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Local MSP hands back her MBE

Independent highlands and islands MSP Jean Urquhart...minus one MBE.

JUST as one group of public-spirited individuals bask in the glow of an award in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list – including two Shetlanders – independent highlands and islands MSP Jean Urquhart has decided to start 2015 by handing back the MBE she received 25 years ago.

Back in 1990, Urquhart accepted the award for the work she and her late husband did – along with many others, she emphasises – in setting up The Ceilidh Place as a centre for the arts and tourism in Ullapool.

“It was for services to the arts and the community and we thought it would help us to be taken seriously if we accepted it,” she recalled.

More than 20 years later, as she returned home from Shetland after standing here as a candidate for the SNP in the 2011 Holyrood election, she was invited to accept an OBE for her public work.

This time she turned the offer down. “By then I had a very different attitude towards what we should be doing as an award system and I did write about it at the time,” she said.

It was on Thursday this week that broadcaster, author and independence campaigner Lesley Riddoch revealed in her column in The National that Urquhart had decided to send her MBE back to the Queen.

Speaking from Holyrood, Urquhart explained there were two main reasons why she had made the decision.

“Firstly, it would be outrageous to say that what was happening at The Ceilidh Place was down to me as an individual. There are always other people making things happen.

“As they say, MBE stands for Many Buggers’ Efforts. No one gets it for what they have done themselves, unless they have written a great novel single-handedly or something and I think this is a dilemma that many people face who receive these awards.

“I also think it’s an outdated system. We may have a royal family, but we don’t have a British Empire any more, though some people act as if we do.

“And I think the last straw for me was the ‘purring’ (what prime minister David Cameron said the Queen did on hearing the results of the independence referendum).

“The idea that the Queen was so delighted! She should have been apolitical and stayed out of the whole thing and she didn’t.

“She allowed herself to be used and I think that is unacceptable, it was undemocratic and it was certainly against all the rules I have understood the royal family to have in our democracy.”

This is not the first time Urquhart has courted controversy by standing up for her beliefs, having left the SNP in 2012 in protest at the party voting for an independent Scotland to join NATO.

On the issue of awards, she agrees that people should be recognised for their efforts, but believes there should be another way of doing it.

“We need another system and I think there should be a bit of a debate about how Scotland does want to recognise what people do.

“Small communities do it sometimes, for things like 30 years as a volunteer, and organisations like the Saltire Society, the film and music industry and even local government do it.”

She added that the MBE she had received a quarter of a century ago remained the property of the state and had to be returned on her death.

“You can’t leave it in your will, so at the very least it’s just sitting at the back of the drawer and doing nothing, so they might as well have it back and give it to someone else. I’d call it healthy recycling.

“In fact, I suggest we have an amnesty for all the people who think they should not have taken an award, and we could put them all in one big package and send them back to Madge.”