Working for the Scottish Political Archive: A volunteer’s perspective


We asked one of our graduating volunteers Jennifer to tell us about her experiences of volunteering for the Political Archive.  Here is what she had to say:

‘I started volunteering at the Scottish Political Archives in the final semester of my third year having heard about the work that Sarah and the other volunteers did at a workshop put on by the History department. At the time, like many other students nearing the end of their studies, I had no idea what I wanted to do post-university. The only inclination I had was that I wanted to be working in an area which related to my degree. One year later and I have now graduated from the University of Stirling, and have found a career path I am excited to progress down following the completion of my Masters course in Archives and Records Management at the University of Glasgow.

My main focus for the past year has been assisting the creation of an archive of papers donated to the University by Jack McConnell relating to his time in office as First Minster between 2001 and 2007. Through this project I’ve learnt about the different stages of creating an archive, working my way through the initial sorting of materials to creating file listings and digitizing archival materials and cataloguing collection materials.

Alongside this I’ve collected and listed materials relating to the 2016 General Election and the 2016 European Referendum, and have also learnt about restoring and preserving documents which have previously been damaged. In conjunction with this, I helped with the curation of exhibition displays and installation of exhibitions, and latterly taking them down again (I learnt the hard way never to take down vinyls after having a manicure, it’s really upsetting).

Deciding to volunteer at the Archives has not been disappointing, and my only regret was that I didn’t decide to do so earlier on in my studies. Working with Sarah and the other volunteers has been enriching, fun, and never dull, with no two days being the same and always having a new task to sink my teeth into. In two weeks it’ll be my final time climbing to Pathfoot hill to start my afternoon of volunteering, and whilst I am going to miss working with these amazing people and interesting projects, it also marks the beginning of the next chapter. My time at the Scottish Political Archives has given me a hatred for staples which I never had before, and has set me up with the best foundation of learning in archives that I could ask for, and so I whilst I am slightly nervous of starting my postgrad, I am also confident and excited knowing that this is where my career starts.

Thank you to everyone who has made the past year such a great experience and thank you to Sarah for being an amazing teacher and friend, it’s been a pleasure working for you.’

International Women’s Day event. Women in Politics Roundtable



Speakers: Zara Kitson, Ellen Forson, Sheila Mechan, Johanna Boyd and Jen Stout

Tuesday, 8th March, 2016. 6pm

Lecture Theatre B4, Cottrell Building, University of Stirling.

To celebrate International Women’s Day the Scottish Political Archive and the Students’ Union are hosting a Women in Politics roundtable.  This roundtable is part of a debate series held in advance of the May 2016 Scottish Elections.  The series is supported by the University of Stirling’s Stirling Fund.

Zara Kitson works for a national charity promoting LGBT equality and human rights. Zara’s experiences of growing up in an ex-mining village near Stirling drives her passion for equality and social justice. She is an organiser of So Say Scotland, is elected to Women for Independence National Committee and has an MA in Public Policy from Glasgow University. She has previously fought election campaigns for the Scottish Greens in Stirling, Dunfermline and Glasgow North East.

Ellen Forson was elected to Clackmannanshire Council in May 2012 and represents the ward of Clackmannanshire South (Alloa).  She is currently the Convenor of Education, Sport and Leisure.  She has worked for elected representatives for the last twelve years and is the SNP constituency organiser and election agent for the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane Constituency.  Ellen is a graduate of Strathclyde University where she studied politics and geography.  She currently lives in Alloa and has two sons aged 13 and 8.

Sheila Mechan is the Scottish Conservative candidate for Glasgow Kelvin in the 2016 Scottish Elections.  Sheila is a Scottish Solicitor and specialises in Employment Law, operating her own employment law consultancy.  Sheila has extensive industrial relations experience and is a supporter of the wider union movement to include the vital work which is undertaken by Credit Unions in their promotion of and education in strong community finances.

Johanna Boyd is Leader of Stirling Council and the youngest Council Leader in Scotland.  She is a law graduate and following university spent a decade in London representing local authorities, charities and public bodies on a diverse range of issues.  After returning to Scotland she became active again in local and national Labour Party politics, becoming the first woman to lead Stirling Council in 2013.  She is standing for Mid-Scotland & Fife in the 2016 Scottish Elections.

