Katharine Stewart-Murray

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I congratulate

John Swinney not only on bringing the motion to the chamber for debate but on his speech. I could agree with what he said.

It was very interesting to hear Richard Leonard make known to members the revelation that what motivates John Swinney today is attacking the Tories from the back benches. That makes the motion even more remarkable. I pay tribute to John Swinney for organising the event last night, and I give belated apologies for my absence.

Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, stands as a figure of rare courage and principle. Her legacy is etched not only in her groundbreaking political milestones, which have been referenced in the speeches that we have heard, but in the unwavering stance that she took against the tide of popular opinion in her own party.

Donald Cameron was quite right to identify the fundamental tension that sometimes existed between Scottish unionist members of Parliament and the Conservative Party. It is Katharine Stewart-Murray’s commitment and convictions, at such a steep price—her seat in Parliament—that draw my admiration. Those outlast the constraints of time.

In 1923, Katharine Stewart-Murray engraved her name in history by becoming Scotland’s first female member of Parliament, as we have heard. She did not rely on quotas or all-women shortlists. She did so on the basis of her sheer force of personality, dedication, hard work and prowess. It was a testament to her talent.

The 1930s were difficult times for the world and for Scotland. We have heard all about that. There was support for totalitarianism around the world, and that was manifest in the United Kingdom. Perhaps we should approach that period of history from the point of view that the people who were involved at the time might not have known the full extent of the horrors that were to be unleashed on the world by the forces of fascism and communism. However, we must learn from those mistakes.

It is absolutely right to say, as a couple of members have, that the British establishment had somewhat nuanced views on fascism and Nazism. The SNP has an interesting and colourful period in its history when leading figures within its ranks were known to have sympathies for fascism and, indeed, Hitler. Katharine Stewart-Murray saw through the forces of totalitarianism. She knew by instinct and principle that she was against them. She was a vocal critic of regimes such as Stalin’s Soviet Union, and she abhorred the very notion of a state dictating the private lives of its citizens. Her belief in individual freedoms and the right to self-determination was unwavering, and it manifested itself in vocal condemnation of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, for example.

As has been mentioned, she went to Spain in 1937 with other parliamentarians from the House of Commons. She registered her open dissent against the non-intervention policies of the then British Government in the Spanish civil war, and that led her to chair the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. Her book “Searchlight on Spain”, which Richard Leonard referenced and which was a best seller, was a bold critique of the conflict. It flew in the face of the Conservative Party’s then prevailing sentiments and drew considerable opposition from the leadership of the party. That is what eventually led, sadly, to her political demise.

Katharine Stewart-Murray was no stranger to conflict with the Conservative Party. Her resignation over the India bill, her opposition to the Government’s domestic policies in 1935 and her opposition to the policy of appeasement in relation to Nazi Germany in 1938 highlight her unyielding commitment to her beliefs. As has been mentioned, her unwavering stance against prevailing party lines led to her eventual ousting. She resigned. There was an orchestrated campaign against her before she resigned and an orchestrated campaign to unseat her when she stood as an independent candidate in the by-election that has been referenced.

Katharine Stewart-Murray’s political life speaks volumes. Her message transcends historical context. The truth is that, in our Parliament—in many a Parliament—at times, the weight of party machines and whips stifles authentic debate. As we commemorate a century since the election of Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, the lesson that I take to heart is that it is imperative that we, as individual parliamentarians, stand firm for what we believe in and have a right as individuals to believe in, even if it means diverging from the prevailing consensus in the chamber, popular opinion, establishments and even our parties.