First Minister Alex SalmondFirst Minister Alex Salmond

General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

The Mound, Edinburgh

Monday, May 25, 2009


It is an honour, as First Minister of Scotland, to be able to speak to this Assembly.

However as a student I spent some happy years at St Andrews in the Andrew Melville Hall of residence and therefore I am well aware that in theological and democratic terms I am, no more than "God's silly vassal"

I have always had a special regard for the General Assembly and its members. This is the place - and you are the people - that do so much to give expression to the heart of Scotland.

Moderator, I know what an honour this week must be for you also, as you chair the General Assembly for the first time.

And may I congratulate you and the General Assembly on being the only show in town which has managed to knock Westminster MPs' expenses off the front pages!

Perhaps Moderator - coming from Burns' country - you were struck, as I was, at the happy coincidence of your appointment with our Year of Homecoming, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

In fact, only a week past Saturday I opened the new Burns Monument Centre in your native Kilmarnock.

That Centre has a fantastic genealogical archive, allowing visitors to trace their own family history. And indeed recently on the Radio Scotland programme, 'Digging Up Your Roots', I discovered just how interesting that can be.

On air a professor from Strathclyde asked me if I knew why very unusually my father's name had been re-registered after birth - a range of possibilities opened up!

Luckily I actually did know. His name was changed to place the name of the local minister in the middle of my father's - Robert Fyfe Findlay Salmond - he being the first child christened by Fyfe Findlay in Linlithgow - just as thirty or more years later Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond became the first child christened by Elliot Anderson called to St Ninian's Craigmailan.

I have tried to bear that name with pride and make no mistake as to the extent that my roots lie with this Assembly.

Moderator, the Lord High Commissioner, in his opening address to Assembly chose some fine words from Robert Burns to illustrate so much that is good and democratic about this Church and our nation - I will offer another insight from our national bard : 'The heart ay's the part ay/That maks us richt or wrang'.

The need to renew our institutions

I cannot claim that today I will match the poetry of Burns. But I do aim to speak plainly and simply to this Assembly.

These are difficult times - in Scotland, and across the world. Although we have lived through an era of unprecedented affluence, today we confront a crisis that is without parallel in its scale - and perhaps also in its economic and social impact.

For so many of our fellow Scots, and those close to them, this crisis has meant the loss of jobs, of homes, of livelihoods.

With a risk, as in previous recessions, of communities and individuals losing a sense of purpose, of faith in the future.

But crucially, as they always have, our churches are here to provide comfort and to offer hope as they always do in moments of extremity.

When we recall the attacks on Glasgow Airport two years ago, we cannot forget the solidarity shown by all Scotland's faith communities. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, others - all coming together in support.

At such times - when our society is tested - we depend on the strength of the institutions which sustain that society - our churches, trade unions, charities, our universities and colleges, our legal system.

And, of course, our political institutions, which should be a source of hope, a source of purpose.

And as we look again to rebuild a rich country, we must make sure this time round we also build a rich society - a society where the measure of wealth is not only the money in our pockets but the wellbeing of our communities.

Renewing our political institutions

Governments are working hard to lessen the human cost of our present crisis. We should not doubt that.

But - and this is a matter of profound debate and profound regret - today we see that some of our core political institutions are losing their moral authority.

At the very time that people are seeking reassurance, guidance, leadership, the Westminster system in particular is unable to provide it.

Trust is a precious quality. An essential quality. Once lost it is not quick or easy to rebuild.

But the work must be done. Because that trust is the lifeblood of a decent society. The true currency of democracy.

People naturally aspire to the symbols and the ideals of our nation. Yet whether it is a political party, a church, a charity - any institution built by man can fail and can fall.

The key thing is to aspire to be better. And, for our political institutions, to understand that self sacrifice - just like forgiveness - is at the centre of the order of things.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament I recognise the part played by our former Presiding Officer and the Church's High Commissioner, George Reid. Just a few short years ago it was Holyrood that had lost respect among the people of Scotland as we became mired in crisis over the cost of the new parliament building.

But we recovered, we opened ourselves up to full transparency, we admitted to mistakes and today Scotland's parliament is stronger - much, much stronger - for that.

And it is an example for others to follow.

Renewing our economic institutions

In the same way that the United Kingdom must renew its political institutions, so there is a need to renew our economic institutions and the principles which guide them.

Parts of the financial sector, we now know, were run on a false prospectus.

With the rewards to some individuals completely divorced from basic ideas of fairness, or service.

And, as it transpires, sadly those rewards were also divorced from any reasonable notion of lasting value.

That could not be sustained. And it was not sustained.

President Obama recently recalled a lesson from the Sermon on the Mount - that is the one in scripture, not the one delivered in 1988 to this Assembly!

The President said that America must rebuild its economy not on sand but on rock. On foundations that will last.

That is a lesson for our nation and for each and every Scot. Because, to paraphrase another American President, there is nothing wrong with Scotland that cannot be fixed by what is right with Scotland.

We have within us, in our traditions, in our people, the values, the talent and the determination to recover - to rebuild a nation and a society that is stronger and fairer.

