SIR Geoff Palmer, the chancellor of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, has had a remarkable life. Born in Jamaica, he came to the UK in the mid-1950s. While chance had a significant role in his path to university, his abilities led him into postgraduate research in brewing science, with his subsequent discoveries leading him to become an adviser to several international companies.

He founded Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling. An outstandingly successful academic, he has received many honours.

Chance was important because Sir Geoff was part of the Windrush generation. He was Scotland’s first professor of African descent – and also the first who was a direct descendant of slaves. His life could easily have been very different.

Finding a job after graduation was difficult. At one interview, when told that he should “go back home and grow bananas,” he retorted that it was quite hard to grow bananas in Haringey. He is probably best known just now for his ongoing spat with another knighted academic, Sir Tom Devine. Scotland’s leading historian has clashed repeatedly with Sir Geoff over the legacy of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.

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I will not try to adjudicate in this dispute – that could be a task for Michael Fry, whose book The Dundas Despotism explores the family’s role in the long series of Tory governments from the time of Lord North in the 1770s, through the era of Pitt the Younger, and up to the early 1830s.

This was a period of substantial political repression, but it eventually saw the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade succeed – even if slavery was only abolished after a Whig government finally replaced the Tories in 1830.

For Sir Geoff, Dundas’s support for the gradual abolition of the slave trade was a front for tolerating the ongoing trafficking of more than 40,000 Africans per year to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, where their life expectancy would be about 10 years.

As a result of a public campaign, a new plaque has been placed on the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh’s New Town, which recognises some of the complexities of Dundas’s heritage.

In many ways, Dundas made the Union between Scotland and England work. That meant that he created many opportunities for people in Scotland – often to travel to other countries, and to make better lives than they might in Scotland. While there are some people in the independence movement who regard Scotland as a colony, that ignores the way in which the Union of 1707 enabled Scots to explore and exploit England’s burgeoning empire.

Crudely, Scottish education, combined with English capital, sustained the British Empire. Throughout the world, Scots found work as clerks, managers, and overseers, as well as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It would be easy for many of us to tell a comforting story about how our ancestors were not involved in any of this and were also exploited.

In the complex story about how Europe benefited from the ability of countries to project military and economic power across the world, Scotland has an integral role.

Glasgow’s population grew from 40,000 in 1750 to 200,000 in 1800 to 800,000 in 1880. As well as the tobacco trade in the 18th century, it was well-placed as a port for the sugar trade, which was concentrated in the Caribbean.

Stephen Mullen of Glasgow University has just published a book, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy, which gives a detailed history of that trade. Wealth obtained from slavery found its way back to Scotland from Jamaica, Grenada and Trinidad.

OF course, much of that wealth found its way into the hands of a small middle class. But some of it found its way into important institutions. Glasgow University estimates the value of the benefits it obtained purely from its connections with the slave trade to have a current value of £200 million.

It has established a programme to offer reparations. That is one institution, thinking only about the impact of the most clearly indefensible parts of the imperial project on other parts of the world.

More broadly, as the first industrialised country, Britain’s dominance in trade depended on coal as an energy source. Europe and North America have played a very large role in causing climate change. We saw COP27 stumble to a conclusion in the usual way, with negotiations carrying on past the initial deadline. Its outcome was typically disappointing.

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An agreement on the principle of compensation for loss and damage was tempered by the watering down of previous commitments to move swiftly to eliminate all fuel emissions. Suddenly, high-emission fuels are once again acceptable. Coal may be on the way out, but gas could be here to stay.

If Scotland cannot be a state, then at least, as a nation, it can be fruitfully engaged with its past. There is no shame in our history, and we cannot change it. Knowing it, we should better shape the future.

Engagement with proposals for a global loss and damage fund is one step, to which the First Minister is clearly committed.

As a country, we should also be looking beyond net zero, recognising the extent to which our economic development took place at the expense of other countries, whose economies should pass through a period of carbon intensity, especially as they build the physical infrastructure which we take for granted. Practical decolonisation demands such restorative justice.