Katharine Stewart-Murray

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

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Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I congratulate John Swinney on bringing this interesting debate to the Parliament, and I offer my apologies for having been unable to attend last night’s event. Like John Swinney, I think that SNP members question themselves when a debate has such a subject and we are talking about a duchess. As Robert Browning might have said, this will be my last duchess debate in the Parliament, but it is a worthwhile subject for debate.

My connection is a bit more personal, and I will try not to repeat the points that John Swinney spoke about from his position of far greater authority. After the 2011 election, the current Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and I went to Pitlochry for a break, when we visited Blair Atholl and found out about the red duchess. We were blown away by the history; we were completely unaware of the background before then.

My grandfather is from Pitlochry. He gave my father the name Atholl, which I gave my son as a second name—as it is for my brother. I have a family connection with Blair Atholl.

During the visit to Pitlochry in 2011, I learned about the importance of the immense historical figure that is Katharine Stewart-Murray and about her contribution to Scottish life. It is important to refer to that, even if it is just because she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons from Scotland. That was an immense achievement, when we consider that the franchise had been expanded to include only some women just five years before and would not be expanded to all women for another five years subsequent to the duchess’s election.

During Katharine Stewart-Murray’s time in Parliament, she embarked on a trailblazing political journey that was marked by a distinctively feminist outlook, although that feminism might be of a different brand from that which some feminists today would recognise. Her position was all the more difficult for that reason. As we have heard, her feminism did not stop at Gretna or Dover; it was explicitly international.

During the Spanish civil war, which is intimately tied to Scotland’s history, Katharine Stewart-Murray saw the impact of the conflict on women and girls in particular and made that the focus of her book “Searchlight on Spain”, which was instrumental in persuading the British Government to accept child refugees from the Spanish civil war, as has been mentioned.

Katharine Stewart-Murray sits within the tradition of strong women who have broken the status quo of Scottish politics. We can look to many such women, including her contemporaries, such as Lavinia Malcolm, who was the first woman councillor and first woman provost in Scotland—in my constituency and in the village of Dollar, where I live. After my election in 2007, I lodged a motion about her.

There is also Florence Marian McNeill, who was a leading Scottish suffragist, a leading light of the Scottish literary renaissance of the 20th century and a founding member of the Scottish National Party. We all know of Elsie Inglis, the well-known doctor, surgeon, teacher and Scottish suffragist, and Mary Barbour, the Glasgow councillor who famously organised the rent strikes.

There are those who came after Katharine Stewart-Murray’s time, such as Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald, who both won stunning by-election victories against significant odds and who for the rest of their lives championed difficult causes that needed a champion, much as Katharine Stewart-Murray did. We also have our first female First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, among many more—far too many to mention in this short speech.

Katharine Stewart-Murray sits firmly within that tradition of strong Scottish women of independent mind who achieved against all the odds. That is a phrase that we use now, but the realities of electoral politics 100 years ago were that it was difficult to break the mould as a woman or as an independent, as she might subsequently have been seen.

No instance shows that resilience more than her stance against authoritarian regimes, especially her opposition to Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, the Soviet Union and, lastly, Hitler and Nazi Germany, which, as we have heard, led to her deselection from what was then the Scottish Unionist Party, because her stance was out of step with the then Prime Minister Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

Of course, appeasing Hitler is now widely regarded to have been a strategic mistake in the build-up to the second world war, and even that is, to a large extent, understating it. However, it is a timely reminder that, even when something might not be popular at the time, it might also be the right thing to do.

Today, the Parliament and our Government are among the most representative in the world for women. I am pleased that my party has more female MSPs than males. That has contributed to a more balanced Scottish Parliament, which has one of the highest levels of female representatives in the world.

Let us see whether today’s debate is an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come in the 100 years since Katharine Stewart-Murray’s election as our first woman MP, as well as how much further we have to go. We should also use today’s debate to reaffirm our commitment to continue to work towards true gender equality, not just nationally or at UK level, but internationally.