As Scotland's government our economic recovery plan is focused firmly on jobs and communities, on education and skills and in investment in innovation and the industries of the future.

And it is underpinned by the key principles of solidarity - narrowing the gap between rich and poor; cohesion - ensuring no part of our country, no community is left behind and sustainability - our duty to pass on a secure and flourishing economy and environment to future generations.

For some time, many in positions of power - in business, in government, in our media - have regarded such notions of justice, of fairness, as little more than moral angst, as mere words divorced from everyday reality.

But that is not so.

Indeed we see day by day that these values are fundamental to the health and strength of our society.

Because any house built on sand - big or small - will not survive the storm.

Shaping a new direction for Scotland

It is easier for us to talk of sacrifice and of change than it is to achieve them. Both can be difficult, sometimes painful.

But we have guidance on this new path. We have ourselves, we have each other, and we have the leadership and the support of this church and all the faith groups of Scotland.

Important lessons will be learnt. As J K Galbraith wrote of the Great Crash of 1929 - "As those days of disenchantment drew to a close, tens of thousands of Americans shook their heads and muttered, 'Never Again'."

It is only in recent years that those lessons were forgotten.

And, we have a deep sense of what Scotland stands for, through decades and through centuries.

Values that can give us the strong roots we need to flourish and grow, values expressed by the four simple words on the Scottish Mace. Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. Integrity.

Scotland, like many nations, will experience difficult months and years ahead.

Our courage and our resolve will be tested.

And so too will our imagination.

Because our world is changing. And if we are prepared to imagine and to shape it in new ways, we will find ourselves stronger, more free - a better, closer community.

By helping our young people, in these difficult times, to build the skills and the education that will help support them for a lifetime.

By harnessing talent and creativity in the service of society, rather than narrow individual reward.

And in the face of a troubled world, by no longer seeking to acquire a new generation of weapons of mass destruction.

Not asking what missiles we must have to keep our seat at the top table. But asking instead, as President Obama and many others are, how can we rid the world of nuclear weapons? And when can we start?

The deep roots of Scottish identity

The country that I am proud to serve has the courage and the ambition to face these choices.

To shape and to build its own, new, more positive direction.

We always have. I believe we always will.

For confirmation, one need only read the text - and the subtext - of the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320.

The Declaration was a challenge not just to the ambitions of our neighbour but too many of the accepted views of that time.

As a statement of the 'community of the realm', the Declaration of Arbroath may be Europe's first statement of a contractual relationship between government and citizens.

It is right to acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church of that time as the mainstay of Scottish nationhood.

Indeed without the church there would be no Scotland - and something important, precious and distinctive would have been lost to the world.

The special contribution of the Church of Scotland

This Church, the Church of Scotland, embodies its own special constitutional status. Standing for centuries now, as Andrew Melville believed, and John Calvin before him, as its own kingdom under God.

And it was the democratic intellect led by this reformed church which shaped the Scots reverence for education and therefore led directly to the invention of the modern world.

Helping Scotland, through one of the final acts of the old Scots Parliament - the 1696 Education Act - to become the first country on earth to introduce universal public education in every parish.

As you sowed, so Scotland reaped. Because that system of universal free education proved to be a triumph.

And it led to the most extraordinary intellectual, scientific and cultural flourishing in our - or any - nation's history.

Of course our people are inventive and ingenious but as a fine Welsh poet once said "light needs a window to enter a darkened room".

And without formal education as a great English poet once wrote "full many a flower would have been born to blush unseen, to waste its sweetness on the desert air"

Let no-one mistake. This Church, and other faith groups, have the ability to be agents for change and change for the better.

Indeed in the past two decades, Scotland's churches have helped to reconvene the Scottish Parliament, and to renew our democracy.

You have worked to promote understanding among faiths. To tackle sectarianism. To promote development worldwide.

I know that the outgoing Moderator, the Right Rev David Lunan, spent three weeks around Easter visiting Malawi and Zambia. Like him, I am proud of what, together, we in Scotland are doing to help these nations.

And let me say that for our Parliament, that is something that may not yet be formally our responsibility. But it is, in reality, our obligation.


People and families in Scotland and across much of the world are uncertain of their future.

This places us a special responsibility on us to lead.

Our first duties - whether in politics, in the church - are to show empathy. To listen and to hear. To provide whatever immediate help we can.

The Church of Scotland has filled this role so many times in our nation's history. It continues to do so today and let no-one doubt your ability - as a reformed church to continue to promote reform.

This Church, this Assembly, are part of the foundations of Scottish society.

In ancient times it was said that Sparta had no city walls. It did not need them, the people were the walls of Sparta.

Today this church and our other institutions - spiritual and secular are the walls of Scotland - the rocks on which reform and renewal will be built.

Our country and our people face a new environment. With new challenges, yes. But also with new and growing possibilities.

And as we seek to rebuild our economy, to renew our political institutions, to build the new Scotland, we will continue to draw on this Church as a source of wisdom.

A source of strength.

A source of hope.