scott arthurIn the run-up to the many Burns Night celebrations that local Labour parties will run across the country, Scott Arthur reflects on the ethos of Robert Burns, whose influence is cited by many and still felt today.

 

I have to concede that I don’t know a great deal about Burns. I know he was born in 1759 in Alloway and died just 37 years later in Dumfries. I know he wrote poems and songs, but that’s about it. So in drafting this blog I wanted to learn more about the man and how he has influenced modern Scotland. To do this we have to look at when Burns lived and his values.

Just 50 or so years before his birth, the Act of Union had taken place. Scotland had joined with England. England had 5 times the population and 36 times the wealth. Scotland did not have equal riches, but Scots became equal partners. Amongst the benefits Scotland brought to the table was education. As well as a literate general population, we had a highly developed university system – five universities, to England’s two.

By the time Burns was born, Scotland was successfully combining its educated population with English gold to create the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, he was to be a key part of this intellectual movement. This movement, combined with our protestant work ethic, enabled Scotland to punch above its weight and become more affluent. However, much of the “punching” took place in the Empire, and focused on tobacco and slavery.

We should not pretend that by the time of Burns’ birth everyone was happy with the union in Scotland. After all, the 1715 Jacobite rebellion would have been within living memory and his parents would have lived through the 1745 rebellion. Indeed, his grandfather is likely to have lived through both uprisings.

Given that Burns’ family no doubt discussed these events, it is tempting to wonder what he made of Scotland’s constitutional position. It is notable, however, that in over 600 works published by Burns there is hardly a mention of the Jacobite rebellion. His attachment to the Jacobite cause was purely sentimental, and he had no desire to see the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Furthermore, as Alex Salmond once said, “No-one should ever try to pigeon-hole Burns into party politics because he was far too big for that”. Nonetheless, Mr Salmond did go on to suggest that Burns would have voted Yes in the referendum because “From tip to toe, Robert Burns was a 100% Scottish patriot” – as if one can’t be a patriotic Scot and oppose the will of Alex Salmond.

The problem Mr Salmond faced was that although he could extend the referendum franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, allowing the dead of the 18th century to vote was beyond even his abilities! Furthermore, we can’t imagine what Burns would make of Scotland today and our ruling class in Holyrood. More interesting than how Burns would have voted in the referendum is how he influenced politics today.

So what were Burns’ values? For the Burns family the 1745 rebellion coincided with his grandfather taking on the lease of a farm. When the farm encountered financial problems just two years later, Burns’ father moved to Edinburgh where he worked for two years landscaping gardens in the area now known as “The Meadows”. In 1750 he moved to Ayrshire and worked as a gardener until 1786. He then became a head gardener and leased seven acres of land at Alloway where he built the cottage which was later the birthplace of Burns.

So Burns would have grown up in a household which knew what hard work was, but he would also have been familiar with the wealth of the laird. At the same time the world was also changing more in the second half of the 18th century than Scotland had in the first:

  • Britain became the dominant power on earth.
  • The slave trade began to crumble (Burns was almost part of it)
  • America fought an 8 year war of independence (messy, but perhaps quicker than a “once in a lifetime” referendum).
  • Australia was discovered (or perhaps rediscovered).
  • The French revolution took place.

Just as the world was changing, so was Scotland:

  • Wearing tartan and the kilt was again legal.
  • The Forth-Clyde Canal was opened.
  • Scotland’s first proper lighthouse was built.

In the 18th century the opening of the Forth-Clyde Canal and the construction of lighthouse at Kinnaird Head would have been massive engineering endeavours. Thanks to good maintenance, we still benefit from them today.

Like many other Scots, Burns worked hard and sought a better life for himself. He moved from farmer to mill worker to white collar tax collector. This experience, and that of growing up on a farm, would have shaped him more than anything, and this is reflected in his works. Burns reports and reflects on the lives of ordinary Scots, and freely insults and attacks the privileged in society – the clergy, the wealthy and government employees like himself. On politicians he said, “all would rule, but none obey”.

Indeed his sympathies for Wallace, Bruce and the French Revolution were all rooted in his opposition to tyranny and the subjugation of the poor.

