is dedicated to the memory
of the sailors of the Free French Naval Forces
who sailed from Greenock in the years 1940-45
and gave their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic
for the liberation of France
and the success of the Allied cause
was designed and erected
by the officers and men
of the French Naval Base at Greenock
with the help of subscriptions
raised among the crews of
the Free French Naval Forces
– inscription on the Cross of Lorraine
This is the Free French Memorial. It stands atop Lyle Hill, and offers a wonderful view of Greenock, my birth town, and a wee bit of Gourock, my home town.
When the Germans overran France, many ships and sailors refused to surrender and return to their homeland: they became the Free French, a government-in-exile who fought with the Allies to reclaim their home – not unlike when Robert the Bruce and his staunchest supporters fled Scotland in 1306. They were based near Fort Matilda, and had their social club in the halls of Martyr’s and North Church. Over 1,500 Free French sailors were based in Greenock in the early 1940s at one point. These were people who had no homeland. We offered them a place – at least, until they could return. Some viewed this as their new home. Hence, Greenock had its own “Little France,” to go along with the more famous one in Edinburgh.
It’s just another tale in the long friendship between Scotland and France, dating back to the Auld Alliance and beyond. Scotland was friends with many countries over the centuries: the Low Countries, Denmark, Germany, Spain and Portugal, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Italy, and as far afield as Malawi, Ethiopia, Chile, Brazil, the Caribbean, and China. As such, many Scots have roots in those countries, too.
Italian Scots have a long history arguably going back to those first little steps over what would become the Caledonian-Britannian border, but the majority of them came here as refugees – either from the famine of the late 19th Century, or from the aftermath of the First World War. Irish Scots, too, came to Scotland long before the nation even existed – but even when the nation of Scotland was well established, Irish people came and integrated in the wake of disaster. Scotland is well known for its own people’s migration to far-off climes – but it has been a land of migrants itself. The Britons of Alt Clud, the Gaels of Dál Riata and Gall-ghàidheil, all joined with the Picts to form the Kingdom of Alba. Even our foundation myth of Scota is based on an Egyptian princess coming here all the way from Africa. We had room then, we have room now.
In fact, it’s more than that: we need more people. Inverclyde’s population went from 99,551 in 1981, to 81,000 in 2013. If current trends continue, Inverclyde’s population could plummet to 65,000 over the next 25 years – the largest decrease of any local authority in Scotland. This is the latest fall in a long period of decline since its height of 142,571 in 1921. If we don’t act, Inverclyde could waste away to the point where it could be quietly absorbed into a larger, growing public authority like Renfrewshire. So I don’t want to hear a single person say Inverclyde couldn’t hold more refugees – we’re one of the few places in Scotland where our population is going down. We would be foolish not to welcome anyone who would make their home in our beautiful corner of Scotland.
This is George Jabbour. He was the Conservative candidate for Inverclyde in the 2015 General Election. He was never going to go far as a Conservative in Inverclyde of all places, and I certainly don’t need to remind you that I feel the party he belongs to has done much harm and evil to the people of the UK. Yet George is a Syrian immigrant. He came to the UK after spending his first 22 years in Damascus under Assad. As much as he has joined a party which I hold in utter contempt, he has done some good work for the people of Portugal and Libya in his capacity in the world of finance. The last I heard, George’s family are still in Damascus. I truly hope they’re alright.
The First Minister has offered to take on 1,000 refugees – a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands fleeing nightmare and tragedy. We accepted 4,000 Italians at the turn of the century. We housed 1,500 Free French in the 1940s. We could easily find room for 1,000 Syrians. Could George’s parents be among them? I’d welcome George’s parents to Inverclyde. I’d welcome all the Syrians we could hold, just as we welcomed French and Italians and all the different tribes of humanity. I’d even welcome George back.