf of those charities in whatever way they have. I congratulate them on the funding innovation that they have shown to raise critical sums of money, which are put to such good use.
The Scottish Government remains committed to supporting our armed forces and our veterans community and ensuring that they do not experience any disadvantage as a result of their service. Since I became Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, I have been fortunate and, indeed, humbled to hear the stories and experiences of veterans whose service has varied from service during the second world war to service in Korea to service in more modern operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have been inspired to ensure that we in Scotland do what we can to remove barriers to current and former service personnel enjoying access to the services and support that they and their families need.
We recognise that our veterans and their families are assets to their communities, employers and this country, although there is a small but important number of veterans who struggle to make the transition to civilian life and need additional support. We are keen to maximise the potential of and opportunities for all of them, for example in finding good-quality sustainable employment. I intend to expand on that in my annual report to Parliament next week.
Tomorrow will be the 101st anniversary of the first armistice day, which was on 11 November 1919. Armistice day and the remembrance period more broadly serve a vital purpose in allowing everyone in Scotland a moment to pause, reflect and be thankful to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and to the families and loved ones they left behind.
I have focused so far on the anniversaries of the first and second world wars, but it is also important that we remember those who have served in other theatres throughout the years since then in Korea, Suez, Kenya, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other corners of the globe.
We should recognise and be thankful for the vital humanitarian work that is carried out by the armed forces at home and worldwide, exemplified by the support that they have provided during the pandemic both nationally and locally, such as their aid in building NHS Louisa Jordan hospital in Glasgow and the deployment of thousands of personnel at short notice to support testing for the virus.
Remembrance and commemorations throughout the year serve a vital purpose to the people of Scotland by allowing time for reflection on the sacrifices that have been made to protect our freedoms. I am grateful for the work that has been done by our partners in the third sector to ensure that those events have been a success in the face of the enormous challenges that have been posed by the coronavirus pandemic. We will continue to work with them to ensure that that success is built on in the future.
I look forward to the contributions of members and to responding to them in due course.
That the Parliament recognises the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on planned commemorative events throughout the year, including Remembrance Sunday and significant milestones, such as the 75th anniversaries of Victory in Europe and Victory over Japan; acknowledges the fantastic efforts of veterans' charities, such as Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland, local authorities and local communities in adapting to ensure that commemorative events have been able to proceed safely in some form throughout the pandemic, and pays tribute to the sacrifices of those individuals from across Scotland and the UK, the Commonwealth and our Allied Nations, which ensured the peace and freedoms we enjoy today, as well as the contribution that the Armed Forces community continues to make to communities throughout Scotland, ahead of Armistice Day on 11 November 2020.15:41
I declare that I am an armed forces veteran and convener of the cross-party group on the armed forces and veterans community.
It is a real privilege to take part in, and to lead for, the Scottish Conservatives in the debate. We will support the motion at decision time.
I record our appreciation for the considerable work that the minister has done in the past year for our veterans. He and I talk often about the work that is being done; I am glad that the Scottish Government has got behind it, and I hope that it will continue to do so in the coming year. I look forward to hearing the minister’s statement next week about the annual review.
2020 has been a year like no other. Plans have been overturned, many businesses teeter on the brink of survival and, most serious of all, many families have lost loved ones and continue to suffer as a result of Covid-19. Hardships such as those have encouraged a sense of togetherness across our nation, and that has perhaps led us to reflect on and remember more keenly the contributions and sacrifices of others. This year’s national remembrance of our fallen armed forces servicemen and servicewomen from past to present has been especially timely.
However, remembrance commemorations as we know and recognise them have not been possible, as the backdrop of Covid-19 continues to loom large. We have already witnessed that with the adapted 75th anniversaries of VE day and VJ day. Unfortunately, remembrance commemorations this year are no exception.
Traditionally, we commemorate with parades, services of remembrance and gatherings of serving personnel, veterans, cadets, friends and families. However, this year is so very different: we have been unable to gather in public groups at our war memorials and cenotaphs. Services of remembrance have either been cancelled or have undergone considerable changes. Of course, for safety to be our priority, the restrictions, although they are difficult, are necessary.
Event organisers across Scotland—I am grateful for what they have done this year—have had to adapt, rethink and reorganise remembrance campaigns and commemorations under pressure, and have done so admirably. I commend them for their hard work and for adhering to the guidelines that are in place with absolute care and thought.
I am pleased to see that the restrictions have not stopped an outpouring of remembrance and observance. Far from it: across Scotland and the wider United Kingdom, people have joined together in spirit. It has been so poignant to hear of the many people who on remembrance Sunday observed the two minutes’ silence from their doorsteps. Thousands have taken part in the poppy campaign and have tuned into virtual ceremonies from home. I was pleased to read of Poppyscotland’s online virtual field of remembrance, where people can leave a tribute message along with a remembrance symbol, such as a cross or a poppy. Such opportunities have ensured that participation has been possible for everyone, not just a few. The enduring sentiment of remembrance and appreciation for our forces was as tangible as ever.
Many people, including me, were able individually to lay wreaths on Sunday. I laid wreaths in Hermitage park in Helensburgh, Christie park in Alexandria and in several villages in my area. The visit to the garden and fields of remembrance in Princes Street that was organised by Poppyscotland was very moving.
Many individual poppy crosses were laid out in the towns and villages that I visited—it was very moving, indeed—and considerably more were there than when I visited last year. Remembrance this year has very much been about acts of remembrance by individuals.
We remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country: the fallen soldiers of the first and second world wars, and those who were lost to the Korean war, at Suez, in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We also remember the casualties of conflicts that we have witnessed in more recent years. Those lost lives speak collectively not just of the seriousness of war and conflict, but of the pressing need never to forget the cost of that commitment and selflessness.
It is equally important to keep in our minds the armed forces personnel who represent our nation today. I particularly want to spotlight the response of the armed forces in Scotland in meeting the logistical challenges of the pandemic. Their contribution has proved to be invaluable; I am sure that I will not be alone in sharing my immense gratitude for their continued commitment to our country.
Servicemen and servicewomen have been actively engaged in meeting the challenges of the pandemic head-on since the very beginning. The military have transported vital medical equipment and resources to and from our hospitals, and they have contributed their time and energy by helping at testing centres across Scotland. At the height of lockdown, the Royal Air Force assisted with airlifting critically ill Covid patients from the most remote islands to hospitals, in order to ensure that they received medical attention as soon as possible. The dedication of those men and women to their local communities and the wider nation knows no bounds. I am sure that, as a result, this year we have seen nationwide remembrance and recognition of a special kind.