Jen Stout is a journalist with CommonSpace. She is from Fair Isle, Shetland, and her interests include class, LGBT rights, land reform, policing, Scottish politics and history, and Russia. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2012 with a degree in Sociology, and now lives in Glasgow.  During the referendum she ran women’s discussion groups and spoke at public meetings with Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign. She also worked for the independent campaigning organisation 38 Degrees.

Public Lecture. Jack McConnell. From Student Union President to First Minister.

Monday 15th February at 6.30pm, 

B4 Cottrell Building, University of Stirling, Stirling.  FK9 4LA

student president posterCampaign poster for Student President c.1980, Scottish Political Archive

Lord McConnell is a graduate of Stirling University where he served as President of Stirling University Students Association between 1980-82 as well as Vice-President of NUS Scotland in 1982 -3. He graduated in 1983 and took up a post teaching maths in Lornshill Academy in Alloa. Between 1984 and 1993 he served as a Labour Councillor for Logie Ward on Stirling Council, where he held the following posts: Chair of the Leisure and Recreation Committee (1986-87), Equal Opportunities Committee (1986- 1990), Council treasurer (1988-1992) and Council Leader (1990- 1992).

Throughout the 1980s Lord McConnell was involved in the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (Scotland) as well as a founder member of Scottish Labour Action: each was responsible for developing Labour policy in Scotland. He was appointed General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party in 1992, a position he held until 1998, during which time he was a key member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which designed the current devolution settlement. Between 1999 and 2011 he was returned as the Labour MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw, successively holding the positions of Minister for Finance (1999-2000), Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs (2000-2001) before becoming First Minister (2001-2007).  Following his departure from the office of First Minister, Lord McConnell was Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Special Representative for Peace building from 2008 to 2010 and was introduced to membership of the House of Lords in 2010 as Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.

This lecture is part of a debate series held in advance of the May 2016 Scottish Elections.  The series is supported by the University of Stirling’s Stirling Fund and is hosted jointly by the Scottish Political Archive and the Students’ Union.

The Scottish Political Archive holds the Jack McConnell Archive.  Papers relate to all stages of his political career.  For further information please visit our website

For further information about the event series


George Robertson discusses his experience of being a parliamentarian

As part of National Archives Week we asked George Robertson to reflect on his experience of being a Parliamentarian

‘I have been a Parliamentarian for over thirty seven years. That remarkable figure only came home to me a month ago when I was taking some visitors round Westminster. It’s a long, long time.

I went from a byelection rookie (and we are a special breed) to minor Ministerial status in six months and then to the opposition front bench after barely a year. I stayed there for the rest of my Commons career before ending up in the Lords. The period in between was filled with a surfeit of drama. I often felt I could be in a novel – but not a best seller.

Why are by-election winners special? because you come into the place in a blaze of glory, but the rocket turns into a stick very quickly indeed. And if like me you come in at the end of a Parliament when friendships are made, social circles cast in stone the glory fades and it can be very lonely.

Not only that but because of the now banished all night sessions one could come down to London in darkness late on Monday and return home on the sleeper on Thursday and see no daylight in between. And one product of a by-election frenzy is the accumulated commitments to a new constituency. So there goes the weekends.

Opposition is a dreary place to be. You keep going in the hope that it will end in power to do something but our wait was eighteen years so it was a hard slog. I was initially, before the Left decided I was not one of them, a spokesman on Scottish Affairs. That is Scottish local government, Scottish housing, Scottish agriculture and fisheries, Scottish transport, Scottish tourism, and a lot more. A never ending series of controversial issues and problems.

On top of that we had the first bite of devolution and its consequent legislation travelling like a constipated animal through day and night sessions. One highlight (there were few) was the spray of horse manure from the Public Gallery on to the green benches below. Tam Dalyell could not sit down on the Speaker’ instruction for good reason.

My life was also burdened by volunteering to run what would now be called the New Labour faction of the Parliamentary Party. Labour was involved in a civil war and the Manifesto Group campaigned for One-member-one-vote, for the expulsion of the entryist Militant Tendency, for the EU and multilateral disarmament. Could never happen again, eh?

The then General Secretary of the Fabian Society had been asked by a group studying (nothing is new) getting more women into Parliament. She, and she is now in the Lords, asked me to do diary of a two week period. It was rejected as being too fanciful and exaggerated and yet it was a faithful account of what I had done. Only wimps need sleep.

But the Left had its way and I was purged and the new Leader, Michael Foot, appointed me to the defence team, shadowing the Navy Minister. Soon afterwards he was sacked and his position abolished. Not long after that the whole Labour defence team was sacked for not being unilateralist. I was posted to Foreign Affairs under Dennis Healey. I was to stay there for a record eleven years. Working with Dennis was a unique experience. If you called his tiny office he would pretend, with real accuracy, to be a Chinese laundry. Disconcerting until you got used to the joke.

After the debacle of the 1983 election I was given the European portfolio. We had just fought, and decisively lost, the election on a host of self-destructive policies such as withdrawal from the EU without a referendum. Neil Kinnock said we had to change the policy but first we had to hide the issue. So successfully did I do that that I disappeared myself. I stood and failed a couple of times for the Shadow Cabinet. People like Brown and Blair were crowding the polls.

But the European issue was to be my salvation. After the Tories won the 1992 election again John Major’s government did what Labour is expert at. It split. Europe and the Maastricht Treaty shattered the Tory Party with one faction of 26 rebel MP’s at the end of a phone line to me, defeating their own government.

Eventually we devised a brilliant device for voting on the famous Social Chapter. Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byres helped and we invented the so-called Semtex Amendment. The rebels duly rebelled and the government was defeated for the first time in fourteen years. That ploy, so ingenious that I cannot remember what it was, was to secure me enough support to get elected to the Shadow Cabinet. I was given the post of Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.

John Smith gave it to me saying “I know its the toughest xxxxxx job in politics – except for mine!’ And that was no joke. Four years hard labour after which every other job was a piece of cake.

Local government reform, councils in the spotlight, water privatisation resisted and and devolution again. The Scottish Constitutional Convention – a finely tuned torture machine produced a plan – and I had to sell it – in every detail to the Labour national leadership. Not a bit easy. We agreed a referendum to anchor the new Parliament and when we announced it the roof fell in.

Of course everyone now realises it was the finest anchor possible but then? Betrayal they shouted, turn coats they wailed, wreckers they accused. Not easy to be a political leader in Scotland. Just ask Jack, John Swinney, Jim Wallace, Henry and even Alex.

The move to the Ministry of Defence was almost a holiday after Scotland.

It came out of the blue. T Blair wanted Donald back in Scotland and he wanted someone strong and with an international profile in Defence. I could not complain.

It was a remarkable period. A thorough Defence Review which lasted eleven years. A weakening attack on Sadaam and the war in Kosovo with all the refugees home. Lots of events and some of the best people in the country working for you.

Then it was to NATO. A huge job making herding cats simple by comparison. Not just one Prime Minister to tangle with but nineteen. Presidents (and newly appointed Putin) and Prime Ministers to negotiate with. Nine eleven and Article 5, an almost civil war in Macedonia, the Afghanistan campaign and the Iraq War playing in our back channels as well. A million kilometres by air, a dozen agreements, several Summits and an endless supply of trouble. Distant days from my far from distinguished school army cadet days.

And now the Lords. An anachronism which survives and works. It should not exist in this day and age but until the Commons gets the courage to change it or abolish it, then it will continue. I have voted for every reform package and would vote for abolition but in the meantime it is the only delaying, think again brake in our system. I attend, occasionally speak, watch and listen. I am not, and won’t be, on the front bench.

I remember my long days, the hours of preparation, the scant notice taken. I watch my friend Dianne Hayter (Baroness Hayter!) performing superbly at the dispatch box and I recall that she was the Fabian General Secretary who told me her colleagues did not believe the work done in opposition. They know now.’

