I was fortunate enough to find myself at the Scottish Government’s ‘Stakeholder Engagement’ Q&A event in Edinburgh last week – the first of its kind and organised with the stated intent of reaching out to ‘civic’ Scotland. Held at the EICC, it was clear from the off that our SNP Government run a smooth operating and tightly organised ship. Perhaps too smooth. The only criticism which could have been offered was the introduction of the First Minister and his Cabinet. You could almost sense Chairman Iain Macwhirter wince as he welcomed them one by one to the stage in a form befitting a political rally. Lessons will likely be learnt by the advisers who suggested that toe-curler. A political rally this certainly was not. That aside, it felt like an event the significance of which extended well beyond the walls of the spot-lit auditorium.
A mindful touch was having a minute’s silence to honour Nelson Mandela’s passing. It was an appropriate decision and provided a worthy moment of reflection for all present to let minds wander on things away from the hustle of daily political jostling, raising the bar to much loftier reaches. Mr Mandela will be sadly missed – and you’ll be hard pressed to find a critic of him these days, even amongst those Tory parliamentarians whose university extracurricular life involved some deeply unsavoury campaigns during the heat of apartheid in the 1980s. Mandela’s fundamental principles and magnanimity in the face of repression and a racist system are a lesson to us all.
Once we were off the First Minister was at his most candid and jocular, joking with the invited audience in his short introduction. I remember when we came into power in 2007 and the positive response to our taking the Scottish Cabinet around the country on its first summer Q&A tour. This definitely fitted that mould – but there was a sense of something much deeper at play – this was a historic event, impossible to ignore.
Along with the White Paper on independence, we are in transit now on a very well-trodden path – at least for those who believe in self-government – but the air is different, it feels as though we have turned a corner. ‘What will happen to..’, ‘how will this work..’, and ‘can I..’ are now the questions taking the place of ‘it will never work if..’, ‘we can’t make this work because..’.
There is a belief now, even amongst those most ardently opposed, that we are all at last on the independence journey. Negativity is not in the air and the most important question facing our country is how we move on to a better form of government which pleases all. Only those who have spent the last 15 years in a hermit’s cell would accept the idea an independent Scotland will never be a reality. In fact, it already is our increasing reality. The No campaign are on a hiding to nothing – already lagging they can but dream of producing a document to rebut the White Paper in time for the referendum. If they answer point by point, at best they will be providing a deeply negative statement of ‘no-can-do’s’, pleasing no-one, and at worst they may turn their own supporters off.
The stakeholders at the Q&A provided an indication of how far along our chosen path we are now as a country. The questions were not put forward with malice, or in a spirit of great unbelief. Nowhere near it. People were genuinely keen to hear how an independent Scotland would work in practical terms. Deeply practical responses were provided too. Timescales for negotiations with the (rest of) UK and EU, suggestions as to how best to reach out to inform those young voters able to vote for the first time in any election, questions on currency, education, childcare, the list goes on.
With the publication and distribution of our independence blueprint, we now have allayed the fears of those who will say it can never happen.
It can happen, it will happen, and I get the feeling everyone in that room could sense it. What a year 2014 promises to be.
Jimmy Halliday’s contributions to the Cause
To put matters into context, in 1955 the SNP contested only two Parliamentary seats in Scotland; Dr Robert McIntyre fought Perth and East Perthshire, and Jimmy Halliday fought Stirling and Falkirk Burghs. Jimmy then became the youngest ever SNP Chairman and served 1956 – 60; in 1956 the entire SNP Conference delegates were photographed on the steps of the Allan Water Hotel, Bridge of Allan.
We are 10 months from a Referendum on Scottish Independence, which was unthinkable in 1955; Jimmy died on 3rd January 2013 at the age of 85. We intend to publish all Jimmy’s articles in the Scots Independent from August 2004 up to 2011, all the ones we have electronic input for. It is anticipated we will publish a book on Jimmy’s contributions over many years, but this will have to wait until after the Referendum.
Robert Burns the Radical – January 2008
It is for us to grasp the importance of his political legacy.
In his book “Burns the Radical”, Mr Liam McIlvanney suggests that the singing of “A Man’s a Man” at the opening of Scotland’s Parliament building marked a watershed in the public celebration of Scotland’s National Bard”. For too long, and before too many audiences, Burns had been presented “as hymner of peasant virtue, the poet laureate of family values.” As Edwin Muir put it “Holy Willie, often being the poet’s butt, has now become the keeper of his memory.” And Oliver Brown used to claim that the true, intended and appropriate title for “Tam o’Shanter “was “The Cottar’s Saturday Night”.
Our clear appreciation of Burns had not been helped by the fact that the “Supper” ritual had too often passed into inappropriate hands. Organisations too genteel and too wealthy to think kindly of equality, or organisations too tainted with cruelty and repression to think kindly of liberty, had the effrontery to celebrate Burns. They could not convincingly account for their presence except by dwelling upon such of his works as offered no kind of challenge to their opinions.
No matter what our point of view, we can agree reasons why his poetic skills are to be enjoyed and valued, but for all those who share our political point of view that is only part of the story. It is for us especially to grasp the importance of his political legacy. In terms of literature he began no literary school. He was rather the last and greatest of a school which ended with him, and his heirs were to be found in the innocence and improbable virtue of the kailyard. In political terms, things are very different. “Every great and unprosperous genius born in the lower ranks is a potential democrat” we are told, but in 1759 that potential was a long way from being realised.
In Burns’s Ayrshire there were 185 voters, and Ayrshire was among the three or four shires which came closest to democracy. Burns never had a vote. For him politics had to remain a kind of spectator sport. He could not participate, but he could choose sides. He could, and he did, lend his support to favoured candidates by writing electioneering verses for them in their campaign publicity. “I am too little a man to have any political attachments”, he said, but he was just being discreet. In franker moments he seethed. Privilege of class and the arrogance which went with it earned his hostility. The state of dependence in which he and most people were economically placed led him to ask,
“Why was an independent wish
“E’er planted in my mind?”
The good news for him was that in the world of his time reform was in the air. In America notions of liberty had passed from fantasy to actuality, and the influence of the American Revolution was spreading swiftly and widely. He enthused over the prospect of liberty reaching Scotland in his “Ode on General Washington’s Birthday”. He landed himself in trouble when caught saying he’d rather drink the health of George Washington than the health of Prime Minister William Pitt. He had to be careful because “I am a placeman you know”, and too frank expression of his views nearly cost him his excise post. He saw the possibility that he might find himself in “the Woolwich hulks”—the prison ships which took transported rebels to Australia. As he himself put it,
“…his heresies in church and state
“Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate”
It was clear that “Scots wha Ha’e” was his comment on the trial and punishment for sedition of Thomas Muir, but as he wrote too “I have set a seal on my lips as to these unlucky politics”.
Silenced in his lifetime by his status, later generations knew what he had thought, and in safer years could understand and appreciate his words. When in later years people organised to seek reform they followed in the old tradition of the Covenanters and the men of 1820 and formed “Corresponding Societies”, “Unions” or clubs, and called them after Thomas Muir or Andrew Hardie and, perhaps most frequently of all, after Robert Burns.