Even if we look at a Burns poem which we all learn at school, To a Mouse, we find that it offers more than meets the eye. On the surface it tells the story of a mouse whose home has been destroyed by a ploughman. However, is also a depiction of how the ordinary man is equally vulnerable to external forces. As a tenant farmer, Burns was particularly aware that the best laid plans of mice and men may often go wrong. However, man suffers even more through worry than the mouse which apparently only lives in the moment.

It is this perspective that led to UNESCO declaring Burns the world’s first ‘people’s poet’ because he began the practice of writing poetry, prose and songs about the commonplace experiences of the poor.

People as diverse as Bob Dylan and Colin Fox, the SSP leader, claim Burns inspired them. I disagree with Fox on many issues, but I don’t doubt his commitment to fairness and equality. But when we look at impact of Burns on society, towering above both Fox and Dylan is Keir Hardie – the man who started the democratic revolution that delivered the NHS and the welfare state. Hardie said that he owed more to Burns “than any man alive or dead”. Indeed, Hardie rejected Marxism in favour of a humane and popular approach to politics that came out of his Christianity and the works of Burns. Referring to the ideas of humanity and equality found in the works of Burns, Hardie told a friend that “Burns point of view” was superior to a socialism of “German formulas” (Marx).

So in conclusion, we in Scotland should be proud of the way Burns has influenced political thinking and his role in inspiring the likes of Hardie. However, I would say that we should perhaps concern ourselves less about what Burns would have thought about Scottish independence and more about his values and how they can continue to shape Scotland to meet the needs of ordinary Scots. The problem we face is that Scotland’s ruling political elite, and I include all the media in that, find the constitutional politics more interesting than the job of making Scotland a fairer and more equal society.

Therefore, in toasting the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns next week we should pay tribute not only to the passion and power of his work, but we must acknowledge that as Scots we owe him a debt of gratitude for impact he has had, and continues to have, on our great country.

Related Posts

39 thoughts on “An immortal memory

  1. ” England had 5 times the population and 36 times the wealth. Scotland did not have equal riches, but Scots became equal partners.”
    So what happened in the intervening 300 years that Scotland has slipped so far from it’s place in an “equal partnership”?

    1. I think you’ve missed the difference between “Scots” and “Scotland”. Everyone across the UK has the same vote in UK elections, the same rights and responsibilities in UK law. That, I believe, is what the author is referring to.

      1. “I think you’ve missed the difference between “Scots” and “Scotland”. Everyone across the UK has the same vote in UK elections, the same rights and responsibilities in UK law. That, I believe, is what the author is referring to.”

        That right to vote was not employed in forming the UK. In fact Scots were deprived of their right to vote for or against forming the UK in 1706.

        The UK of GB union was created through criminal corruption i.e bribery and intimidation not democracy.

        The Parliamentary representation was unbalanced from the start when only 16 Scottish peers were allowed access to the House of lords which holds up to this very day.

        There is no measure you can use to claim equality which is why one again you resorted to transparent and deliberate haver and click baiting mince.

      2. “By the time Burns was born, Scotland was successfully combining its educated population with English gold to create the Scottish Enlightenment”

        You already highlighted the fact that the Scots were enlightened long before the corruption of the criminal conspiracy that became the “Act of Union”. They didn’t need “English gold” to become enlightened to anything other than the corruption that was the Westminster Parliament.

        Which also holds as true today as it did in 1706.

      3. ” However, much of the “punching” took place in the Empire, and focused on tobacco and slavery.!”

        A perfect indictment of the type of Red coated Uncle Tam we see today supporting the criminal corruption of disunion for personal gain. Only now they vote for not only the Tory whigs but the Tory Labour and Libdems as well.

        A market in tobacco and slavery only the so called UK union could have opened up and corrupted Scotland.
        Hardly a Union benefit to the nation when the taxation profit ended up in London and the private enterprise profit ended up in the pockets of Uncle Tam Lairds.

      4. It is notable, however, that in over 600 works published by Burns there is hardly a mention of the Jacobite rebellion.

        It is more noticeable however in the manner in which you deliberately ignored the fact that 2 of his greatest works included Bruce’s address to his army before the battle of Bannockburn ” Scots Wha Hae” and his condemnation of the Act of Union itself ” A Parcel of Rogues”.

        Kind of gives you the idea of where his loyalties and sympathies really lied.

        I don’t know who is worse you Scott or Duncan. A right pair of click baiting self conceited mince artists.

