Better Together. Drain the Swamp. Build a Wall. Make America Great Again. Take Back Control. £350m for the NHS. Lead Us Don’t Leave Us.
These are the meaningless, vacuous, lazy, mendacious, cynical and intellectually pessimistic soundbites which have largely replaced sensible discourse and now dominate modern political life.
Unfortunately, they seem to work. Trump won the Whitehouse (much to his surprise and horror, according to “Fire and Fury”, Michael Wolff’s compelling account of The Donald’s first year in office). A half-cut Nigel Farage looked equally nonplussed when he realised that the people had bought his bring back control rhetoric.
The British establishment’s mix of project fear and the vow saw Scotland become the first country in history to vote against itself. There’s maybe a lesson to be learned here. Ours was the moral victory, for sure, but theirs was the actual victory. Perhaps next time we don’t bother with an exhaustive 612 page paper. As Ronald Reagan once said – if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Perhaps next time we just write it in big bold letters. On the side of a muckle big bus.
All of which went through my overactive mind when sitting in a lovely hotel in Templepatrick, Ballyclare this week during a trip necessitated by my imminent purchase of an agricultural feed supply company. It was February 14th – Valentines Day – and I was the single guy sitting quietly in the corner, planning farmer meetings while everyone else was feeling the love. I think it’s called Living the Dream.
I finished a lovely meal and retired to the bar, whereupon I watched the news reports of Boris Johnson’s Valentines Day Brexit speech. Now, that cheered me up, not least because it was an object lesson in the limits of rhetoric. Theresa May’s catastrophic decision to hold a snap election suddenly saw her subjected to a level of scrutiny that showed her considerably less than strong and a million miles from stable. Ruth Davidson’s cuddly persona was outed by her failure to deal with racism and sectarianism within her own party. And now Boris’s bumbling, eccentric, posh boy, Tim-nice-but-dim schtick was shown up for the con-job that it always was.
The great sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney tells the story of an old trainer whose boxer was worried about his next opponent, a blowhard who was telling everyone that he was going to knock him down in his he first, that he was going to put his lights out, that he was the greatest of all times.
“Just put a pair of gloves on him”, said the wisened old coach. “That normally does the trick”.
Wednesday was the day when Boris put the gloves on. If you can bear it, here’s an extract from the press conference which I watched with my head in my hands. Frankly, the loving couples next door didn’t know how lucky they were.
Journalist: “Foreign Secretary, what do you say to those people who say ‘yet another speech on Brexit – but where is the clarity’?”
Boris: “The carrot?”
Journalist: “The Clarity”.
BJ: “Clarity! OK. God. Carrot. Carrot. Well, as I say, I think you have an abundance of clarity in the PM’s Lancaster speech…..what I’m trying to address is the feeling that I pick up talking to people that they’re not getting the message, the positive agenda – I think there is a great positive agenda and we need to get out there and explain it. And it can be good for carrots too, by the way. Alright, you didn’t actually mention carrots, but we can take back control of our agricultural policies and it may be that we can do wonderful things with, you know, our own regulations to, you know…..promote organic carrots”.
So no mention of the Brexit impact papers. And absolutely no mention of the Irish border – a detail not lost for a second on the Templepatrick locals. It was an unmitigated disaster, neatly summed up by Tommy Sheppard:
“Sending Boris to appeal to Remain voters is like sending an arsonist to put out a fire.” Others have been less charitable. The New Statesman recently described Boris as “a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist”. “Facts”, said Robert Burns, “are chiels that winna ding”. Translation? The truth will out.
Frankly, it’s appalling. I grew up under a Thatcher Government that was a shower of b*****ds. But they were, at the very least, competent and ruthless b*****ds. They didn’t pretend to be anything else. This current crop can’t even claim to be this. You couldn’t make this up. Today, Theresa May warned the EU “not to put ideology before citizens”. Jings. Does she understand what comes out of her mouth? Has she heard of irony? Is it oblivious self-contradiction, or is it sheer malignant dishonesty?
Boris talked about increased sales of Prossecco and Italian cars post-Brexit, which will be great news for the austerity hit folk of Stranraer as they decide which Maserati they want to buy this Spring. And when asked if EU nationals would get preferential access post-Brexit? “That’s under discussion”, he said. It had better be. While the Tories mumble about securing a seasonal pass for EU workers, some of the big fruit and veg companies are relocating away from Scotland. And another sector – dairy – needs EU workers every day of the year. Which is why Scotland needs to be in control of its immigration policy. And which is why we must be independent as soon as possible.
