Of all the poets and writers who informed the work of Robert Burns, there was surely no-one more influential than Robert Fergusson. It wasn’t remotely coincidental that, upon arriving in 1787 for his promotional tour of Edinburgh, his first instinct was to purchase a headstone to mark the previously and scandalously unmarked grave of the giant on whose shoulders he stood, a literary colossus who had died at the tender age of twenty-three. “He was my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse”, wrote Burns.
During this extended lockdown, I’ve been reading the works of the man who was, in a sense, Burns before Burns. One of his great poems is “The Daft Days”, which describes the drunken, bawdy revelry in the days between Christmas and New Year in his native Edinburgh. Since the 1560 Reformation, the church really frowned upon people celebrating Christmas because it generally disapproved of fun of any sort. Jings, what a joyless place Calvinist Scotland must have been at times. The joke that survives to this today goes: why don’t Presbyterian Scots make love standing up? Because they’re worried it might lead to dancing.
Not surprisingly, folk didn’t put up with this po-faced Holy Wullie-ness for long, and Boxing Day saw the start of period of celebration, merriment and excess that lasted past Hogmanay and into the first Monday of the New Year. Hogmanay, incidentally, comes from the ancient Northern French word “hoguinane” and means “seasonal gift” (which people freely exchanged during the Daft Days). Which is yet another poignant reminder that Scotland’s lasting roots in Europe are deep and they are ancient. That they are being weakened against our will and without our consent is both a tragedy and a disgrace.
Today we are not so much in Daft Days but in dark ones. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have daft thoughts.
Like “what actually was the best thing before sliced bread” (and what’s so good about sliced bread anyway)? I mean, come on. It’s bread.
Or “why is there only one monopolies commission”? Or “why do you never see blind people skydiving?”
Actually, I know the answer to that one. It’s because it scares the hell out of their dogs.
But my chief concern is this. Why is there no alternative word for “thesaurus”?
I’ve been troubled with more than I should have been during 2020, largely because I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard a politician using the word “unprecedented” in relation to the two things that have dominated the year. I’m wondering if there might be an alternative word. Donald Trump actually came closest back in 2016 when he tweeted that his election victory was “unpresidented”. That the American people had the good sense to summarily “unpresident” The Donald was a rare piece of great news during a torrid year.
But how unprecedented was 2020?
Covid was only unprecedented within the narrow parameters of our lives. Yet there have been plagues before – many of them – and at some point there will be others.
Brexit is more difficult. It was unprecedented in that no-one had attempted to leave the EU before. But in terms of Scotland’s experience, we’ve seen it many, many times before.
During the Thatcher Years, Labour at their highest point had fifty MPs in Scotland out of a total of seventy-two. For vast swathes of Scottish society just a generation ago, voting Labour was just something you did pretty much unquestionably. Like going to church, it just was. They didn’t so much count the votes as weigh them.
And yet even from a position of complete dominance, what success did they have in mitigating, far less preventing, the whirlwind destruction of heavy industries and their communities that Thatcher wreaked and which Scotland took years to get over and in some ways is still trying to recover from?
Aye. None whatsoever.
There is nothing new under the sun.
In the Brexit parallel of this age, take out Labour and put in the SNP and exactly the same pattern has played itself out.
In 2016, the people of Scotland voted by a margin of twenty-four percent to remain within the European Union. Earlier this week, Holyrood voted by 92/30 to reject the Brexit trade deal, with only the Scottish Conservatives backing it. Obviously. On the same day in London, Westminster voted 521/73 to adopt it. Scotland’s vote – Scotland’s voice – doesn’t matter, just as it didn’t under Thatcher. The only difference was that the PM from Grantham pretended it did. It’s a pretence that her present day successors have casually ditched. There’s a grotesque honesty in that I suppose. You’ll have had your consent.
Some will say, of course, that 2016 was a UK-wide vote. That we entered a union as a United Kingdom and we leave as one. To which I’d make two points.
Firstly, the United Kingdom leaving the EU is, because of the devolution settlement, a very different beast to the one that first joined over four decades ago. And, secondly, that argument – that we must leave as one – makes the argument for us. A union that ignores not only the democratically expressed wishes of two of its members is a union in name only. It was only a week or so ago that Keir Starmer was extolling the virtues of greater devolution and / or a federal union. But yesterday, given the opportunity of principled opposition, he backed the Tories. Completely.
So it doesn’t matter how talented either the Labour fifty were then or the SNP forty-seven are now. To adapt from Bill Clinton, “it’s the arithmetic, stupid”. Scotland cannot win. That’s the deal. That’s what we – or merely a few dozen of us – signed up for three centuries ago. The game is rigged and all the devolution in the world won’t change that. Because power devolved is power retained.
So we have to get beyond blaming Boris et al. Yes, they are lazy, entitled, incompetent, cynical blowhard no-nothings. But if it wasn’t them it would be someone else. We need to recognise it for what is is: a deep, structural flaw that a Scottish Parliament under the threat of a power grab can’t even begin to mitigate against. Unless…
A few of you were kind enough to enquire about me after the rather downbeat nature of my last article. Firstly, thanks. Secondly, reports of my demise have been exaggerated.
So let’s end the year on a positive note.
Although Scotland’s national parliament’s vote was predictably dismissed by another country’s Parliament who see us as nothing more than a glorified parish council, its significance should be discounted at London’s peril.
Every party in Scotland, the usual suspects apart, voted to withhold their consent for the Brexit trade deal. What good that does us remains to be seen, but if nothing else it’s an acknowledgment that Scotland dearly held European identity isn’t something that can be cast aside without enormous political cost.
At the end of a turbulent, desperate and – let’s be honest – hellish year, this week was proof positive that Scotland is increasingly comfortable in its own very distinct political culture and worldview. Support for normal democracy amongst Scots nudges sixty percent. And it will only grow.
We are choosing to be excited by our futures over being burdened by our pasts.
This week, as they removed the Union flag from the corridors of Brussels, I was reminded of the words of the Earl of Seafield as he witnessed the 1707 Treaty of Union being signed against the wishes of virtually everyone in Scotland.
“That’s the end of an old song” he said.
High time Scotland wrote its own material.
Enjoy these daftest of day, good people.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.