      5. “From tip to toe, Robert Burns was a 100% Scottish patriot” – as if one can’t be a patriotic Scot and oppose the will of Alex Salmond.”

        One cannot claim to be a patriotic Scot while simultaneously disagreeing with the principle of a separate Scottish identity and existence of Scotland as a Nation State.

        In doing so your patriotism clearly lies in subordinating the Scottish identity beneath a greater identity to the extent of subjugation.

      6. “Wearing tartan and the kilt was again legal”

        Remind us again who made it Illegal and then remind us that it took a Royal decree from Queen Victoria to force Parliament to make it legal.

      7. “Britain became the dominant power on earth.”

        Britain became the biggest warmongering terrorist state the world has ever had to endure. Now its only the second biggest.

      8. “the man who started the democratic revolution that delivered the NHS and the welfare state. Hardie said that he owed more to Burns “than any man alive or dead”.

        Keir Hardy wouldn’t recognise nor acknowledge the Red Tory “New Labour” party of today. He would be forced to admit that the only parties which kept the traditions and ambitions of his dreams alive today were all pro Independence.

        1. Hi Scott, good to see one of the authors of the pieces willing to come on and debate. Was Duncan correct that you meant Scots voters rather than Scotland?
          When you said, “England had 5 times the population and 36 times the wealth” did you mean voters because, surely, you would have said “English voters”. Sorry if I’ve confused what you were meaning to say.

  2. ” Act of Union”

    it was a treaty of union that was ratified in two separate acts….the treaty can be revoked and cannot be modified by Westminster

    “Burns has influenced political thinking and his role in inspiring the likes of Hardie.” …..
    What about Blair and Co. would Burns or Hardie for that matter approve of New Labour?

    “The problem we face is that Scotland’s ruling political elite, and I include all the media in that, find the constitutional politics more interesting than the job of making Scotland a fairer and more equal society.”

    Under New Labour and Scotland in particular under the control of Labour…..has inequality gone up or gone down over the course of time Labour were in a position to do something about it?

    excerpts from “Inequality in Scotland” (Bell and Eiser)

    “Since the mid-1990s ……. inequality at the extreme ends of the distribution has increased in the last decade. The incomes of the top 1-2% of earners have increased compared to the
    average. At the same time, those in the bottom 5-10% of the earnings distribution
    have fallen further behind the average.”

    “The Scottish labour market became increasingly polarised between 2001 and 2010.
    This means there while the share of higher paying and lower paying jobs increased,
    the share of middle-wage jobs fell, contributing to inequality growth. ”

    “The constitutional debate has thus far focussed on the desirability of reducing inequality rather than on the evidence about its level and how it has changed over time.”

    “inequality remains high in Scotland and rUK compared to many other
    OECD countries”

    So under Labour inequality has risen directly under Labour’s watch

    From the same paper

    “The Scottish Government has recently expressed concern that inequality will inhibit long-term
    growth prospects. There is also an argument that inequality inhibits short-run growth when demand is weak, as at present. This is because the poor, who have a high propensity to consume, suffer
    disproportionately during recessions, and weak consumption growth defers recovery”

    ” the Scottish Government (2013) argues:
    ‘Scotland is currently part of a UK economic model and society which is one of the most
    unequal in the OECD. Inequality within the UK has increased in recent decades. Such
    patterns of inequality will continue to have a negative impact on growth and prosperity
    over the long-term’. ”

    the only champions for inequality appear to be the current Scottish government….Hardie would approve

    1. The IFS are clear that the last Labour Government made huge progress in tackling poverty in the UK… but made less progress on inequality. Nonetheless, I think you should acknowledge the impact Labour had in lifting people out of poverty.

      It’s great news that “the only champions for inequality appear to be the current Scottish government”. Can you outline what they have done?

      I know they’ve cut the grants for the poorest students. I know they extended free school meals to wealthier families. I know they’ve made inequality worse via the council tax freeze.

      1. ” I know they’ve made inequality worse via the council tax freeze.”

        Oh Doctor Scottish Labour section is in trouble! Well, goodness gracious me what does grand oracle and Scotlands soothsayer suggest I know let’s raise council tax on the poor folks of Scotland and hear their pulse begin to race as it goes Boom boody-boom boody-boom
        boody-boom and we lose more and more votes Well, goodness gracious me any other good ideas grand oracle.