Our remembrance of our armed forces community today encompasses the families of our soldiers and veterans, as well. They are far from just waiting on the sidelines; I know from experience just how important and constant the family is in supporting loved ones. When the worst happens and those loved ones do not come home, it is the family that carries a lasting burden that we should never fail to recognise and never forget. Remember—when a serviceman or servicewoman is wounded, the spouse or partner and the family are also injured.
Always standing ready to support and assist the veterans community are a host of vital organisations. There include Legion Scotland, the Defence Medical Welfare Service, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, Poppyscotland, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines Charity, to name but a few. I am keenly aware of the amazing range and depth of support that all such veterans organisations offer to veterans who are in need. The challenges of the pandemic have brought to light their flexibility and incredible drive to revise, adapt and expand their services in the face of heightening demand. They meet not just the physical wounds that are plain to the eye, but the lasting mental wounds that some service users experience. Their contribution—especially as our thoughts turn to our armed forces community at this time of year—certainly does not go unnoticed.
That brings me back to the central focus of our debate: the willingness of serving personnel not just to give up their own comforts and freedoms, but to risk their very lives to offer their service to protect the liberties of you and me.
I appreciate the remarks that Maurice Corry has made so far. Is he aware of the campaign by Poppyscotland to stop the service charge that has to be paid by members of the armed forces from elsewhere in the Commonwealth and their families to stay in this country? Some are now facing bills for thousands of pounds. Would he support the campaign that Poppyscotland is leading to make sure that those charges are stopped?
I thank Keith Brown for his intervention. Yes—I know of that campaign and have already supported it. It is a worthwhile cause; we need to pay credence to those who have served from everywhere. The member will probably also remember Joanna Lumley’s campaign for the Gurkhas, who are brave people. I have absolutely no problem agreeing with the member about supporting that campaign.
To conclude, I say that commemorations might have looked different this year, but we continue to remember the sacrifices of our armed forces servicemen and servicewomen with poignancy and sincere gratitude. Far from minimising their dedication to their country, which is evident across history up to the present day, I join the veterans minister and my colleagues in sharing our strongly felt thanks to those who have given so much, as their legacy will forever show—lest we forget.15:49
It is an honour to open for the Labour Party in this important debate. I acknowledge that colleagues in the chamber have their own personal interactions with the armed forces family. We just heard from Keith Brown, who served with 45 Commando in the Falkland Islands. Edward Mountain served with the Blues and Royals regiment of the British Army, and Mike Rumbles served with the Royal Army Education Corps, and retired as a major. We have also just heard from Maurice Corry; I thank him for the work that he is doing in the cross-party group.
Like many—probably most—members, my interest in the debate is personal. My father did his national service with the RAF at Kinloss as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, nearly 75 years ago. During my time serving in another Parliament, I had the opportunity to serve with the RAF for two terms as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I am proudly wearing my tie this afternoon. I am sure that members will be able to pick that out from the televisions in the chamber.
I had direct experience of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, as well as a memorable week in Basra as one of the first elected members to visit Iraq. I flew in a Tornado fast jet, a Nimrod maritime aircraft and a Sea King search-and-rescue helicopter. On my final day with the RAF, the Sea King that I was with had to attend an emergency in Glencoe. I vividly remember flying a few hundred feet above Loch Ness on the way to Glencoe and observing at first hand the bravery, expertise and professionalism of the pilots and the winch crew as they saved the life of a young Swiss mountaineer who had fallen and suffered severe facial injuries. My experience was a brief snapshot, but it gave me tremendous admiration for the armed forces and for veterans.
As we heard from Maurice Corry, this has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone in Scotland as the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted all our normal ways of life, including on remembrance Sunday—that most important of days in veterans’ calendars, when we reflect upon, and are thankful for, the sacrifices that have been made by our armed forces past and present, who gave up their safety and security for the preservation of others.
At the weekend, my colleague Rhoda Grant and I had the honour of laying our wreath at the war memorial in Inverness. As ever, it was a poignant moment for remembering the highlanders and islanders who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the towns, villages and the small rural communities that they were from.
Sunday was a very difficult day for the more than 500,000 veterans and their families across Scotland. For many, it is the most important day of the year, as they remember friends and comrades who fell or were injured and, standing side by side once again, spend time with those whom they fought alongside.
Many veterans will have been shielding this weekend because of the risk of Covid-19. As ever, they were performing their national duty for the greater good of us all. I am sorry that the services and parades could not take place this year, but it was the right thing to do, and it takes nothing away from the emotional toll on many people over the weekend.
The circumstances were compounded by the effect that the pandemic has had on veterans charities. Our high streets echoed with silence, without many volunteers collecting money for the poppy appeal, as they shielded or self-isolated. I am conscious that that result of Covid-19 will have a significant knock-on effect on the appeal’s collection and future finances.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s funding for unforgotten forces, which is a consortium of armed forces and civilian charities that work for the health and wellbeing of older veterans in Scotland. However, we need to be clear that it is the responsibility of, first, the Scottish Government to support veterans. That will be more important than ever this year, as charities struggle with their revenue streams, through no fault of their own.
When a person gives up their safety and security for the sake of their country, they deserve to be fully supported as they return to civilian life within that country. That is the aim of the Armed Forces Covenant. The Scottish Government has made welcome progress in that area, and we will continue to hold it to account as it implements the “The Strategy for our Veterans—Valued. Contributing. Supported.” report in full, but more needs to be done.
Those who have underlying health conditions are at greater risk from Covid-19. Will the Scottish Government consider whether it is doing enough to care effectively for the many veterans who have concerns and anxieties as a result of the pandemic, especially those who are having to self-isolate? Specifically, I ask the Scottish Government to provide greater support for people who are currently serving and former services personnel who experience mental health difficulties, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Those problems have surely only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
We recognise how difficult a year it has been for social care staff and residents in Earl Haig homes and beyond throughout Scotland, so we call on the Scottish Government to ensure that it is doing all that it can to support social care staff in those vital roles, especially in how they support the older veterans in care homes who struggle with self-isolation and loneliness.
The last issue is to ensure that the Scottish Government is on top of homelessness. Shelter Scotland has reported that veterans in Scotland are 10 per cent more likely to become homeless than are those in England. In 2018-19, ex-services personnel homelessness applications rose by 22 per cent. That is a worrying trend. The Scottish Government must do all that it can to reverse it and it must reconsider the local authority budget cuts that have almost certainly contributed to those numbers.
