Katharine Stewart-Murray

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

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Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I thank John Swinney for bringing this motion on Katharine Stewart-Murray before us. I do not think that it would be breaching a confidence if I recall a conversation that I had with John Swinney just after he stepped down as Deputy First Minister.

“I will spend all my time on the back benches”,

he told me,

“attacking the Tories”,

and yet, here we are, in only his second members’ business debate from the back benches, and he is asking us to praise one of them. However, I think that what he said earlier on about that is quite important.

I also have to make a confession—the Duchess of Atholl does not figure very prominently on my bookshelves, so my reading and my speech might be a little selective. Of course, the firebrand MP Jennie Lee was a contemporary who was first elected to Parliament for North Lanarkshire in 1929 at the age of 24, at a time when there were still very few women in the House of Commons. Jennie Lee’s biographer, Patricia Hollis, records that, although Katharine Stewart-Murray had actively opposed women’s suffrage, she

“found herself radicalised by her time in the House.”

Tom Johnston also recalls the duchess in a footnote in his 1952 publication, “Memories”, but his rather more polemical, notorious and, so, memorable book, “Our Scots Noble Families”, nearly half a century earlier, made a rather different point. He said:

“The history of the Stewart-Murrays reads like an Arabian romance of successful crime”.

His chapter on the family begins with the Edward Carpenter couplet:

“A robber band has seized the land,

And we are exiles here.”

Johnston goes on to declare:

“the most virulent critic of our hereditary rent-drawers and land-grabbers could never honestly deny that the Atholl family motto of ‘Furth, fortune and fill the fetters’ had been scrupulously acted up to”.

He continued:

“the only unfortunate thing being that it was always other people who filled the fetters”.

On a brighter note, the duchess also appears, as a footnote, in Hugh Thomas’s seminal work on the Spanish civil war. Hugh Thomas concludes that the red duchess’s “Searchlight on Spain”, published in 1938 and selling more than 100,000 copies,

“was the most successful of all the propaganda books on the Spanish war.”

She chaired the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and it was in that role, helping to rescue 4,000 refugee children from the Basque Country, that the duchess made a real, practical, humanitarian difference.

I agree with respected writers such as Daniel Gray in that, in truth, I do not think that the ennobled, upper-class, blue-blooded Katharine Stewart-Murray was red at all, but she certainly distinguished herself as a member of Parliament who was anti-Franco, anti-fascist and anti-appeasement—a stance that made her unpopular among the British political establishment in the 1930s. Patricia Hollis also describes how

“The culture of the Commons was of course exaggeratedly masculine—rowdy, boozy, assertive, and quarrelsome”.

It is a culture still too prevalent in politics today.

Going into that, the first woman MP elected in Scotland had to fight to be heard, but in so doing she became the first woman ever to hold office in a Conservative Government. She resigned the Conservative whip in 1935, in part over its position on constitutional reform in India. When she fell out with her party for the last time in 1938 over—let us remember—the Munich agreement, she possessed the political principles to resign her seat and fight a by-election. Were only those same principles applied today.

I thank John Swinney for lodging the motion. I hope that, in return, he and other MSPs will sign up to motions that I have submitted in the past few days on last week’s centenary of the death of the great red Clydeside socialist John Maclean, and on the 25th anniversary of the passing of the heroic miners leader and political visionary Mick McGahey. It is important that Parliament marks the lives of those noble leaders of the working class, and it is right that we find a place in Parliament for not just history that is made by those from selected stock, but history which is made by the masses.