When I Came Back To Scotland, I Felt Like A Tourist In My Own Land. Here’s How The Country I Love Can Move Forward Together

John Macdonald

Born in Lanarkshire, the son of a schoolmaster, John, 72, was educated in Hamilton and qualified as a civil engineer at the University of Strathclyde. Initially based in London, he specialized in airport projects from the late 80s onwards, including as a stint as IATA manager at London airports. He worked and lived abrad for long spells including in Saudi Arabia and, more recently in Uganda where he managed the Entebbe Airport upgrade and expansion. He and his wife Jan have two sons, one born in Jeddah, one in London. Both are Hibs fans!

In 2020, I retired and finally came home to Scotland. For most of the previous 50-years I lived abroad, working as a Chartered Engineer across the Middle East, in Egypt, East Africa and Hong Kong, plus spells in London. However, I never stopped being Scottish. And I always saw the Scottish character and outlook as international. I have so many happy memories; so many funny and poignant stories to tell. I think of Hong Kong in 2015 where democracy campaigners delighted in meeting a Scot, all thanks to our depiction in Braveheart” as fellow rebels; selfies were demanded! Our international reputation is remarkable.

Now back home, Im like a tourist. And I find the political landscape bleak. Brexit is a disaster, while the SNP provide slogans but no vision for future success. How I wish I had some Irish blood, like the late great John Le Carre who, despairing about the present UK set-up, obtained an Irish/EU passport just before passing away. 

My local MP is excellent, works hard for constituents. So does the local MSP and indeed our two ward representatives on Edinburgh City Council; but all four of them are Liberal Democrats, doomed apparently to permanent opposition.

I feel adrift and unrepresented. By the time of the next UK General Election, I shall be 75 and, for 50 of those years, there has been a UK Conservative Government, for which I have never voted. We need fundamental constitutional change, across the board, to provide a progressive alternative.

Here’s what I think we need.

"We need to make the younger generation aware of the world out there. Let’s tell them the story of how Scottish technical expertise spread across the world, changing it for the better."

In an ideal world, we need Proportional Representation for Westminster, a no-brainer if we want to modernise our country. We need proper devolution across the UK, driving democracy from the bottom up, unlike our current dysfunctional system. And we need a sensible arrangement for governance of the British Isles: we cannot consider Scotland or Britain alone without addressing NI and therefore also establishing a proper relationship with the Republic of Ireland.

However, in the real world, we must start and build a movement for change. I think about lifting our eyes a little to the potential that Scotland has and the opportunities that are there for the taking – opportunities I have had in my own life.

We need to make the younger generation aware of the world out there. Lets tell them the story of how Scottish technical expertise spread across the world, changing it for the better. I think too of my late brother-in-law, also Scots. Imprisoned as a child in a Nazi concentration camp in France, he taught himself to become multi-lingual, got a job with the newly formed United Nations and went on to have a career across three continents as a senior administrator in the World Health Organisation.

Are todays young Scots fully aware of the world outside our borders and the opportunities they can grasp?  School children should know such tales, of inter-connectivity and leadership across borders – this is Scotlands story.

And related to this, we should make young people more aware of the number of fellow Scots who have risen to the international stage. I think of two Scottish UK Ambassadors I knew in Saudi Arabia, the Scots-based RAF officers in Bahrain during the Gulf War; leading professionals in all fields across the world who have a Scottish root, including medical specialists, directors of airlines, of Heathrow Airport, of British Council operations, commerce and banking in Hong Kong.

“Everywhere, you find Scots supporting the underdog, striving to do the right thing. It is this strength of character we need to reintroduce to a reconstituted UK Government, to reset direction and restore the British reputation and sense of fair play.”

Such achievements by Scots of course come through a British context, where our character, our honesty and integrity are recognized throughout the UK and around the world, enabling our leading role in organisations of substantial scale and influence, beyond any which could be achieved in Scotland alone. Engaging through a British context enhances recognition and achievements of both Scotland and the UK – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Think of UK Government bodies, the UN, Diplomacy, Armed Forces, the BBC (internationally the voice of truth), the NHS (admired worldwide), international professional and academic institutions. A separate Scotland would reduce such opportunities – inevitably, we would have a lesser role, diminished influence, in the world.    

I have had a wonderful, varied life. I want today’s generations to enjoy similar opportunities – sometimes you need good luck but I believe that you make your own luck. I learned not to classify people by their Government’s actions: for example, Russian crews fly huge ex-military planes on UN Refugee and World Food Programme operations, saving countless lives. In general, people are good (including the English!) Treat them well and they respond naturally. And, everywhere, you find Scots supporting the underdog, striving to do the right thing. It is this strength of character we need to reintroduce to a reconstituted UK Government, to reset direction and restore the British reputation and sense of fair play.

Today’s urgent demands of sustainability and high tech are changing the world, offering exciting possibilities, many under development in Scotland, together with international partners. Environmental challenges cannot be solved by Scotland, or the UK, or any country alone. Multinational commitment is essential: Scottish reputation in Education and Technology is a serious strength, so let us keep engaging, spreading our expertise in all fields worldwide, including to our southern neighbours, where there is significant potential for improvement.

We’re a small country but we make our own luck!

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