We have been humbled again over remembrance weekend. Our veterans have given so much for our country—the fruits of peace that we continue to enjoy today. In response, they deserve all the support that they need from the country that they served. It seems apt to finish with the lines of John Maxwell Edmonds, which are repeated every remembrance Sunday throughout Scotland:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Remembrance Sunday was like none before. People heeded the request of the Scottish Government not to congregate around the very many war memorials in so many communities right across our country. I was fortunate on Sunday to take part in Christian worship, as I do every Sunday. Of course, being limited to a maximum of 50 socially distanced people, it was not the same, but it was, nevertheless, a moving occasion.
Remembrance Sunday always brings home to me the point that others made great sacrifices so that we at home may live in peace and freedom. However, it was not until an event in 1993 that I really appreciated that it was much more than that. Here is a personal anecdote about remembrance.
My father-in-law was a glider pilot in world war two. He took part in the Rhine crossings during operation varsity. I knew him as a very quiet and unassuming man. In 1993, I was stationed in Germany as a member of the British Army of the Rhine. When he visited us, I took him to the place near Hamminkeln where he landed his glider under enemy fire back in 1945, because I wanted to capture his experiences with my video camera.
While getting him to talk, at last, about his experiences on that day, I noticed an elderly German lady walking towards us and so I switched off the camera to avoid upsetting any local sensibilities. I wish that I had not done that, because she came up to my father-in-law and threw her arms around him exclaiming “liberator, liberator” and “Frieden und Freiheit” and I can tell you that it was a very emotional moment for us all.
It was not until that point in 1993 that it really came home to me that so many people gave the ultimate sacrifice, and others were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, so that not just we at home, but those who were our enemies at the time could live in peace and freedom. Frieden und Freiheit.
The poppy appeal is the symbol of that remembrance, so I will end by slightly altering the last verse of a poem that was specially written for remembrance day:
“And so, when you see a poppy worn,
Let us reflect on the burden borne
By those who gave their precious all
When asked to answer their countries’ call
That we ALL in peace may live.
Then wear a poppy, remember, and give.”
We move to the open debate.15:59
I am really pleased that the Parliamentary Bureau timetabled the debate and has provided more speaking opportunities for only a little less time, because remembrance commemorations have been so different this year.
Normally, we would have had an evening event in the Parliament to celebrate the work of Poppyscotland, and MSPs would have attended one or more cenotaph ceremonies in their constituencies. Over the years, I have attended many such services at the war memorial at Schoolhill in Aberdeen, to pay my respects and to lay a wreath, as indeed I did this year.
For so many of us, these are times for personal reflection. My paternal grandfather fought in the first world war and, while wounded himself, carried a more severely injured colleague to safety. Forever afterwards, he walked with a limp, but he continued to work on the farm. I am sure that he was often in much pain, but he would never talk about that pain or about the war itself to me or his other grandchildren.
My mother’s older brother, Jim, was a rear gunner who was shot down and killed in action in north Africa and is buried there. For that, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which my granny and grandpa collected at Buckingham palace.
I also remember our local greengrocer in Keith, who was a prisoner in the Japanese war camps and experienced unspeakable torture from which he suffered all his life. It really is a sorrow that we were not able to celebrate victory in Japan day properly this year.
I have to admit that visiting battle sites has not been top of my to-do list, but my husband has always been keen to find out where his great-uncle’s grave lies on the battlefields of northern France. Our daughter’s move to Paris provided an opportunity for us to do that and eventually, after visiting a few sites, we found the grave of a Robert Donald from Banchory Devenick, which is a small parish just outside Aberdeen. We thought that that was the grave of my husband’s great-uncle. However, my sister-in-law, who has his medals, insisted that it was not. Having consulted the wonderful staff at the Gordon Highlanders museum in Aberdeen, we believe that she is probably right.
I have visited the museum fairly frequently, including with the minister. My husband and I intend to take up the kind offer of the wonderful museum staff to find out more about the other young Robert Donald of the same name, from the same parish, whose grave we did not find; we also hope to revisit the area around Arras and find the grave.
From the Arras museum, I purchased the poppy brooch that I am wearing, which is a special reminder. I hope that, at some point, we can also go to north Africa, not least to see more of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The way that the graves of all the fallen are tended throughout many countries is truly spectacular. The combination of plants is magical, and the way that the planting is so uniform when viewed from every angle is amazing.
In the United Kingdom, the War Memorials Trust does the same sort of work. It recently sent us a brochure to set out the tireless work that it does to protect and enhance the war memorials in the UK from the ravages of time and sometimes, regrettably, from vandalism, which is why the trust’s other objective of highlighting public engagement is so important.
The debate is about remembrance. Time does not permit me to talk about our veterans and the need to look after those who survive war, who have often witnessed horrendous situations and are living with severe consequences. However, as other members have noted, we will have an opportunity to discuss a strategy for veterans in the chamber next week, and I look forward to contributing to that debate.16:04
On Sunday in Whitehall, the cenotaph, 100 years on from its unveiling by King George V in 1920, was once again the focus of the nation’s annual remembrance. The monument’s simplicity and grace, as well as the poignancy of the tomb of the unknown warrior, which was attended by Her Majesty the Queen just a few days ago, are, together, the most powerful symbols of our remembrance.
There may have been fewer wreaths this year, fewer veterans on parade and fewer opportunities for members of the public to pay their respects, but nothing can ever dim the memory of all those who gave their lives so that we can enjoy our freedom, or the nation’s determination to remember them. As the years pass, so too do anniversaries of our war history, but the significance of our acts of remembrance only grows.
Those acts of remembrance, small or large, private or public, are part of the very being of this nation, and rightly so. They demand our gratitude for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but should also make us think about our past and about what we have to do to build a better future, because that is the real legacy that those who did not come home would want.
For all the stench and hell of war, so vividly encapsulated in many of the poems written by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in 1917, as they convalesced in Craiglockhart hospital in this great city, there is an obligation upon us all to reflect and, perhaps especially as politicians, to learn the lessons of the past, so that those who did make the ultimate sacrifice did not do so in vain. Their loyalty, their dedication and their unfailing sense of duty should not be treasured because of any glorification of war, but because those attributes are those on which we can build a better future.
The poppy, our annual personal symbol of remembrance worn on the left side, across our hearts, and representing all those battlefields in Flanders where once the guns and shells exploded, is a reminder of the peace that we seek in our world. Poppies matter so much because they are the life-blood of the Royal British Legion and therefore the life-blood of all the care that the legion provides for our veterans and their families, who need our assistance every day of the year, whether that means helping them to address the physical or the psychological scars of battle.
