Speech on Education (Scottish History) 25th. November 2009

I am happy to participate in this debate. I declare an interest as a former history teacher and, indeed, as someone who was taught Scottish history in a Glasgow school 40 years ago. This subject is not new. I am a bit despondent at the way in which some of the minister's comments were largely an opportunity to hook on to the issue of the homecoming. All who love history should resist the temptation to create a year-zero approach to what has been and is being done in this field.
More generally, there are loads of opportunities to have an interesting discussion about the role of history in schools, but people want us to wrestle with big issues in, for example, education and the care system. I am concerned that the Scottish Government has chosen this debate, which feels, notwithstanding the quality of the speeches, a bit like a stocking filler. There is a danger that what we see now in this Parliament is Executive action with little opportunity for scrutiny, and this place simply being a debating chamber and nothing more.
It has always been the case that, in teaching history, people have wrestled with the balance between history at the level of local communities, at the Scottish level, and far beyond, to give young people an international dimension. That issue is nothing new. It is important that our young people understand how some of the broader movements across the world were expressed in Scotland.
On the question that Margo MacDonald raised, I do not think that we teach our young people something as crude as whether the empire was good or bad; we develop in them an understanding and a capacity to think for themselves, with enough information—which in the past would not have been given to them—so that they can come to a judgment. If our history is about anything, it is about developing the minds of our young people in that regard. I believe that we should have described this debate as being not about Scotland and its history, as if it were one entity, but about the people of Scotland and their history, and an understanding of the diversity of experience, culture and values in Scotland and how they have related to the wider world.
We know that some in the Scottish National Party are keen to recast the political debate as being between us and them; between Scotland and England in the past and, perhaps a little more subtly, now between Scotland and London or the rest of the United Kingdom. Some in the SNP seek to capture the language of oppression and freedom for now and our past in describing the relationship with the rest of the UK. That is a political debate, which will be reflected in our understanding of history. I believe that the debate is about a partnership with the rest of the UK, but others believe that it is about oppression and freedom. That is a legitimate debate for us to have, but we must be careful about the way in which we present the priorities for teaching in history. There are fundamental differences.
I was concerned about the language that the minister used when she talked about "reclaiming our history". If young people are reclaiming their history, who has taken it from them? Young people will always take the opportunities that are provided in school to learn, test and understand. The idea that our culture has been silenced in some way resonates with the SNP's view of the relationship with the rest of the UK, but few other people recognise that view.

Margo MacDonald: I have too much respect for the member to disagree with a great deal of what she says, but I tried to make the point in my earlier intervention that there will always be at least two views of historical events. For example, some children were taught in Scottish schools—I do not know whether they still are—that Winston Churchill was a great war leader and that we should remember that that was his contribution; other children were taught that he turned the guns on the miners at Tonypandy. Both views were correct, but both indicated a bias, or perhaps not a bias—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: This is going on just a bit too long.

Johann Lamont: I accept what the member says. My point is that history teaching at its most liberating encourages people to scrutinise for bias and to test it against other information that they are given. We must recognise the importance of taking a rounded view of history and understanding how change happens and why. For example, there are those in the Parliament, particularly in the SNP, who emphasise that this Parliament is a reconvened Parliament, but the interesting question for me is why this place, its elected members, its purpose and its priorities are so different from the Parliament that joined the union in 1707. This Parliament's story is one of a journey of radicalism, of change and of movements in which people recognised that things in the past were unacceptable. The fight for suffrage was part of that journey and it is, in my view, a far more interesting issue—

Fiona Hyslop: Will the member give way?

Johann Lamont: Let me make this point.
We need to seek to understand the movements that transformed the lives of ordinary people and that tackled injustice and exploitation within our communities—some of which was perpetrated by Scot upon Scot. I was taught about the clearances. If some who were involved in making decisions about the year of homecoming had a better understanding of the clearances, they would not have put the clan chief gathering at the centre of a celebration of the people of Scotland in the modern age.
For me, the big issue is how we make history not just about the big history. Too many people in the SNP want to talk about the big history—I recognise that Christina McKelvie identified individuals and movements below that—but, in my view, the big argument that we need to wrestle with in history is understanding the individual, the community and the local, and how events there paralleled with what happened in other parts of the world. History should be a liberating subject rather than being about them and us or oppression versus freedom.
Fiona Hyslop: On the member's point about the different views of particular events in history, one aspect of the online resource is interviews with history professors who take different perspectives on the same period in history. That will help to develop skills for analysis and debate and to get people to make up their own mind. Does she welcome that part of the online resource?

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): You must wind up, Ms Lamont.

Johann Lamont: I have not not welcomed anything that encourages young people to think about all of their history. My point is that a separate element to the debate is the overlaying of a template or view of Scotland's relationship with the rest of the world and of Scotland as one entity. Our job is to provide the resources and teachers to ensure that young people are given the capacity to think for themselves and to come to their view of how our history—the history of all the people of Scotland—has shaped our priorities and choices for the future.