Orcadian Column, 18 November 2021

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner at the Royal British Legion in Kirkwall on Friday evening.

This is always an enjoyable occasion, providing a mixture of camaraderie, storytelling and poignant reflection. It was leant extra significance this year, however, as the British Legion celebrates its centenary. To be able to meet in person to mark such an auspicious milestone was both fitting as well as something of a relief for all concerned.

For me, it came at the end of a parliamentary week that had already seen various events related to the act of Remembrance. On Thursday, I joined the Presiding Officer and party leaders for a brief ceremony preceding the two minute silence. Unfortunately, the Garden Lobby was largely empty due to ongoing Covid restrictions, but proceedings were screened around the building, which fell silent at 11am.

MSPs had further opportunities to pay their respects, however, during two separate debates on the Poppyscotland Appeal and wider support for veterans.  Both were well attended, with tributes again paid to those who have served and sacrificed, as well as on a personal basis to Sir Alistair Irwin, who is standing down after 15 energetic and effective years as President of Poppyscotland.

Both debates were filled with personal testimonies of the difference made to the lives of veterans and their families through the work of Poppyscotland. Even the challenges of a pandemic have been overcome, with new ways found to fundraise and deliver much-needed services and support across the veterans community.

Of course, veterans of World War I are sadly no longer with us and those from World War II grow fewer by the year. As a result, remembrance is perhaps becoming more of a conscious and deliberate act.  And this is not, as some claim, either a celebration or glorification of war. Far from it. This is an act of commemoration and remembrance that should transcend any personal views one might have of war generally or individual conflicts in particular. I’m sure that will continue to be the case.

Meanwhile, last weekend also represented a landmark moment in another fight, this time in relation to climate change.  Expectations going into COP26 were not high. As negotiations reached a conclusion on Saturday, however, the sense was that the conference had failed to deliver, certainly on its key objective of securing action to keep global temperature rise within 1.5C.

Unsurprisingly, the days that have followed have seen a predicable ‘blame game’ being played out. China and India have come in for most criticism in light of their last minute threat to torpedo the talks unless the final declaration was amended to refer to a ‘phasing down’ rather than a ‘phasing out’ of coal.

US and EU negotiating teams were also criticised for not putting up stiffer resistance to this eleventh hour brinkmanship, though it could equally be argued that this move to dilute the declaration was entirely predictable and the UK, as hosts, could and should have done more in the run up to COP26 to get positions aligned.

Such judgments, though, are largely immaterial. What matters most is what happens now: the steps that countries, sectors, businesses, organisations and individuals take to cut emissions and reduce their environmental impact. Indeed one apparent success of COP26 is the agreement reached that progress towards achieving these targets will be assessed annually, rather than every five years. Hopefully, this can help build pressure to amend commitments where necessary and with suitable urgency.

In the aftermath of World War II, it could be argued that a new approach to statecraft emerged. This was not without its own weaknesses, of course, but there was at least a recognition that things could not carry on as before. By the same token, it could equally be argued that similar is now needed if we are to rise the challenges posed by the nature and climate emergencies. For many, the threat posed may still appear less tangible, but we cannot carry on as before and a shared endeavour to do things differently will be required in future.

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