In normal times, 30 per cent of the income of the Royal British Legion comes from poppy sales, but this year that income has, of necessity, been badly affected. It has therefore been really good to see the extraordinary efforts to which so many communities have gone in thinking of additional ways to support the poppy appeal, with many showing exactly the same dogged spirit that we have seen throughout those communities to support those who have become so vulnerable to Covid-19. It is particularly good to see how many young people have been involved and the lengths to which so many schools have gone, despite all the challenges that they face, to help children understand and remember.
On a personal level, raising money for Poppyscotland is part of my own small contribution, but it also helps me to remember my father, a corporal who served in the RAF in the dark days of the Mediterranean battle in Malta. Unlike so many men in his air squadron and in the ground crews in Luqa, he came home from the war, but not without many difficult memories that stayed with him for all the time that he lived.
When the Parliament commemorated the centenary of the Royal Air Force not long ago, I recalled that one of the most visited exhibits in the war museum in Valletta is a Gloster Gladiator biplane known as Faith, the sole survivor of the trio of biplanes, Faith, Hope and Charity, whose pilots, single-handedly and against all the odds, defended the tiny island of Malta before the full onslaught of the Luftwaffe. For my father, those aeroplanes symbolised not only the ordeal of the RAF servicemen and the people of Malta, who stood courageously against the axis nations, especially when all looked lost, but also the human qualities that we need most as we each face the challenges of life. It is those human qualities that we commemorate now, and we thank the Royal British Legion for being the mainstay of our remembrance.16:09
I pay tribute to the servicemen and servicewomen from across Scotland, the UK, the Commonwealth and allied nations whose sacrifices were instrumental in guaranteeing the peace and freedom that we enjoy today. I thank the Scottish Government for securing the debate. I was particularly pleased at the earlier mention of my Largs constituent Jack Ransom.
The armistice between the allies and Germany was signed on 11 November 1918, and ended hostilities in the great war, as it was then known—the war to end all wars. Its anniversary has focused our appreciation of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
We remember those who served in all conflicts. For my family, the great war had the biggest impact. My maternal grandfather was only 18 when he was mustard gassed a month before the end of the war. He never fully recovered, and died at 41 of emphysema, leaving a widow and two daughters aged 18 months and three months.
My paternal grandfather lied about his age to join up at 15, and served at Gallipoli and in Flanders. Sent home at 17, he missed Passchendaele before being recalled on his 18th birthday. He survived physically unscathed; however, two grand uncles died at the Somme. Another, who was captured at 19, was sent to the Silesian salt mines. Hit by a guard’s shovel, he died as a result of those injuries in 1921, aged only 23. His name appears on no war memorial.
With Scotland suffering almost 19 per cent of the UK’s great war casualties, no doubt each of our families has been shaped by that and subsequent conflicts. When the treaty of Versailles officially ended the war in June 1919, it understandably led to an outbreak of joy and the spontaneous organisation of victory parades across Scotland and Great Britain. However, having witnessed so much destruction and misery, many ex-servicemen and women refused to participate, believing the act of remembrance should be commemorative rather than triumphant. The events that took place on 11 November 1919 reflected that sentiment, and many traditions that were formed on that first remembrance day, such as the 11 am two minutes’ silence, still take place.
Sadly, our traditional remembrance Sunday, including wreath laying at the Scottish national war memorial at Edinburgh castle and across Scotland, had to be scaled back this year due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic. However, many local commemorations, such as the remembrance Sunday service at Kilbirnie auld kirk, which I have participated in every year since 2006, took place in line with current guidance in places of worship. I subsequently laid my wreath at Kilbirnie war memorial, as I do every year. I therefore extend my gratitude to innovative organisers across Scotland who made huge efforts to ensure that commemorations took place, either virtually or physically.
One important tradition that is unaffected by the pandemic is wearing a poppy. Poppies were first worn in the early 1920s after Earl Haig noticed French widows selling silk poppies to raise money for disabled ex-servicemen. Haig recognised the symbolic significance of poppies as a means to support the welfare of ex-servicemen and women, and more than 9 million poppies were sold prior to remembrance day 1921. The funds raised were used to help veterans to return to civilian life, as many were frequently confronted with unemployment, financial ruin and homelessness, while struggling with injuries and the psychological trauma resulting from the horrors that they witnessed on the front line. Since 1921, the Scottish poppy appeal has raised tens of millions of pounds to help veterans and their families.
Sadly, veterans today still face many challenges when returning to civilian life. The most common include unemployment, education and skills issues, debt, health issues and challenges in making a home. The sacrifices that are made by veterans often create unique difficulties that require support that is different from that offered to the civilian population.
I commend the incredible work that is done by Poppyscotland in partnership with Legion Scotland. Together, they raised £2.95 million through the poppy appeal last year, backed by the Scottish Government. Those funds are absolutely vital in delivering life-changing services that make a real difference to Scotland’s armed forces community. That includes working with specialist partners such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Veterans First Point or Combat Stress, each of which provides a wide range of practical support and mental health services to ensure that veterans and their families enjoy the highest possible quality of life. The Scottish Men’s Sheds Association also plays a positive role.
It is our duty to both remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and appreciate our living veterans by continuing to support them in any struggles that they might face after their service to the country.16:13
Thank you, Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to speak today. I thank Graeme Dey for bringing this important debate to the chamber.
Freedom is a gift, as many generations have acknowledged during the year 2020. Watching the remembrance service on television made me reflect that the global pandemic has removed the opportunity for our veterans, young and old, to visibly honour and recognise the fallen and those injured in service of their country. The restrictions on gathering together to remember our veterans made Sunday a difficult day for many. However, we must continue to prioritise suppressing the virus to save lives, and I applaud the people who stood at their doorsteps on Sunday.
How we support our veterans is a measure of our remembrance. I pay tribute to charities such as Legion Scotland, Poppyscotland and Erskine, which I have the privilege of representing in my region. I applaud them for the way in which they have adapted during the pandemic and continue to deliver the highest possible standard of support to our veterans.
Scottish Labour welcomes the funding from the Scottish Government to unforgotten forces, a consortium of armed forces and civilian charities working to boost the health and wellbeing of older veterans in Scotland. However, it should be noted that not all veterans charities receive such a level of funding, and that funding will become a major issue as the pandemic continues and charities deal with increased pressure on resources and decreasing revenue streams.
