Ann Southwood: The importance of the Newbattle Conversations

Newbattle Abbey College. Picture: TSPL
Newbattle Abbey College. Picture: TSPL
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ANN Southwood says the Newbattle Conversations can help lift the fog of uncertainty surrounding the political future of Scotland

Looking out into the atmospheric fog that filled up the lawns and woods round Newbattle Abbey College last week, Professor Neal Ascherson saw a metaphor for the nation. Where would we find ourselves when the air cleared?

Neal had changing answers to this question and to many others raised by himself and by the fully engaged audience at the first of the Newbattle Conversations. He was the perfect inaugural lecturer, passionate, nuanced, funny and with a wisdom drawn from a lifetime of observing and understanding the forces which created our post-1945 world.

Wide, challenging ideas applied to Scotland’s unique political, social and cultural situation – that is the essence of the Newbattle Conversations. The Conversations will have at their core an annual lecture from now until 2020 when we will celebrate the drafting of the Declaration of Arbroath at Newbattle Abbey with a major international conference.

Never has political engagement and debate in Scotland been at such a sustained level of intensity. This discourse is unlikely to be stilled by half a decade of annual elections – Scottish, local, UK and European – not to mention a referendum on EU membership. Wherever you stand politically, whatever your identity, these are questioning times. Our intention with the Newbattle Conversations is to invite the most original thinkers to step back from day-to-day political exchanges to take a wider view of the landscape.

So, in Neal Ascherson we had an appropriate figure to open the conversation, speaking on a topic which brought together the national and the international. And we had an equally appropriate venue. Newbattle Abbey College is Scotland national adult education residential college – offering life-changing opportunities to people who have not had the chance to follow the well-worn path though school and university. Our students may have missed out on options in the past, but are not short of talent, determination and skills.

Newbattle has made a distinguished contribution to the cultural and political life of the nation. The Conversations reflect that past but are firmly focussed on the future of our nation.

Of course an annual lecture, no matter how stimulating, is not enough on its own. We are committed to taking the themes and challenges set out by our lectures out into communities and schools and into the ether of social media, to take the discussion to all parts of the country. We’re keen to seek partners who can work with us on this mission. As we left on Tuesday the fog had lifted a little; this had as much to do with the heat and clarity of the debate than any change in the weather.

• Ann Southwood is principal of Newbattle Abbey College