LAUREATION ADDRESS ON Lord George Robertson by Dr Ian Graham-Bryce, Principal
I HAVE THE HONOUR TO PRESENT FOR THE DEGREE OF LAWS, HONORIS CAUSA: GEORGE ISLAY MacNEIL ROBERTSON, THE RIGHT HONOURABLE LORD ROBERTSON OF PORT ELLEN.
George Robertson has been described as "the most powerful Scotsman in the world" but he remains a man of the people: modest, approachable, good-humoured and with his feet very much on the ground.
He was born in the village of Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay in Argyll. From his earliest days he was in the hands of the police: that is to say he was born in the village police station where his father was a policeman - as was his grandfather, not to mention George's brother, his son and his nephew. His mother was a teacher and there is little doubt that this family background of self-discipline and service to the community helped shape his character and his future career.
His secondary education was at Dunoon Grammar School which was obviously a fertile breeding ground for future Scottish politicians: other former pupils included John Smith - the former Labour Party leader - Brian Wilson and Lord MacKay; and also Sir William Stewart who can be counted as a politician in a different field. He then entered what was at the time Queen's College Dundee - part of the University of St Andrews - to read Economics. His time at University was certainly not uneventful. He was undoubtedly well known to my counterpart in those days, James Drever. He immersed himself in student politics, finding a place on the Students Representative Council from his first year and writing a campaigning column for the student newspaper Annasach. Among his chief targets were student landlords - no doubt that will strike a chord with today's graduands - as will another of his activities: organising a protest over the level of student grants.
It was the time when Queen's College was separating itself from St Andrews to become the fully independent University of Dundee. George Robertson was one of those early graduates who could choose whether to accept their degree from the newly fledged University of Dundee or from the Ancient St Andrews. It is characteristic of the man, and to his eternal credit, that he chose Dundee. He has since commented "I was very patriotic about Dundee. It was a new University and I wanted it to succeed." We hope he feels that his University has indeed succeeded, but such early commitment was crucial to that success. To our great pleasure he has been outstandingly loyal - one of his great virtues - and has kept in touch with us ever since - attending University functions when he can.
I'm glad to say that Dundee University can claim credit for one other highly significant part of his life. For it was there that he met Sandra Wallace who acted as Secretary to the Professor of Economics, Kit Blake. He and Sandra recently celebrated their 30th Wedding Anniversary, and it is apparent to all who know him how much importance he attaches to his family - his wife and their three children.
After leaving University he became Scottish Regional Organiser for the GMB Trade Union, demonstrating once again his discerning judgement by looking after in particular the 9000-strong membership in the Scottish Whisky Industry.
Clearly, he was always extremely active in politics - he became Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party in 1977 and was elected to Parliament in 1978 for the Hamilton South Constituency. He held the seat for 21 years, being re-elected 5 times before being elevated to the House of Lords in 1999 taking the title of Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay, in Argyll and Bute.
I cannot possibly do justice today to his enormous contribution as a politician. Just a few examples will illustrate his profound influence - he was not just there, he helped materially to shape events. He was a founder of the Labour Defence and Disarmament Group which campaigned against unilateral nuclear disarmament. During his extended period on the Opposition Front Bench as a Foreign Affairs Spokesman he supervised Labour's policy evolution from the previous position of withdrawal from the (then) EEC to strong support for the European Union. He was named Parliamentarian of the year in 1993. As leader of the Scottish Labour Party he was jointly responsible for getting agreement on the final report of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which represented the widest level of agreement ever achieved in Scotland on a scheme for devolved government and led of course, to the Scottish Parliament. As Secretary of State for Defence in the Cabinet of Tony Blair, he carried out the Strategic Defence Review, the most radical re-shaping of Britain's Defence Forces for a generation and widely seen as a model for modernising the military. His time at the Ministry of Defence also coincided with the Crisis in the Gulf, the air strikes against Iraq, the Kosovo Crisis and the deployment of troops to East Timor. Hardly a quiet life, but throughout he remained steadfast, resolute and decisive.
There is only one area in which his judgement can be seriously questioned. That is that he is a long term supporter of Hamilton Academicals. In view of the recent performance of the Accies, he deserves our deepest sympathy. On the other hand we should see this as another example of his unswerving loyalty.
Throughout all his career he has served on numerous Boards and Public Bodies - the Scottish Development Agency, the Scottish Tourist Board, the National Trust for Scotland, the Scottish Police Board, the British Council - the list is endless.
And then of course, in August 1999, he was appointed to one of the most responsible jobs in the world - tenth Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. It is significant that the appointment which requires the agreement of the 19 Heads of Government of the member Countries normally takes a long period of negotiation. In George Robertson's case it took 6 days. And now he is involved in a punishing schedule of meetings and conferences with Heads of State from Clinton to Putin in which the world watches every move he makes and analyses every word he speaks.
George Robertson is tough, and he can take it; indeed thrive on it. But he is also sensitive to events which help to mould his character. Two such events perhaps stand out. The first was a road accident in which, ironically, a Royal Navy landrover, full of explosives and with an inflatable dinghy on the roof was caught by the wind and crashed head on into his car on a deserted road in the highlands. By all normal expectations it should have killed him. He was cut free and spent months in hospital recovering. Now, it is said, he carries a snapshot of the crash as an antidote to any stirrings of self-pity. The second is Dunblane, where as a citizen of the town and a leading politician he stood in the doorway of the blood-soaked gym of the school where his children had previously been pupils. It is an image which will never leave him.
George Robertson has vast experience and has made an immense contribution to public life. He epitomises those admirable Scottish virtues of hard work, sense of duty and balanced judgement coupled with good humour and modesty. He is as at home talking to World leaders as he is in the - by now almost obligatory role of Defence Secretaries - standing on a tank in shirt sleeves chatting to ordinary soldiers. Our graduands today could have no better model to follow. Let me finish with a handful of quotations which sum up the man:
"A right bonny laddy with lovely manner" said by a University Secretary.
"A wily old fox" - from a Naval Commander.
"A real grafter who put in 18-20 hours a day during the Bosnian Crisis" - that from a senior civil servant who worked closely with him and lastly from a former colleague
"A truly decent bloke who cares about people and will phone and enquire after a staff member in hospital or a former constituent with a problem".
I HAVE THE HONOUR NOW TO CONFER ON GEORGE ISLAY MacNEIL ROBERTSON THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF LAWS.
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