In 2018, the poppy appeal across the UK raised a record £55 million, distributing 40 million poppies and 7 million pin badges. However, organisers state that they are bracing themselves for a greatly reduced collection this year because of the impact of the pandemic. The number of volunteers who are normally out in public, rattling collection boxes and selling poppies, has fallen sharply, because many are shielding or self-isolating.
I highlight some of the key workers who have tried to keep some sort of normality for our veterans throughout the pandemic. One of them is Allana Kerr, who lives in my region and who works for the Coming Home Centre, a Glasgow-based charity that supports 400 registered veterans. Since March of this year, with the assistance of David Gibson from Fares4Free, it has distributed weekly food packages to 120 families in the west coast of Scotland. Coming Home works with veterans at the point when they need assistance with issues of mental and physical health, homelessness and housing, and when they need benefits advice, employment, training and, most importantly, friendship and camaraderie. Its support is crucial to the veterans that it helps.
Housing is a key issue for veterans, especially for those who have been dependent on military-provided accommodation. Shelter Scotland tells us that veterans are more prone to homelessness than non-veterans, and we must ensure that all veterans, and in particular our older veterans, can rely on safe, good-quality and affordable housing.
Many of our veterans bring long-term conditions back home with them. It is crucial that we provide economic and social support for vulnerable veterans who are suffering from PTSD and other debilitating conditions, and that we give our veterans the support that they need to take part in further education and training. We must continue to ensure that veterans’ specific needs are supported for the duration of the pandemic and beyond, taking account of the barriers that they face, particularly in relation to their mental and physical health and in accessing and retaining housing. Long-term support is crucial for our serving and ex-service personnel who are experiencing mental health problems such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and alcohol misuse, and for those who experience concern, stress or isolation.
I put on record my support to all our service personnel, who continue to give so much for us all.
I have two things to mention quickly, before we move on to Sandra White. First, I remind all members that speeches should be limited to four minutes, as we are already running short of time. Secondly, I ask all those who wish to speak to make sure that their cards are in the slot and that they have pressed the button.16:19
I will keep my eye on the clock, Presiding Officer.
Others have already mentioned that this remembrance day has been very different from any other. As we know, many events have been held online. Some people stood on their front doorsteps, and individuals paid their respects in their own simple ways. I thank them all for contributing and for doing that.
I want to start by quoting Keith Brown, the previous veterans minister—I hope that he will forgive me—who said something that encapsulates this debate. He said:
“We have a responsibility to learn from the lessons of the past, and Remembrance Sunday should be a solemn, dignified occasion when we commit ourselves to ensuring that our own and future generations are spared the horrors of war. A century on from the devastation of the First World War, which left barely a community or single family untouched by tragedy and loss, it remains as important as ever that we come together across Scotland to commemorate those lost in all conflicts, past and present.”
We need to remember all conflicts.
The reason why I raised that and wanted to speak in the debate is that, in my constituency, the University of Glasgow undertook a first world war project to commemorate every member of the university community who died in the war, regardless of the side on which they fought. The project was launched on 25 September 2014, which was the anniversary of the first war death of the university’s community—that of Harry Sherwood Ranken, Glasgow-born recipient of the Victoria Cross, which was awarded posthumously, after he died from his wounds. The university’s great war project to remember every member who had lost their life officially ended on 3 March 2020, with the final commemoration service.
The University of Glasgow sacrificed a significant proportion of its members to the great war. More than 4,500 members served in the first world war, and 781 lost their lives. In acknowledgment and tribute, a memorial garden for the great war was planted. The garden was designed by William Bell, a gardener in the estates and buildings department, in time for remembrance Sunday—I am sure that some members are familiar with it. The colours that he selected were red to represent conflict, white to represent peace, and pink to represent hope.
The university chaplain, the Rev Dr Carolyn Kelly, said:
“the fortitude and courage of those we commemorate who faced life—and death—in the world wars and in conflicts since is an inspiring example to our communities grappling with the painful realities of this pandemic. During recent months, subsequent generations have perhaps gained greater insight into the hardships faced by those who lived through the hostilities and beyond. Perhaps we better appreciate what it meant to lose customary freedoms, to defer celebrations, to grieve loved ones’ distance or untimely death. Thus, we will remember them.”
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate.
As other members have said, it was a very different remembrance Sunday this year, and that was right. Covid-19 has had an impact on every aspect of our lives since March, and Sunday was no exception. It would not have been right or, indeed, respectful to have had the usual full gatherings and services at memorials up and down the country.
However, it is as important as ever that we remember those who sacrificed their today for our tomorrow. Indeed, in some respects, remembering them was even more poignant this year. The pandemic is the most challenging global event that we have experienced since the wars and, just as happened during the wars, we have witnessed people stepping up to the front line to protect us, including health workers, emergency services workers, supermarket workers and many other key workers, as well as members of the armed services, of course, who continue to play a key role in our fight against Covid, for example at testing sites.
This year has given us an opportunity to find other ways to remember. I thank the Rev Dave Slater of Gartcosh and Glenboig parish churches for his invitation to participate in a virtual service, which involved me attending at both war memorials to lay a wreath on the Saturday and recording that on video, with the recording forming part of the service that was aired the next day. I thought that that was a very good way to mark the day.
There were some fitting tributes at both memorials from local schools, the Boys Brigade and others, through which the community still showed its appreciation and remembrance. I know that there were many other examples of that throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK, but I thank North Lanarkshire Council for ensuring that there was someone to lay a wreath at the major memorials across the council area. Examples of that could be seen on Twitter and Facebook later in the day; sometimes just one person—a councillor or an official—laid a wreath. Tomorrow—armistice day—I will lay a wreath at the cenotaph in Coatbridge on behalf of all my constituents.
Since being elected, I have had to condemn vandalising of that memorial on numerous occasions. I take the opportunity to reiterate the plea not to vandalise it. I ask people not to do it any year, but especially not this year, when we have all had enough. I will not labour the point, because the most recent incident of vandalism took place more than a year ago.
On a much more positive note, in thinking about innovative ways to remember, I want to take the opportunity, as I did in Tom Arthur’s members’ business debate last year, to pay tribute to three local men—Les Jenkins, Steven Buick and John McCann—for their incredible work to commemorate those who are remembered on the Coatbridge cenotaph. Mr Jenkins, who was a history teacher at Coatbridge high school, worked on the programme of the war memorial for more than 35 years. He might not like this, but that will have included the time when I was at the school and was one of his pupils. He completed that work in the centenary year and has compiled the stories of all 863 first world war fallen who are remembered on the Coatbridge cenotaph. Those stories are now in a series of folders that are available at Airdrie library.