      2. Scott oh grand oracle and soothsayer of Scotland I had a look at the link regarding Endocarditis and although it is speculative considering the frying pan culture in Scotland there may be something in it that added with your chrystal ball I could be persuaded to grand oracles line of thinking although Burns Cowdenbeath were gopping.

      3. “I know they’ve made inequality worse via the council tax freeze.”….what – the council tax freeze Labour say they will contine?
        ” I know they extended free school meals to wealthier families.” because children who needed it would not take it from embarrassment of being singled out, when no one pays , all who need it get it……

        “I know they’ve cut the grants for the poorest students.” what…the grants that were removed completely and Labour wanted to introduce tuition fees by the back door

        1. Galbraith,
          the only point I was making is that the SNP’s rhetoric on inequality (which you quoted) does not stand up to scrutiny.

          Free school meals for wealthier kids was actually a Con-Dem policy which the SNP rolled out in Scotland. I’d rather that money went to the poorest kids.

          I am not aware of any Scot Lab plan to cut the student grant for the poorest students (as the SNP did).

          I understand that Scot Lab plan to replace the council tax (not freeze it) with a more progressive system.

          Scott

          1. “SNP’s rhetoric on inequality (which you quoted) does not stand up to scrutiny.” Ipse Dixit (unsupported)

            “Free school meals for wealthier kids was actually a Con-Dem policiy” – so what? It worked as it vastly improved take up by those most in need due to the embarrassment factor being removed…I know Labour avoid a good policy if it’s not theirs (especially SNP ones) but grown ups recognise a good idea when they see it regardless of source

            “I am not aware of any Scot Lab plan to cut the student grant for the poorest students (as the SNP did).”
            again…so what….your awareness or lack of it is not an argument… Labour abolished fees (Dewar) thenb attempted to introduce a version of fees by the back door…..Labour promised to keep free tuition under Murphy therefore labour are all over the place on this as Labour also level criticism that fees help only the middle class… if Labour plan to maintain grants to the poorest….will the money come from APD?

            “I understand that Scot Lab plan to replace the council tax (not freeze it) with a more progressive system. ”

            Labour has campaigned to maintain the freeze inGlasgow as their number one priority until 2017, jackie bailie has attacked the freeze, then said it will stay, then remained non committal….again Labour are all over the place and no-one knows or trusts what labour will do if they ever have the responsibility

      4. “Even if you are correct and Burns was pro-indy in the 1700s – would the arguments he used then stand up today?”

        The argument that a fully Independent Scottish Parliament would better serve the people and Nation of Scotland than the foreign Parliament of England and Wales is as true today as it was in 1706 and all the time inbetween.

        What kind of an idiot could refute that argument?

        1. How did that argument work out in the referendum?

          Try to have some respect for the views of others and consider for one moment the notion that somebody might not see the world as you do.

          1. “How did that argument work out in the referendum?”

            It destroyed a 30 point lead in the polls in spite of project fear being broadcasted day and night by the entire UK media corps.
            Do you think Independence is closer or further away than it was 3 years ago? Hows it doing for Labour these days Scott? Going well is it?

            “Try to have some respect for the views of others and consider for one moment the notion that somebody might not see the world as you do.”

            I cannot even begin to muster a microbe of respect for people who deliberately knowingly lie their worthless arses off on a quest for personal gain at the expense of others.

            Not a single fucking microbe.

            But that’s just me.

  3. it is tempting to wonder what he (Burns) made of Scotland’s constitutional position.

    May I suggest you read Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation where Burns didn’t hold back on what he thought of Scotland’s constitutional position.

    1. Jim,
      There is more than one interpretation of “a parcel of rogues” and there are other works in which he is perhaps more pro-UK. Either way, my text is about his values and their relevance today – not his views on the constitution.

      1. I don’t think there’s much room for ambiguity in such a parcel of rogues in a nation or in his other writings, I refer you to Scots Wha Hae where Burns uses terms like slave, oppression & in servile chains to describe English rule

      2. “There is more than one interpretation of “a parcel of rogues” and there are other works in which he is perhaps more pro-UK.”

        You’ve made it amply obvious you have your very own interpretation of life Scott and any work by anybody ever could be judged to be more pro UK than Burn’s Parcel of Rogues.

        Cant get more anti UK than Parcel of Rogues Scott. I am absolutely positive.