George Islay MacNeill Robertson was first elected as MP for Hamilton in the May 1978 by-election and held this seat until 1999. During his time in Parliament he was appointed an Opposition Spokesman in 1979, first on Scottish Affairs, then on Defence, and on Foreign Affairs from 1982 to 1993. He became Chief Spokesman on Europe in 1983. He also served as the principal Opposition Spokesman on Scotland in the Shadow Cabinet from 1993-1997. After Labour’s victory in the 1997 General Election, he was appointed as Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom, a position he held until October 1999. Between 1999 and 2004 he was appointed Secretary General of NATO. He was also raised to the peerage as Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay in Argyll and Bute in 1999.

The Scottish Political Archive hold his personal archives.For further information please visit the online catalogue

Jack McConnell reflects on his time in the Scottish Parliament

As part of National Archives week we asked former First Minister Jack McConnell to reflect on his time in the Scottish

(Jack McConnell addresses a Right to Work Rally at Stirling University, 1980)

‘When I cast my first vote in March 1979, in the referendum for the then Scottish Assembly, I could not possibly have realised that 20 years later, after a Scottish Parliament was finally approved by another referendum, I would be sitting in that first Scottish Parliament as the Member for the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency.

Like many of my generation, I was deeply affected by the result of the 1979 referendum when Scots voted Yes but without sufficient enthusiasm to propel the legislation into law. For the decade after we challenged the right of the UK government to impose legislation on Scotland and in the nineties we came together through the Scottish Constitutional Convention to draw up a better plan for Scotland.

On 1 July 1999 that plan became a reality and the new Scottish Parliament assumed its powers. These were difficult years, with the loss of two First Ministers, many scandals and signs of uncertainty. And suddenly in November 2001, with an immense sense of pride, I found myself elected to the position of First Minister of Scotland.

My two years as Finance and Education Minister, with responsibility for External Affairs, had given me a good grounding in the work of the Scottish Government. We had to steady the ship, point it in the right direction and then use our powers to help develop the kind of Scotland in which I had always believed.

Despite all the ups and downs of individual moments, even that first four years saw considerable achievements: the end of feudal tenure in Scotland; major land reforms liberating communities from the stranglehold of absentee landlords; Scottish education and health back on track with new legislation guaranteeing the rights of the most vulnerable and professional confidence returning to the systems; the devolution of new powers over renewables in 2002, allowing a commitment to significantly improve Scotland’s environmental record; and challenges to bigotry, homophobia and racism to make Scotland a better place for all.

But the 2003-2007 parliament was to become the most productive in these first 16 years: the transformation of Scotland’s creaking justice system through modernising legislation on everything from judicial appointments to young offenders; new schools and colleges; a smoking ban which led the way in the UK and won over public opinion for the single most successful law enacted in Scotland in recent decades; and the wider use of Parliamentary legitimacy and First Ministerial authority to attract fresh talent to Scotland, reversing Scotland’s population decline and making Scotland more successful.

These were exciting and regularly turbulent times but as an MSP my primary responsibility was to the constituents who elected me 3 times. The people of Motherwell and Wishaw had seen tough times in the eighties and nineties so representing them from 1999 to 2011 was a huge privilege. I look back on the new college building, the new regional sport centre, the new hospital, and the new schools with hope that I helped ensure the next generation have a better chance of reaching their potential.’

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale was introduced to membership of the House of Lords in 2010. He served as First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007. He was Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs from 2000 to 2001 and Minister for Finance from 1999 to 2000. He was the MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw from 1999 to 2011.  He is a graduate of  the University of Stirling and was a member of Stirling District Council between 1984 and 1992, serving as Council Leader between 1990 and 1992.  He was also General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party between 1992 and 1998. 

The Scottish Political Archive holds the McConnell archive with personal papers relating to all stages of his political career.  For further information please email 


Dennis Canavan shares his thoughts on Parliamentary Democracy

As part of National Archives Week we asked politicians whose personal papers are part of the archive to share their thoughts on being a parliamentarian.  Here Dennis Canavan discusses his thoughts on Parliamentary Democracy.


UK politicians are fond of boasting that Westminster is the Mother of Parliaments, the birth-place of democracy. Athenians might have something to say about that but, in this day and age, the Westminster Establishment shows scant regard for Greece and its history.