John McCann and Steven Buick have worked together to create a website, which is a culmination of more than a decade of research by John, who travelled across Europe to piece together scraps of information that was recorded about the brave fighting men from Coatbridge who lost their lives during the great war. At the time of the debate last year, the website had received more than 54,000 views and had the support of the families of the fallen.
Those projects were started well before Covid-19 and were completed, relatively speaking, just before it, but they are examples of incredible work that will have brought comfort to so many this year, when we have had to remember in a very different way.16:27
I am pleased to take part in today’s debate, and I thank the minister, Graeme Dey, for raising this important issue in the chamber.
It is often easy to take the freedoms that we have for granted. This year, however, we have been confronted with the stark reality of what has happened, which has curtailed many of our freedoms. We have all faced restrictions on what we can do, who we can meet and where we can go. Although those restrictions, while we seek to tackle the coronavirus, are temporary and for good reasons, they give us an idea of what it might have been like if we had lost those freedoms for ever.
Brave men and women fought to protect our freedoms in the world wars and in conflicts since. Their sacrifice and selflessness ensured our freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of religion—all of which we take for granted. Without their incredible efforts, our freedoms would have been very much curtailed.
Remembrance is a small, simple act, but one that is incredibly important, as we reflect on the veterans who have made a huge contribution to our society. As the motion and members across the chamber have acknowledged, the coronavirus has had a massive impact on our celebrations and commemorations this year. Sadly, social distancing has meant that communities the length and breadth of the country have not been able to do what they have done for many decades.
However, it is important that we stop and ensure that people remember. I thank Poppyscotland and Legion Scotland and acknowledge their efforts. Many churches, charities, councils, community groups and veterans organisations the length and breadth of Scotland worked hard to ensure that safe and socially distanced wreath laying could take place. I was glad that I was able to lay a wreath in Bridge of Allan and take part in the church service. Those acts of remembrance across the country are incredibly important.
Since I was first elected as a councillor back in 1999, I have had the opportunity to lay a wreath at the Polish war graves at Wellshill cemetery in my former council ward, and I was pleased to be able to do that this year. It reminds us of all the veterans from outside the Commonwealth who supported us and fought alongside our troops. It is vital that we remember the contribution that they made to ensure that we would have the liberties that we have today. We have already heard that anniversaries such as victory in Europe day and victory over Japan day that were supposed to be celebrated were not able to take place, but I hope that they will take place another time. I note that, across Mid Scotland and Fife, much has been supported and many people have managed to participate.
In conclusion, I want to again pay tribute to the enormous contribution that our veterans have made at home and abroad to upholding the freedoms that we hold so dear. It is heartening to know that, tomorrow, people from different backgrounds and across political divides will come together across the country to remember. It is so important that we have that act of remembrance.
Let us hope that, next year, we can unite in person as well and come together to support one another and support those individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that we could enjoy the liberties that we have today.16:31
As we have heard, as a result of the global pandemic, we have had a very different remembrance Sunday this year to those that we have marked in previous years, but notwithstanding Covid-19, communities across Scotland have ensured that their respect was marked. In my constituency of Cowdenbeath, we witnessed commemoration in every community in some form or another. I will list the communities because their marking of respect is hugely important to them. There was commemoration in Aberdour, Dalgety Bay, Inverkeithing, North Queensferry, Hillend, Rosyth, Cowdenbeath, Hill of Beath, Crossgates, Coaledge, Lumphinnans, Lochgelly, Kelty, Benarty and Cardenden.
In each of those communities, community councils, local volunteers, Fife Council workers and of course the veterans charities Poppyscotland and Legion Scotland ensured that the war memorials were prepared and community spaces were tidied and that there was an organised structure in place to meet the needs of commemoration while adhering strictly to the coronavirus regulations, which are designed to keep us all safe. I express my heartfelt thanks to all those community councils, local volunteers, Fife Council workers, veterans organisations and of course, as Maureen Watt rightly said, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the War Memorials Trust for all that they did this year and all that they do every year.
For my part, I laid Scottish Parliament wreaths on behalf of my constituents in my allotted time slot, not only at Cowdenbeath town hall but at the first world war memorial. I was struck, as I always am, when looking at the long list of the names of the fallen engraved on the memorial, by how young the men were who made the ultimate sacrifice and how many were from the same families.
In this year, the year of the 75th anniversary of VE day and VJ day, my thoughts turn to my late uncle David Woodburn, the elder twin brother of my mother, for he had served in the far east and was held as a prisoner of war in the notorious Japanese POW camp at Changi in Singapore. Happily, he returned home to raise a family and pursued a successful career with the Forestry Commission in the north of Scotland.
There is no community across Fife, or indeed across Scotland, that has not been impacted by the losses of war, and not even a global pandemic has stopped the people of Scotland from sharing their experiences and showing their respect, albeit in a different manner to that in previous years.
Tomorrow is 11 November, which is another opportunity to mark our respect by observing the two minutes’ silence at 11 am, for it was on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour that the armistice treaty of Compiègne was signed.
In marking the occasion, the writer and poet Thomas Hardy penned his poem, “And There Was a Great Calm”. I will quote from its last stanza:
“Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’”
It is a privilege to be here and to speak in a debate of this kind. That privilege is, of course, entirely due to the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of people who have gone before us to protect our freedom.
One of my hobbies is researching my family tree. I have been doing so for more than 50 years, so I am able to say that I have 38 relatives in my family tree who died in various conflicts. Every other member who has spoken will have similar numbers; they just have not done the research to find them all. Mine range from first cousins of my father, to great uncles and to someone as distant as a seventh cousin.
On the library shelf that is beside me I have a naval telescope from the first world war, which was one of my father’s cousin’s telescopes. He was with my father and the rest of the family on the Black Isle when the siren went to recall him back to Invergordon and his duty on the minesweeper that was based there. The minesweeper left port but never returned, because it collided with a mine and was blown up. That telescope is the tangible memory of that member of our family.
The Covid crisis has caused me, and many others, to do much more walking. Within the compass of the walks that I have been able to undertake from my home here in Banffshire I pass four war memorials. The closest is half a mile away, the next is about two miles away, and so on.
I also pass graveyards in which there are graves that are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. During the debate, we have so far not heard any reference to its work. Around the world there are memorials to those who fell in the wars. Those memorials are maintained to the highest and most impeccable standards, and with the most fulsome and appropriate records kept in books that people can inspect at most of them.