  4. Scott don’t be modest as the grand oracle and soothsayer of Scotland tell us what you have seen in your crystal ball did you see the line from prophetic Burns poem that ended with the immortal words “…and Scotland became yet again a free Independent country ruled by the canny folks of Scotland for the folks of Scotland…” I bet you nearly choked on your sticky bun when you saw that in your chrystal ball. Bringing us up to date as Burns died of chronic toothache and was denied proper treatement by the then nobles of the union do you see a similarity with the poor people of Wales who are currently suffering a similar fate with the worst health service provision provided by a Red Tory government in Wales on behalf of the union, at least the canny folks of Scotland know that the Scottish health service is safe in the hands of the wonderful Nicola Surgeon and the SNP.

    1. Hi Will,
      I googled “…and Scotland became yet again a free Independent country ruled by the canny folks of Scotland for the folks of Scotland…” and found nothing.

      Even if you are correct and Burns was pro-indy in the 1700s – would the arguments he used then stand up today?

      The point you make about NHS Wales is ill-informed. Amenable mortality is highest in Scotland:
      http://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/data-and-charts/trends-amenable-mortality-uk-and-north-east-england

      Also worth a read:
      https://fullfact.org/article/fact_fiction_welsh_nhs_performs_poorly_compared_english-39108

      Oh, and Burns died of Endocarditis:
      http://www.robertburns.org.uk/burnsdeath.htm

      1. How well does BUPA perform relative to the NHS Scott? If your going to compare private health to National health then it compares favourably for those who can afford to pay 10s of thousands of pounds for health care but not so much for those who cant afford to pay anything.

        That’s what happens when you try to compare the Privately PFI PPP run “NHS” in England with any other part of the UK but of course the UK Government is forced to fork out billions just to pay off the PFI PPP burden imposed by the last Labour Government. Not that they mind as like Labour they would like to see the entire UK NHS under PFI PPP private ownership.

        I’m positive of that fact too.

  5. Keir Hardie wanted Home Rule for Scotland.
    He wanted Scotland to have Dominion Status, the same as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
    We would have been long independent by now if he had had his way.
    Not the Bantu-stan nonsense Red and Blue Tories want for Scotland, Wales and N Ireland!

      1. “if KH were alive today I doubt he’d campaign to make us all poorer. I also doubt he’d fall for your “Red Tory” nonsense.”

        If Devolving to the Scottish Parliament its full powers and authority makes us poorer then why didn’t Devolution followed by more devolution make us poorer as a direct result?

        See how easy it is to show how utterly moronic your rhetoric is?

        Nothing nonsensical about Labour being Red Tories at all Scott. You’ve been told and shown upteen times why they are and have been unable to successfully refute the claim.

          1. “Ok, why not show us independent analysis which demonstrates Scots would be no worse off if we left the UK?”

            I can give you my Independent analysis of why we would be better off never mind no worse off.

            We would be better off if we weren’t at war with Afghanistan Iraq and Syria.
            We would be better off without the 160 billion pound burden of WMDs we cant use for anything other than adding to the pollution of our shoreline.
            We would be better off if we didn’t have English Tory Governments imposed on us by an English electorate.
            Blue or Red.
            We would be better off deciding for ourselves whether we want to stay in or out of the EU rather than leaving the choice to the English electorate once again.
            In fact we would be better off negotiating all of our own treaties and agreements with foreign states which suit our particular needs and not the needs of London and the SE of England.
            We would be better off having full 100% representation within our own Parliament in Scotland relative to 5% in a Parliament in London.

            That’s just a few. Loads and loads and loads more but its more than enough because you cant site a single positive case for Scotland to remain in this unbalanced criminally run corruption of a disunion.

            Not one.

  6. I haven’t really got anything to say about the article because I don’t really see much value in pondering what lang deid folk would think to because not only do I think it’s irrelevant, but it’s also impossible – who knows what Kier Hardie or Robert Burns would say and do today, and unsurprisingly we have people who say they would ally with their own beliefs. Surprise surprise. I’m just dubious to the value of it.

    However the main thing I wanted to say was Mike – calm doon! You have what, eight posts in a row where you quote a small section of the main article and reply to it with inane yelling. If you have to do it could you at least condense it into the one post? You really don’t like Labour – believe me we all get that, we are in no danger in mistakenly thinking otherwise.

    Won’t somebody thing of the discourse!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: