A Guid New Year tae Yin an a’ – Mair Peace Please
After the death of the iconic Alasdair Gray In 2019, Mike Small was quick to flag up the Scotland’s for Peace Covenant in his tribute to one of its greatest fans. Alasdair’s beautiful illustration resonated very powerfully for a lot of organisations and individuals within and beyond the peace movement and I hope that the Covenant’s words resonate in a welcome way now.
During the first decade(s) of this millennium I worked for Scotland’s for Peace (S4P) concurrently with my role as Coordinator of the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Resource Centre (P&J), then based at St John’s Church in Princes Street in Edinburgh. I still have copies of the extensive list of committed organisations, as well as the files from S4P parliamentary work, including guest lists and reports from events and early evening meetings held with parliamentarians at the P&J, along with the jolly video made by Phil Chetwyn of Camcorder Guerillas, which featured the kenspeckle and the lesser-known faces around both the P&J and Scottish CND. These two offices acted as hubs for SfP activities, sublime and mundane. One example in Edinburgh was the ecumenical foot washing of the walkers participating in Scotland’s Long Walk for Peace at St John’s by various worthies from various church(es). In Glasgow, the SCND’s coordinator took care of the website and merchandise ordering. S4P organisational meetings took place alternately in Edinburgh (usually with good sandwiches and plenty of fruit and coffee) at 121 George Street, the Church of Scotland headquarters which could accommodate more people than the tiny P&J office, Glasgow could only compete because the wonderfully aromatic Super Asia was next door to the Barrland Street SCND office.
2007 was a significant year, and the P&J was in with the bricks when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was formed, particularly through its connections with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and its Reaching Critical Will Programme at the United Nations. The P&J and SCND were the inaugural Scottish NGO supporters of ICAN, and its message of global nuclear disarmament, with Medact (Scotland) and UN House getting involved soon after.
On the 9th November 2007,the then First Minister Alex Salmond was joined by all of the major Scottish faith leaders and many parliamentarians in adding their signature to the The Peace Covenant which had been launched in October. Alan MacKinnon, chair of SCND and deeply committed to S4P, had made arrangements with Alastair Gray to provide the illustration and design for the books that people could sign. Those who signed committed to the statement:
“We desire that Scotland should be known for its contribution to international peace and justice, rather than a launch pad for waging war.”
The Covenant launch was the highlight of a special ceilidh, part of a residential event at Wiston Lodge, presided over by Scotland’s for Peace Convenor, Isobel Lindsay, and it was the first of several special public events around the Scotland where the covenant books attracted signatures
Karine Polwart was engaged to sing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival event at St John’s Church in Edinburgh that year, which was an amazing occasion with a specially-made SfP flag, commissioned by the P&J replacing the iconic saltire that usually flies at the top of the west end spire of St John’s. The P&J also arranged for artist David Gray to paint the words of the covenant in huge letters on banners running along the outside of the south side of the church – you could read it from the top of Lothian Road, over the heads of the thousands of visitors to Scotland’s best-known and biggest craft fair, in the church graveyard. Karine arrived for the concert and we were wonderfully surprised and moved when she premiered her song about Trident renewal, Better Things, which she then gifted to SfP.
She often performed it in her regular concert repertoire afterwards, notably in the Glasgow Concert Hall at the Celtic Connections World Turned Upside Down event in 2012. Her singing it featured on the sound track of the Camcorder Guerillas film, Deadly Cargo and can be seen on YouTube here:
I am very proud that in my role at the P&J and its part in Scotland’s For Peace, I was invited to offer the Scottish Parliament ‘Time for Reflection’ on the theme of the Covenant, although it took about two years for then to find a slot for me! On the second of February 2011, I said
‘First, I wish to thank you for the opportunity to speak here in our Parliament, and to say how happy and proud it makes me that devolution has given us a more accessible Parliament and has significantly improved the representation of women in our democracy.
Edwin Morgan expressed a hope for this place when he wrote:
“Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or forgotten.”
I wish to talk to you about one strand in that thread: the idea of covenant, in particular Scotland’s peace covenant, which I have brought with me today.
Today, covenanters might be regarded as prejudiced or religiously intolerant, but they represent a strong strand in our history. The point is about the anger that was felt by people who were being dictated to on a matter of conscience. That was unacceptable, and the democratic deficit was unacceptable, so people chose to witness their resistance. The need to commit to something better was paramount, and the right to hope for something better was irresistible.
The covenant, as promise and witness, goes back as far as Scottish history itself—witnessing, through signatures, when people are gathered in a common cause.
More than 1,000 people have been happy to sign this “Scotland’s for Peace” covenant. The First Minister, along with a moderator and Scottish church leaders, participated in a signing here in the Parliament. The covenant has attracted signatures at rock concerts, film screenings, public rallies, small focus groups and christenings. Those events all have in common the commitment not just to opposing a violent image of our country, but to raising our eyes to the vision of the kind of country that we want to be part of.
Scotland’s peace covenant is no commitment to any particular group or political party—just to our kind of Scotland. Alasdair Gray has produced inspiring and beautiful artwork, which resonates with our history, for the covenant books. We collect signatures at churches and workplaces, at mosques and museums. People from all walks of life can and do sign the Scottish peace covenant.
I hope that all our MSPs not only sign it but enjoy, as I do, sharing the words and the aspiration that
“We desire that Scotland should be known for its contribution to peace and justice rather than for waging war”.
By the time of the Time for Reflection event, eyes were firmly on the possible prize of Scottish independence, and with independence, the opportunity to rid the UK of its nuclear weapons.
This possibility was even then understood beyond our borders. A very special SfP event was held that May, chaired by Isobel Lindsay convenor of Scotland’s for Peace and organised through ICAN. We were visited in Scotland by Setsuko Thurlow, the Hiroshima survivor who has spoken out for ICAN at every opportunity. Setsuko later received, along with Beatrice Fihn, the Nobel 2017 Peace prize on behalf of ICAN. We arranged that Setsuko could speak with young people aged 13, the age she was when the US bombed Hiroshima.
After this, I spent some time living and working in a rural community setting, but the urgency of the referendum brought me back to more active campaigning in 2014. I had been following the ICAN progress and for many of us in the international campaign, the possibility of gaining a nuclear free Scotland and hence the disarming of a nuclear armed state seemed as though it could become a reality.
Possibly due to this important distraction, attendance at Scotland’s for Peace meetings had dwindled, the lunches in George street were too poorly attended to continue to be viable and the indy debate swung into action, a national Mexican wave where all leapt in with surprises in new alliances and disappointments in bitter differences. In 2013, Scottish CND voted to back indy, not without dissension and the parting of the ways for some dear friends. For some, and I am one, independence seems to offer a way to realise the covenant by starting again, creating a country that could fulfil that aspiration.
My hopes for ICAN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (adopted 1n 2017, entered into force in 2021 and added to the purpose of the Scottish Parliament disarmament cross party group, and due its first meeting of state parties in 2022 – Covid permitting) and my hope for Scottish self determination to create a country that contributes to the solutions we need for life and the shared planet are inextricable linked.
Its comin’ yet, for a’ that.