It was quite a long time ago, in 1978, that I went to the most poignant one that I have ever visited. It was about 20 miles north of what was then called Rangoon, in Burma. There was a Commonwealth grave there. It was a huge cemetery, and every blade of grass was cut to exactly the same height. It was impeccably kept, and the contrast with the state of the Burmese country at that point—where I could get only a 48-hour visa and only one hotel in the country was working—could not have been more stark. The efforts made in that very difficult environment to respect our war dead were extremely impressive indeed.
My ancestors and relatives fell at the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres, Flanders, Normandy and around the world.
We have talked about all the men who fell, but there are also women on war memorials, although rather fewer. I would like to remember in particular the women who served as agents in enemy-occupied Europe. Because they were solitary, they made an even greater sacrifice than many who fell on our battlefields. It is a time to remember and a time for gratitude.16:40
Labour supports the Government’s motion and we appreciate the importance of honouring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The way we did so was different this year and we applaud those people who stood at their doorsteps on Sunday, laid wreaths at war memorials or went to church to remember those who had fallen. Right across Scotland, people marked the fact that we should honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The restrictions on gathering together to remember our war dead made Sunday very difficult for many. However, we agree that we must continue to prioritise suppressing the virus and saving lives.
That said, this year’s remembrance was particularly poignant, coming as it did with the world’s eyes focused on the election in America. The American election had its largest turnout ever, which is a vote of confidence for democracy. It is always worth reminding ourselves that, if it had not been for those who gave their lives in the world wars and those who suffered so much, there would be no democracy. We owe a debt to the people who gave so much so that we can live in a democracy.
I also want to mention those who lost their lives in recent conflicts. Last year, I lodged a motion in Parliament that named every person from Scotland who had lost their life in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Today I think of their families—the mums and dads, the wives and the sons and daughters—for their grief is still very raw and their loss unimaginable.
We salute the work of charities in their support for veterans, but we have to accept that, if the state asks people to go to war, it must bear the responsibility of addressing the sacrifices made by soldiers and ensure that they are looked after when they come home. That is particularly the case this year, when many charities, such as Help for Heroes, are struggling with the strain on their resources that has been brought about by the pandemic. On remembrance Sunday, it is important to remember those who died, but it is equally important in debates such as this one to remember those who lived and who need our help and support now.
Many people who have fought for their country come back with long-term conditions. We need to provide top-class economic and social support for vulnerable veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating conditions. The Government has acknowledged areas for improvement under key themes, including employment, education and skills, finance and debt, health and wellbeing and making a home in civilian society.
We need to have better collection and use of data to identify and address veterans’ needs and to increase public recognition of the positive contribution that veterans make to wider society. Labour also wants to see more support for serving and ex-service personnel experiencing mental health problems, such as PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders, and alcohol misuse. There needs to be earlier identification as found in a new review that was commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust and conducted by the National Centre for Social Research. There also needs to be further support for older veterans through the delivery of services and enhancements in areas such as advice, access to healthcare, social isolation and respite, along with creative activities and events for those in care settings.
We also need more support for veterans who are experiencing concerns, stress or isolation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Housing is a key issue for veterans, especially for those who have been dependent on military-provided accommodation. As Mary Fee said, Shelter Scotland has said that veterans are more prone to homelessness than non-veterans and that veterans in Scotland are 10 per cent more likely to become homeless than those in England.
We have come here today to remember those who paid the ultimate price. Speeches are one thing, but action is required. I look forward to the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans making his report next week, and then we can perhaps pick up some more of those issues.16:45
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, in that I am officially a veteran. I have to say that that term makes me feel very old, which, according to my children, of course, I am. Knowing that, I prefer to call myself an ex-soldier. I was the third generation of my family to serve in the armed services, and my son is the fourth.
This past weekend felt very odd, as there was no formal parade to go to. Along with many ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen, I wondered whether standing on our doorsteps would be the same as standing shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues. Obviously, it was not, but it allowed each of us to think about what the day really meant. It is not, as some people wrongly suggest, about celebrating or glorifying war; it is about remembering those who have answered the call and have often given their all to protect the very freedoms that we take for granted daily. We must cherish the freedoms that we have and never forget that they have been gained by the sacrifices of many.
I think that I, like most other service personnel, can confidently say that I hope that we will be able to take part in community remembrance services next year. I say that for the simple reason that I do not want only to remember those who gave their all; I also want to rekindle the friendships that I have with those who have shared experiences.
I want to mention an event that happened on Sunday. While laying my wreath, I met a young lady who was wearing a relative’s medals. I chatted to her and discovered that they were her grandfather’s medals, which, incidentally, were awarded during the time that I served. I said how important it was that she was wearing them, because we all owe her grandfather so much. As I left, her father turned to her and asked her whether she was now happy that she had worn them, and I heard her say that she was. It is right that she was, because we need to recognise that, while we have laid sleeping in our beds at night, there are those who have watched over us to make sure that the peace that we cherish continues.
I want to take a moment to pay tribute to the residents in Grantown who created not only a remembrance cairn of painted stones but a special type of poppy—a poppy that was fashioned from the bottom of a plastic bottle, which, when shaped and painted, looks remarkably like a poppy. It was those poppies that were laid out in the town centre to show all those who had given their lives in wars.
In the short time that I have, it is very difficult to comment on the 15 contributions that have been made, but I will try to pick out some of the salient points that tie them all together. First, we heard from the minister about the contribution of Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland, which are so important in protecting and helping our veterans. We heard from Maurice Corry about how important it is to remember that the scars of war are not always visible; there are also real mental problems. He also talked about the importance of the families who are left behind. They have to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
David Stewart told us that all of us have a connection, somewhere in our history, to the armed services. Mike Rumbles told us that his father-in-law met a German who recognised him as a liberator. We heard from Maureen Watt that veterans often do not talk about the things that they have been through. Frankly, it is sometimes too hard. That is a common theme that I hear.
I was interested in Liz Smith’s contribution about Malta. There is an island that struggled. She told us about an aeroplane, and I note that Roald Dahl described that aeroplane by saying that, if a
“to build a big thing that will burn better and quicker than anything else in the world”,
it would be a Gloster Gladiator. Who would be brave enough to get into one of those flying machines, which burned so quickly that there was little chance of getting out?
We heard from Kenneth Gibson, who said that many young soldiers in the first world war had joined up having lied about their age. That was because they had a feeling of commitment. We also heard from Mary Fee, who said that the support that we give our veterans is an act of remembrance in itself.