Whatever the arguments about the past, the truth is that, in the 21st century, the UK Parliament is probably one of the most undemocratic legislatures in the civilised world. It consists of one House with around 800 members, none of whom is elected, and another House whose electoral system can produce a Government with a thumping majority of seats with the support of as little as one third of the electorate.

When I was first elected as a Labour MP in October 1974, I was one quarter of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s majority and every other Labour MP could make the same claim. When a government has a wafer-thin majority, it enhances the power of the legislature and hence the accountability of the Executive to the people. Conversely, when a government has a massive majority, that accountability is diminished and democracy loses out if parliament is reduced to a mere rubber-stamp.

From 1979 until 1997, I experienced the frustration of being a Parliamentary representative from Scotland, where my party had a majority of elected representatives but we were out-numbered and therefore out-voted by representatives from other parts of the UK. As a result, we were able to voice our opposition but deliver practically nothing for the people we were elected to represent. It was like banging your head against a brick wall. The over-centralised nature of the British state meant that Westminster could impose upon the people of Scotland policies, such as the poll tax, against the wishes of the majority of the people of Scotland and their elected representatives.

Even when there eventually came about a change of Government in 1997, the parliamentary agenda was very much trimmed and tailored to suit the politics of Middle England. I increasingly felt that Westminster was completely out of touch with the people because too many Westminster politicians were living in a cocoon, shielded from the rest of the world.

What a contrast in 1999, when I was elected as a Member of the first Scottish Parliament for nearly three centuries. Although I was the only Independent MSP, I did not feel entirely alone. I almost immediately realised that the Scottish Parliament collectively was responding far more readily and far more positively to the needs, the wishes and the aspirations of the people of Scotland. I experienced this on a range of issues as diverse as University tuition fees, care of the elderly and radical land reform. The only thing I personally missed about Westminster was my membership of House of Commons Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and International Development, although my membership of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee enabled me to continue my interest in international affairs.

My parliamentary experience over a third of a century has enabled me to learn lessons from being a member of two contrasting parliaments as well as observing the work of other parliaments throughout the world.

There is no model of democracy which is perfect in every respect but I have reached the conclusion that “first-past-the-post”is the worst of all electoral systems, because it can produce an elected dictatorship whereby one party can form the government despite having the support of a relatively small minority of the people.

The link between the people and their elected representatives is essential for the survival of democracy and political parties should never forget that. I was virtually born and brought up in the Labour Party. My Grandfather was one of the founding members of the first branch of the Labour Party in the county of Fife. I feel rather sad that, over a century later, the Labour Party disowned me for having the audacity to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament. It was the Party hierarchy who took that decision, despite the fact that I had the support of 97% of the party members in my constituency.

I still think that political parties have a vital role to play in any democracy but there is one thing they should always remember. Parliamentarians should not be treated as mere party hacks or voting fodder. They are first and foremost representatives of the people and that is one of the most basic principles of parliamentary democracy. Politics is not just about politicians. It’s about people.

Dennis Canavan is a former Labour MP and Independent MSP.  The Scottish Political Archive holds some of his personal papers.  He has participated in an interview with SPA discussing his memories of the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums. His interview forms part of the Devolution Referendums Oral History Collection within the archive.

Capturing the Referendum Campaign for the archive- a volunteer’s perspective

laura and carol

Over the last two years the archive has actively developed a 2014 Independence Referendum Collection to complement existing material held in the archive relating to the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums. We have had lots of help from many people attending campaign events, taking photographs and collecting campaign materials produced by the individual groups and political parties to record the grassroots referendum campaign throughout Scotland.

Our student interns have been an invaluable help in trying to collect as much as humanly possible. They have tirelessly travelled round the country attending events in the months preceding the referendum and were also at many of the counts on referendum night. We asked one of our interns Rebecca (pictured above attending a referendum event for the archive) about her experience of volunteering for us throughout the referendum campaign and she said:

‘I have been volunteering with the Scottish Political Archive for two years, and it has been amazing. The archive has provided me with so many opportunities as well as equipping me with new skills and abilities which have been beneficial both to earning my undergraduate BA, my postgraduate MSc and to finding employment post university. While working with the archive on their referendum collection I have been given the opportunity to benefit from some of the most vibrant political debate in Britain, enhancing my understanding of the political landscape in Scotland and allowing me to make contacts and attend events I would otherwise have never been able to attend. The networks of people I have engaged with as a direct result of my involvement with the archive and the ability to fully consider and understand the material I have collected is something which I feel I have only grasped in such depth because of the opportunities being a volunteer for the archive has given me. In short it has been a truly fantastic two years, and something which I hope to continue!’

