- 28 Nov 2016
Thank you, President.
Provost Prendergast, members of the Society, ladies and gentlemen.
It's a very great honour for me to receive this medal and become an honorary patron of the University's Philosophical Society.
There can't be many groups whose patrons include Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice President Joe Biden, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 'Weird Al' Yankovic. It's an impressive and very eclectic list – and one I am delighted and honoured to join.
I'm also very grateful for the opportunity to visit Trinity College. This university is renowned for its many distinguished former students – such as Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Mary Robinson. Today, Trinity maintains a global reputation for teaching and research. That's undoubtedly reflected by the fact that you are listed among the top 100 universities in the world.
All of you studying here are benefiting from, and contributing to, that proud reputation and those very high standards. And I'm sure the qualifications you receive will help you in whatever career you choose to pursue.
That's certainly been true for me. As the first member of my family to go to university – I studied at Glasgow University – I am very conscious of the incredible opportunities that this experience can open up. Because the education I received has been the basis for everything I have done since: becoming a lawyer, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, Deputy First Minister and, of course now, First Minister of Scotland.
That's why I believe so strongly that everybody should have the opportunity to go to university, no matter their family background or where they come from.
That's important, because I've always believed that universities are not just places where we go to get qualifications. Universities help shape the kind of people we become. They allow us to learn about the world, about other people and about our values.
This idea of meeting and understanding people from diverse backgrounds is more important than perhaps ever.
Celebrating different cultures and learning from one another is central to the ethos universities work so hard to create.
And these ideas must also be at the core of progressive values – values that in the current political climate is more important than ever before to champion.
I have no doubt the range of nationalities who study here at Trinity enrich the life of this university every day – just as diversity enriches society and countries as a whole.
Universities, of course, also inspire critical thought. They teach the importance of evaluating evidence. And we should recognise the contribution of those who dedicate their lives to extending human knowledge.
Scottish Government thinking right now on how to respond to the UK Brexit vote is being helped by a Standing Council of experts, including Professor Frances Ruane, from this university.
The EU referendum in the UK unfortunately gave rise to a different view of academic excellence.
Who could forget the statement during the campaign of Michael Gove, one of the key Leave campaigners, that 'the people of this country have had enough of experts'.
And there was the infamous claim that leaving the EU would generate £350 million a week extra for the NHS. It's generating instead over £200 million a week in extra borrowing, but what are a few facts between friends?
Now, as you all know, the art of debating is about selecting the particular facts that we want to highlight. And arguing over the meaning of certain facts – what they reveal and how we should respond to them – that is the essence of politics. But certainly for most of my lifetime, political debates have been based on a body of accepted facts. Because, as the great Irish-American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, 'everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts'.
I think that's a great phrase and it's a standard we should all hold ourselves to, difficult though it may sometimes be. It's a phrase that we, in this political era, should perhaps remind ourselves of and resolve to strive to live up to the standards that that phrase encapsulates.
Because facts and knowledge do matter. And that respect for evidence is something that universities teach us.
That leads me on to the second point I want to make. And that is, when we do disagree, we should do so in a civil and respectful manner.
That's especially important today in an age of social media – and I say that as someone who is an enthusiastic tweeter. Social media has provided huge benefits, by allowing us access to a wide range of ideas, views and perspectives that would previously have gone unheard. For politicians, social media has revolutionised how we communicate with those who we serve.
Yet it has also had the effect of depersonalising our interaction with each other. It's easy to forget that we're dealing with human beings, and not just twitter handles – or eggs instead of photographs. In these circumstances, we can often find ourselves just one click away from giving voice to our worst instincts.
Often the pressure to reduce any political option, no matter how complex, into 140 characters is not good for the standard or quality of our political and societal debate.
It's a tendency we all need to be aware of. My own personal rules are never to tweet anything I wouldn't say in front of a TV camera, and never to tweet after a glass of wine! So far, those rules have served me pretty well.
But the basic point I am making is that it is possible – and essential – in any democracy to disagree vigorously, but still be tolerant and respectful. That's something you demonstrate here at The Phil on a weekly basis.
And that's why I'm so grateful to receive this medal and become an honorary patron of this Society.
All of you who are members here will go on to work in a range of different areas and in different careers. Some of you might go into business, some into law, some into the public sector. Regardless where you end up, you will all have a vital role to play as citizens. And I'm confident that you take to that role the values and skills you learn here at Trinity.
And that will benefit all of us.
So thank you once again for this great honour, and thank you for inviting me. I look forward to having an open and vigorous discussion with you all this evening.