Fulton MacGregor and Sandra White said that we must learn from the past, and Fulton MacGregor made an important point when he talked about the importance of involving local schools in events. Alexander Stewart stressed the importance of never taking anything for granted.
I want to pick up on something that both Annabelle Ewing and Stewart Stevenson mentioned, which is the importance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. What an important organisation that is. It strives not only to ensure that we bury all the soldiers who are now continually being exposed in France but to look after the graves of those who were found after the war and buried in graves that were similar, not depending on rank or status.
At 11 o’clock tomorrow, the nation will fall silent as we remember those who gave their all for the freedoms that we cherish. I encourage everyone to stop, reflect and give thanks, because what we remember is encapsulated in my mind in chapter 15, verse 13 of the gospel of St John:
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It is their sacrifice that we will remember tomorrow. Let us hope that, next year, we will all be able to stand together in national remembrance at the war memorials across Scotland.
I call Graeme Dey to conclude the debate.16:52
I thank members for their contributions. Some really valuable points were raised, and I will begin by drawing some of them together.
Maurice Corry, Edward Mountain and others reflected on how different remembrance has been, out of necessity, this year. However, Maurice Corry noted that he has still been able to lay a wreath locally and visit the national garden of remembrance here, in Edinburgh. I managed to do the same thing. I laid a wreath at the garden on behalf of the Scottish Government privately, rather than with the usual formal ceremony, and I did not feel that it was less valuable because of that.
Maureen Watt and Mary Fee welcomed the scheduling of the debate. In proposing it to the Parliamentary Bureau, I felt that it was the least that we could do in the light of the special circumstances that we find ourselves in this year. However, I think that the Parliament would agree that future business managers might want to make this a feature of the parliamentary timetable, because the contributions that we have heard today and their volume have shown how valued it has been.
We heard very thoughtful and moving speeches from Mike Rumbles, Sandra White and Liz Smith. Liz Smith noted the threatened drop in income to be suffered by Poppyscotland in the appeal this year. I encourage everyone, even at this late stage, to donate and support the vital work that it does.
Kenny Gibson and Annabelle Ewing, among others, highlighted the extent to which families right across Scotland have, in one way or another, been impacted by war, and they were right to do so. Fulton MacGregor highlighted—as I did in opening the debate—local authorities’ work in adapting the weekend commemorations. I again commend the councils for that work.
Mary Fee noted the work that has been done by the unforgotten forces consortium and charities before and during the pandemic. As the veterans minister, I was hugely impressed to learn of the projects that unforgotten forces has deployed the Scottish Government’s funding to support. I can tell the chamber that, as recently as last week, I met—virtually—Poppyscotland and Veterans Scotland to discuss the financial and other challenges that the pandemic is posing for the charitable sector and the way in which the sector is responding to them.
Alex Rowley noted a number of things that we will, undoubtedly, cover in next week’s veterans annual update.
On a much lighter note, Presiding Officer, I noted that you let Stewart Stevenson off with using a prop to illustrate his typically colourful contribution. It is truly amazing what members get away with these days when they are contributing virtually.
To be serious, I want to reflect further on the importance of the remembrance period in the present day. Tomorrow is the 101st anniversary of the first armistice day, which was 11 November 1919. Understandably, at that time, the focus was very much on the huge number of young men who never returned home from the first world war. In the century that has passed since then, the concept of remembrance has evolved and now encompasses a much broader range of individuals and events, which could not have been imagined at the time.
In my opening comments, I talked about some of the significant anniversaries that we have seen this year—in particular, the 75th anniversaries of VE Day and VJ Day and the 80th anniversary of St Valery. It is important, though, that we do not forget the huge range of other events that do not get the same level of attention or recognition because they could not compete with the magnitude of the tragedies unfolding on the battlefields.
I am speaking of events such as the Quintinshill rail disaster on 22 May 1915, which remains the UK’s worst rail crash. More than 240 people died in a triple train pile-up at a siding near Gretna, 216 of whom were Royal Scots on their way to Liverpool to set off for Gallipoli. Then there was the loss of HMY Iolaire, which took the lives of 200 men as it smashed on the rocks within sight of their home port of Stornoway on new year’s morning in 1919. How devastating the unspoken grief surrounding that would be—grief that has recently come more to the fore.
There are many stories of people who achieved remarkable things in the face of war. Not the least of those was Dr Elsie Inglis, who was more used to caring for new mothers in Edinburgh than for wounded soldiers. Despite the War Office telling her to
“go home and sit still”
when she offered her services, she recruited 1,500 women to go with her and set up front-line hospitals in France, Romania, Greece, Russia and Serbia, where she remains very much revered to this day.
The role of the merchant navy is often overlooked, despite the incredible bravery and resilience that it showed through, for example, the Arctic convoys transporting vital supplies.
The impact of war at home has been immense, and we should not forget the suffering of families at home, facing the future uncertain of what would become of their loved ones. For the war widows and other family members of those who did not come home, that suffering never ends.
Going back through history, we see that Scotland has always had a close link with its armed forces community, regardless of where those concerned originally hailed from. It is important to remember our links with the Commonwealth and the countless men and women from around the world who have fought and suffered alongside the people of the United Kingdom and Scotland.
Last year, I had the privilege of speaking at a commemoration of men of Force K6, which was the first element of the Indian army to be deployed in Europe during the second world war. Many of those men were at the evacuation of Dunkirk. It should go without saying that, had it not been for the 2.5 million men who volunteered for the Indian army during the second world war and the many millions of others from elsewhere around the Commonwealth, we, here in Scotland, would not enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted today. Their bravery and commitment contributed immensely to victory in 1945.
Remembrance is a time for reflection, and there should always be time within that to reflect on our personal links to the past, as we have heard today. I was particularly struck by David Stewart’s speech, which reminded us of how difficult this time of year must be for many veterans, when they are prompted to recall comrades who were lost in past conflicts. That cannot be easy.
Armistice day and the remembrance period more broadly serve a vital purpose in allowing everyone in Scotland a moment to pause, reflect and be thankful to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, be that in either of the two world wars, in Korea, in Afghanistan, in Iraq or anywhere else. It is important that we continue to remember those who served and lost their lives in all conflicts, not to glorify war but to recognise the sacrifice made, which in many cases protected the freedoms that we enjoy today.
I again note my thanks to members for their contributions. To have had 15 or so members take part in the debate speaks volumes about the importance that the Scottish Parliament places on the remembrance period. I hope that we will have similar opportunities to commemorate it in years to come.