What it revealed by Boris’s speech is that Brexit is all about isolation and xenophobia, and anti-consensus. This is the petrol that fuels brexiteers and the mindset that repels remainers. And that is why the UK is now an irrelevant country that everybody hates. And that is why Scotland will, very soon, regain its independence.
Having spent a lot of time in England recently, I’ve become convinced that much of England is completely indifferent to reports of financial meltdown. And I’m convinced that if there were a vote today, the result would be broadly similar.
The vote for independence would, however, be very different. I find myself,for once, disagreeing with Pete Wishart MSP, who says that timing is everything.
It isn’t. When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in 2012, support for independence stood at 27%. With eleven days to go, it was at 52%. We lost the vote but won the argument. So I don’t believe we have to wait for the “right” poll before starting the campaign. Either independence is a good idea or it isn’t. Incidentally, David Cameron called a EU referendum precisely because he was well ahead. And yet Leave ran the “better” campaign – and won.
I’ve loved being in Northern Ireland for a couple of days. Life has a lovely habit of surprising you, and I was on the way to an Antrim farm and was asking the local agent for the lowdown. “Aye, he’s different”, he said. “He’s into poetry”.
I immediate knew we’d get along. We arrived at the farm. It was foggy and it had been snowing. For an hour or so, we might have been in any century.
“Come right ahead boys!”, came a voice from the straw shed. He recognised my Galloway Irish accent straight away. So he did.
I thought I’d finished with Robert Burns for the season. No chance.
“You’re a Stranraer man, aye? I’m an Ulster-Scot. My people came from Kilmarnock in the late seventeenth century. Me and a pal came to Stranraer years ago. Went up the road to Alloway to pay homage to Robert Burns. What a genius yer man was”.
Clearly, this wasn’t going to be any old business meeting.
“John Keats visited”, he said. “He got really pissed off. The tour guide wouldn’t let him alone and all Keats wanted was to be inspired by his hero. Lincoln loved him too, eh? And when you can count Keats and Lincoln amongst your admirers you’re doing ok”.
I told him about speaking at Ellisland Farm and he told me about visiting Burns’ House in Dumfries. “I mean”, he said, “there he was dying in one room and there was Jean giving birth to the boy whom she would name after the doctor who had helped shorten his life. Its unspeakably sad but it also fits with the a life so epic and so contradictory that Gene Kelly wanted to take it to Broadway”.
I have to say that this wasn’t a conversation I was expecting to engage in. But my new friend is far from the only Ulsterman to love his Burns. The late, great, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem – “A Birl for Burns” – that expresses joy and pride and delight that Burns, in an age when we were, then as now, being rebranded as “North Britain”, when we were told to flatten the vowels and throw the “r” away, when tatties grown in Fife are being bedecked in Union flegs. Burns made us proud. He was fluent in French and made us “bien dans sa peau” – comfortable in our own skin.
A Birl for Burns by Seamus Heaney
From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air
My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They’d wet their whistles.
Old men and women getting crabbèd
Would hark like dogs who’d seen a rabbit,
Then straighten, stare and have a stab at
Custom never staled their habit
O’ quotin’ Rabbie.
Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns!
He overflowed the well-wrought urns
Like buttermilk from slurping churns,
Rich and unruly,
Or dancers flying, doing turns
At some wild hooley.
For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he gets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o’er the brig
Where no one follows.
And though his first tongue’s going, gone,
And word lists now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
Have to be glossed,
In Burns’s rhymes they travel on
And won’t be lost.
So how does one explain this enduring appeal? Having spoken at seven Burns Suppers this winter, I’d hazard an answer.
At the end of every supper, we stand up together and sing that old Scots hymn to friendship, Auld Lang Syne.
We join hands with the persons to our left and right.
It’s a curious thing to do when you think about it, it always feels like the right thing to do.
It’s possible we won’t know the person next to us. We might guess at their politics, even if we don’t know for sure.
It’s possible we won’t know their religious beliefs, if indeed they hold any at all. It’s possible we won’t know their stories, their backgrounds, their life histories.
But here’s the thing. It doesnae matter.
Robert Burns’ eternal gift to the world was an anthem that celebrates the enduring capacity of humans to reconnect, despite everything that has happened between us.
In the simple act of holding hands with a stranger, Burns’ song reiterates a powerful faith in the capacity of people both to do good and trust others to do good with us. It’s a powerful, timeless message that flies in the face of austerity and neo-liberalism. That shines light in the darkness and gives us a harbour in the tempest. That reminds us that without each other we are nothing, that there is such a thing as society.
And it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and still holding the hands of strangers, then maybe, just maybe, we’ve got a chance.