Martin Hannan: Grip on the past key to the future

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Let’s start this week’s column with a wee quiz to prove that most of you know more about English history than Scottish history.

As quickly as you can, answer the following three questions: 1. What is the name of the wall the Romans built across what is now the north of England? 2. What great battle took place in England in 1066? 3. How many wives did King Henry VIII have?

Now just as quickly, answer these three questions: 1. What is the name of the wall the Romans built across the middle of Scotland? 2. What great battle involving the Scottish army took place in 1513? 3. How many husbands did Mary, Queen of Scots have?

You will no doubt have easily answered Hadrian’s Wall, Hastings, and six to the first three questions; I bet you didn’t so easily get Antonine’s, Flodden and three (King Francis II of France; Henry, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell) as the answers to the latter three questions.

I could chide you for knowing more about pre-Union English history than Scottish history, but I won’t. It’s just the way most Scottish people were brought up, and for the life of me I do not understand why my party, the SNP, does not make Scottish history a compulsory subject in every school.

Edinburgh, the city of literature and original home of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, should be to the fore in such Scottish history lessons, and if we citizens really knew our history, we would not have allowed the lunacies that have despoiled this city to happen. I call them the failings of Edinburgh, and the list is painful.

Let’s start with crass buildings besmirching the city. I just need to say St James Centre and rest my case.

Peripheral estates that were always going to be concrete jungles. Why Wester Hailes?

Politicians who used Edinburgh for their own ends, such as councillors who saw service on the council merely as a stepping stone to parliament, and were happy only when they grabbed headlines instead of serving their fellow citizens – they failed us, as did many more who were just time- serving party fodder.

A transport system dependent on buses – I’ve nothing against buses, but when you put all your eggs in one basket you do not have a coherent transport policy. Remember the Western Relief Road imbroglio? What more proof was needed that the people supposedly in charge of transport did not have a clue what they were doing.

The sheer incompetence of utility companies who cannot get their act together, thus ensuring that our streets are dug up on a seemingly endless basis – that’s a real failing.

A financial services industry which betrayed original Edinburgh virtues of common sense and plunged the economy into chaos while risking Edinburgh’s reputation as a business centre. Fail, fail, fail.

Last but absolutely not least, the trams fiasco. The present state of Princes Street would make you weep.

These are just a few of the failings of Edinburgh. No doubt you could name many more.

You will have noticed by now that Edinburgh’s failings as I have described them are not the fault of nature or the topography or geography of the city. They are human failings, the errors of people who either did not have the intellect and wisdom or, more importantly, the knowledge to understand what Edinburgh is about, what this extraordinary place means to its citizens and the world.

Edinburgh means history and modernity, tradition and the avant garde, liberality and sophistication, respect and a healthy cynicism, all cheek by jowl in a marvellously eclectic city. It means that we preserve the best things left to us by previous generations but also create new things that are tasteful and sensible.

So how do we ensure the spoilers do not prosper? Knowledge, that’s how.

There are very few things that the British Government has done with immigration that I agree with, yet even though they may be flawed, the citizenship lessons and tests which every new incoming Briton must undergo are a good idea.

It is absurd to allow people to take up citizenship while they have mistaken notions about this country. Frankly, I would make the entire population take the test, for they really are very educational.

Similarly, I would not allow anyone to have anything to do with running this city, or making plans for its future unless and until they can prove their genuine knowledge of this city, that they know about what Edinburgh means, and what makes the place tick.

No-one should be allowed to be a councillor, for instance, who cannot pass a basic knowledge test about the city. You’d be surprised how many would fail this test: What’s the population to the nearest 10,000? What’s the city’s oldest extant building? Who designed the First New Town? How many listed buildings do we have? True or false – Edinburgh has always been capital of Scotland.

If you answered c.450,000, St Margaret’s Chapel, James Craig, more than 4500, and false, then you are pretty knowledgeable about Edinburgh.

So why not stand for the council? You hopefully would know enough to stop the city’s failings being repeated – the real reason why knowledge of our history is so important.