"My Hero, My Soldier Laddie"

Part of Decision Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:29 pm on 10th June 2010.

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Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 5:29 pm, 10th June 2010

Although my job title is Minister for Housing and Communities, I also have ministerial responsibility for veterans. Some of my duties in that role are the most pleasant that I have to carry out as a minister. Speaking in tonight's debate is one such duty.

Like all the other members who have spoken, I congratulate Christina McKelvie on securing this debate. I welcome Duncan Brown to the gallery and hope that he is enjoying the debate. His book is fascinating and told me a thing or two that I did not know about the history of the Victoria Cross. Until the Crimean war, the only real medal was the Order of the Bath, which was for those and such as those. The book describes how, after the Crimean war, the Duke of Newcastle wrote to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, to suggest that an award be created, as there were so many brave people who should not go unrewarded and unrecognised. Eventually, the Queen and the Secretary of State for War agreed that there should be such an award. Originally, it was to be called the Military Order of Victoria, a title that was eventually shortened to Victoria Cross.

Also unbeknown to me was the fact that, when people received the Victoria Cross in those days, they were awarded what Duncan Brown describes as a parsimonious annual £10. I do not know whether that is still the case. Arrangements were made for the first presentations of the medal to take place on 26 June 1857, in Hyde Park in London.

The book provides a fascinating account of the history. In particular, it points out the importance of Lanarkshire. I have tried but have so far been unable to check whether the figure of 14 for a single county is a record for the whole country. If it is not, it must be close to being one, despite the attempts of Murdo Fraser and Jim Tolson to make such claims for Perthshire and Kinross and the Borders. As Jim Tolson rightly pointed out, many brave and valiant fighters came not just from the rest of the United Kingdom but from the rest of the empire.

I am particularly gladdened by the fact that a large part of the proceeds from the book and the profit from the sale of prints of its illustrations will go to Erskine Hospital Ltd, which is one of the finest institutions in Scotland. I am sure that Duncan Brown's generous offer will be warmly applauded everywhere.

As members have pointed out, the bravery, gallantry and achievements of the 14 Lanarkshire-born Victoria Cross recipients, all 172 Scottish recipients of that accolade and all other veterans, irrespective of whether they were awarded a medal of whatever type, cannot be ignored, forgotten or lost in history. We should acknowledge on a regular basis their sacrifice and selflessness in securing the freedoms that all of us now take for granted. To ignore those men and the history of the Victoria Cross and those who won it would be a disservice to them. Their stories are important. History is important. We, our children and future generations must maintain the link with the past.

The monument in Hamilton to the Lanarkshire-born Victoria Cross holders is a fabulous way of keeping their memory alive. It is a fitting tribute to those 14 brave men. I congratulate everyone who was involved in the fund raising to make the monument a reality. Duncan Brown's book is an excellent way of recording and learning about the achievements of the men who are commemorated on the monument. It is both an easy and an engaging read—once someone has started to read it, they will want to finish it—and is one of the best-written books that I have ever read. Willie Coffey was right to say that many schoolchildren—not just the length and breadth of Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom—will want to read the book and will find the history and stories that it contains fascinating.

I will say a word or two about monuments, given that we have talked about the Hamilton monument. There is a body of opinion in Scotland that the Scottish Government should maintain war memorials in Scotland. That is a perfectly justifiable view and I understand and sympathise with it. The problem is that the Imperial War Museum has estimated that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 monuments in Scotland, and keeping up the standard of monuments involves a huge cost.

Therefore, I take the opportunity to welcome the establishment of a new graves and monuments trust in Edinburgh, which will have the task of maintaining some of the monuments in Edinburgh. I hope that we can do something similar in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Glasgow and Dunbartonshire—and in every city and county the length and breadth of Scotland. That would be a fitting tribute from our communities to those to whom we owe so much.

We are proud of our heritage and we are very proud of the people who fought for our freedoms. It is right that the national Parliament of Scotland should recognise and pay tribute to them and that it should thank Duncan Brown for having done such a wonderful service for the whole nation in writing his excellent book.

Meeting closed at 17:36.