Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

Thomas Muir Lecture - Thursday 24th August

obelisk-yellow

The obelisk on Calton Hill forms a familiar part of our iconic Edinburgh skyline. Many residents will pass it daily. But I would reckon only a very few will be aware of what it commemorates. Erected in 1844 the monument is to five men whose actions back in the late 18th century radically changed the political landscape in our country and across the UK. They sowed the seeds which eventually brought the democracy we take for granted today. One of these men is Thomas Muir.

This year, I am delighted to say I have had the enormous honour of being asked to give the Thomas Muir lecture.

Britain at the end of the 18th century was very far from being a democracy. Yes, there was a parliament and, yes, there were elections. But the system was corrupted to its core. Many MPs were simply the placemen of great landowners. Notorious rotten boroughs with single figure electorates had greater representation in Parliament than the emerging industrial cities of Glasgow and Manchester. The vote was restricted to the property-owning minority and voting was done without the protection of the secret ballot.

Inspired by the revolutions in France and America, Thomas Muir, a lawyer from Glasgow, and William Skirving, a farmer from Fife, formed an organisation called Friends of the People in an Edinburgh tavern. In a few months it grew to a national movement with the main aim of extending the franchise of the vote. As well as being a radical reformist, Muir was unashamedly a champion of independence for Scotland. His engagement with the United Irishmen, and specifically his circulation of an Address of Fraternity from them at a national convention in Edinburgh, left him open to the charge of treason.

His trial was a clear example of political abuse of the justice system by the ruling classes. But the publicity given to Muir and his ideas during the trial actually helped the cause. In Muir they had a martyr whose treatment articulated the need for reform and strengthened the movement.

Parliamentary reform is still needed today. Yes, we have the basic elements of democracy in place but there are still fundamental problems with the system. I have long been involved in with the Electoral Reform Society and the Make Votes Matter campaign for proportional representation. We need to get rid of first past the post, the rotten borough of today. A system which perpetuates a two-party political state and neuters smaller parties even when they have a significant portion of the vote across the country.

The anachronistic House of Lords is also an affront to democracy. The idea that we have a second chamber filled with aristocrats and party appointees is anathema to the democratic principles Thomas Muir and his fellow Radicals fought for. Over 200 years later and there is much work still to be done.

The annual lecture is a chance to reflect on the history of radical tradition in Scotland and the synergy between the nationalist and socialist movements. But we must also look forward to the direction we want our country to travel in. For many of us involved in the Yes movement Muir’s optimism will be poignant:

I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.

It is up to us to continue the debate about what our democracy, and what our nation, could be. And how best to actively engage with that movement to bring a better future into existence.

I hope to see you there.

 

The evening will include a book signing by Murray Armstrong, author of The Liberty Tree: The Stirring Story of Thomas Muir and Scotland’s First Fight for Democracy and wine reception following the lecture.

The Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture will take place on Thursday 24 August 2017 (7pm for 7.30pm) at St Mary’s Cathedral, Palmerston Place.

Tickets are available from Evenbrite here for only £5.00.

 

 

 

Parliamentary Business - July 2017
 

Comments

No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Guest
Saturday, 19 August 2017

Tommy's Blog Articles

Tommy Sheppard
09 August 2017
Tommy's Blog
The obelisk on Calton Hill forms a familiar part of our iconic Edinburgh skyline. Many residents will pass it daily. But I would reckon only a very few will be aware of what it commemorates. Erected in 1844 the monument is to five men whose actions back in the late 18th century radically changed the political landscape in our country and across the UK. They sowed the seeds which eventually brought...
Tommy Sheppard
21 July 2017
Tommy's Blog
Media
OK, sorry about this, but it’s Brexit again this month. Don’t blame me – I voted remain.Remember the Great Repeal Bill David Davis promised last year. Well, it’s arrived, Except it’s now called the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I’ve no idea why withdrawal is in brackets, maybe it’s not going to happen. It’s not that great either – just nineteen clauses, half of which are legalistic gobbledygoo...
Tommy Sheppard
19 July 2017
Tommy's Blog
Yesterday I tweeted that I was heading back for the last week of term in the corridors of impotence. Little did I know when I said that how clear a demonstration we would have of that impotence last night.So I spent my time on the train preparing to speak in a debate on the abuse MPs and candidates received, particularly online, during the General Election campaign. Yet I arrive in London to hear ...
Tommy Sheppard
29 June 2017
Tommy's Blog
I am delighted to have been returned to Westminster as MP for Edinburgh East following the snap election on 8th June. Thanks to all those who supported me and came out to cast their vote on what has to have been one of the wettest days of the summer so far! I pledge to help everyone, no matter who they voted for or what their political persuasion - it’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years ...
Tommy Sheppard
29 June 2017
Tommy's Blog
Media
Well, this is awkward. I had hoped to use my column this month to bring a digest of the Queen's Speech. This is where Her Majesty reads out the legislative programme of the government of the day. Only there isn't one. Well, there is, but it is so vacuous and devoid of content that there might as well not be.It’s surely bordering on abuse of the elderly to oblige a 91 year old woman to read this ru...