Katharine Stewart-Murray

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

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Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am grateful to members who signed the motion to commemorate the centenary yesterday of the election to the House of Commons of Katharine Stewart-Murray, the Duchess of Atholl, as the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, which made her the first woman to be elected to Westminster from a Scottish constituency.

It is not unreasonable for members to wonder why on earth a lifelong Scottish nationalist has lodged a motion and is leading a members’ business debate in the Scottish Parliament to mark the centenary of the election of a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party to the House of Commons, and I feel that the Parliament requires a bit of an explanation. First, I do so because I believe that it is vital in our politics that we look at people for who they are and what they do, rather than simply judging them from their party affiliation. I have always believed that, and I believe it ever more in today’s rather toxic political climate.

The second reason is that Katharine Stewart-Murray led an extraordinary and, in many ways, enigmatic political life that merits greater understanding and appreciation, because she did not act as we might at first sight have expected a Conservative MP who was also the Duchess of Atholl to act.

The third reason is that, as one of her parliamentary successors in the House of Commons and as a member of the Scottish Parliament, it is incumbent on me to make sure that some parliamentary acknowledgement is given.

No political life is straightforward or without question or challenge. I am sure that there will be parts of the political life of Katharine Stewart-Murray with which we will not all agree, but I believe that this centenary gives us the opportunity to ensure that there is greater awareness of a fascinating individual who made a contribution to our politics and whose work raises important questions of real validity for us today.

The very election of Katharine Stewart-Murray in the 1923 Westminster general election was remarkable in at least two respects. First, just a decade earlier, she had been a vehement opponent of the right of women to vote, yet, 10 years later, her mind had been changed and she was elected to Westminster.

Secondly, the election was a bit of a local cliffhanger. She won the seat from the Liberals with a majority of just 150 in a two-horse race. One of our Conservative colleagues, Liz Smith, was involved in a cliffhanger election in a Perthshire seat during the 2001 Westminster election. Mercifully, the majority of 48 on that occasion was in favour of my party and not hers, and our Deputy Presiding Officer might have had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Katharine Murray was one of only eight female MPs out of the 615 who were elected to the House of Commons in 1923 and she went on to make a significant contribution to business at Westminster. She took a close interest in how people were treated in the then British empire and was shouted down by male MPs for sharing with the House of Commons the horrific details of female genital mutilation all those years ago. She believed that, if women in India were living under the umbrella of the British empire, they should be protected from practices that were not approved of by the British Government.

Her talent and industriousness were recognised, and she went on to become the first female Conservative education minister. She championed the power of education to safeguard the future of children, and the wellbeing of children became a central feature of her political contribution. When the Conservatives went into opposition, she went to the back benches and her political outlook began to take a new course. She took a keen interest in matters of international policy and became increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe. There were strands of people in the British establishment in the 1930s who were entirely relaxed about the growing spectre of fascism in Europe and did not believe that the United Kingdom needed to address the threat. Katharine Murray railed against that sentiment, which she saw as a direct threat to democracy and human rights. She travelled extensively in Europe to understand the events that were taking place and to try to comprehend the fear and the alarm that were spreading in a growing number of countries as the threat from fascism materialised. She warned of the dangers, but was increasingly marginalised and dismissed in the domestic debate.

As the Spanish civil war took its ferocious course, she was horrified by what she witnessed. She was especially alarmed by the dangers that were faced by children and the effects of the warfare on them. With others, she worked at speed to arrange for 4,000 children to be brought to the safety of the United Kingdom to avoid the horror of the Spanish civil war. Her actions were necessary in the 1930s, but they contain important lessons for us today.