The 2014 Independence Referendum Collection now numbers over 2,000 images and also includes leaflets, badges, banners and assorted ephemeral material. This collection will be stored permanently as part of the Scottish Political Archive made available physically at the University of Stirling and virtually as a digital resource online.

Volunteering for the Political Archive- a volunteer’s perspective

laura and carol

One of the great things about the archive is the help that we get from our student volunteers.  Each year we have a small team of volunteers who help with the mountain of material that we have to catalogue.  They are an invaluable help to the archive and we are always sad when they have to move on after graduation to bigger and better things.  We asked Carol one of our volunteers to write something about her experience of volunteering with us.  Here is what she said:

“When sitting in a lecture one day, Sarah came and spoke to us about volunteering with either the political archives or the art collection.  What really appealed to me was how much she said it could help to build up our CV’s.  Yet, I got a lot more out of volunteering with the political archives than just that.  I helped out with the Jack McConnell papers within the Political Archives.  When we first started, we were tasked with helping to organise two roomfuls of crates of his papers from throughout his career into categories.  At first it felt very daunting, however Sarah soon put us all at ease and the other volunteers were great too, it ended up being a really enjoyable atmosphere, and many happy afternoons were spent sorting through the papers in a cottage within the university.  Furthermore, the papers themselves were really interesting and I found myself learning more and more about the inner workings of his political career which could be riveting at times too.  There was material, for example, from the run up to the opening of the Scottish Parliament and election and campaign materials and documents from his time as First Minister.  The thing I loved most however was the hours spent cataloguing the papers.  This may sound strange, but because of the interest factor of the material it was absorbing and exciting to be holding and reading things which formed a part of both historically and politically significant moments.  The thing I especially loved though was the feeling that in the future, or the present for that matter, these materials would be extremely valuable.  The feeling that we were contributing to providing an archive of materials of extreme political and historical significance just made it all feel very worthwhile.

Now that I am leaving university, sadly my time volunteering has come to an end.  Yet, I have taken away many things including, for example, a sounder understanding of politics from an inner point of view.  It has also added to my skills and now I can say I am familiar with cataloguing and other aspects of archiving, which of course looks very impressive on my C.V.  Also, because of the weeks of work experience you will have, Sarah can also be included as an all important reference which is very valuable when the time comes to step on the career ladder.”

SPA talk at Pecha Kucha event

SPA’s archivist Sarah will be speaking about the archive and how we are collecting archive material for the referendum this Friday at the next Creative Stirling Pecha Kucha event.  This is an open event and all are welcome. 

35 year anniversary of the 1979 Referendum

This Saturday marks 35 years since the 1979 devolution referendum.  Here are two campaign leaflets from the archive.


The No leaflet was issued by Scotland is British.  Scotland is British was formed in late 1976 to campaign against the Scotland and Wales Bill.  The group’s leaders comprised of journalist Adam Fergusson, former Labour MP George Lawson and trade unionist Archie Birt.  The group aimed to garner support from MPs and other leading opponents to the Bill.    Many leading members of this group also campaigned under Labour Votes No and Scotland Says No.


The Yes leaflet was published by Yes for Scotland.  The Yes for Scotland campaign was launched on 26th January 1978.  This group was chaired by Lord Kilbrandon, the author of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, 1973.  The campaign was originally intended to be a cross-party group.  However, the Labour Party declined to be involved in this group, preferring to campaign alone under the banner of Labour Movement Yes.  The group consisted of politicians (most notably Jim Sillars), members of the church and cultural figures. However, the non-cooperation of the Labour Party effectively ensured that Yes for Scotland was not seen as the umbrella group it had originally been intended to be. 

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