By Patrick Scott Hogg

Thus bold, independent, unconquer’d and free
Her bright course of glory forever shall run
For Brave Caledonia immortal must be
I’ll prove it from Euclid as clear as the sun!
Robert Burns.

The answer to whether or not Robert Burns would be a YES or a NO voter in this year’s Referendum lies in our understanding of his principles, values and passionately held beliefs which thread through his poetry and letters like golden thread.  I argue here that he would have been an unequivocal Aye vote, although as a ‘man of independent mind’ he would have been unlikely to agree with every policy minutia of the Scottish government. That said he would have supported and lauded a Government that stands up for Scotland first.

Robert Burns was one of Scotland’s greatest patriots. He said of another great patriot who drew sword for his country’s liberty, ‘the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest…’. That Scottish ‘prejudice’ led him to write Parcel O’ Rogues in a Nation where he damns the Scots who sold out the Independence of the Scottish parliament:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro mony warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitors wages

The song lyric is an unequivocal blast against the Union of 1707, which the majority of Scots opposed and petitioned against. (Indeed, there was probably a majority of around 90% Scots in favour of Independence in 1707). If Burns had been a supporter of the Union he would have written a song that celebrated the Treaty of 1707. He did not. Ipso facto, he was a supporter of Scottish Independence per se.

Although an enthusiast of English poetry Burns detested English exceptionalism, the London-centric elitism that English culture and manners are superior to other nations. He exclaimed “I have often said to myself what are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union that counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence, and even her very name!” He was advised that his fame as a poet would be greater if he abandoned the Scots language and wrote exclusively in English. Fortunately he ignored this advice.

By reworking many Scots songs and poetry and writing  them in the Scots vernacular Burns made the greatest patriotic contribution to the preservation of Scottish cultural identity. In 1786 polite Scottish life and language were being ‘civilised’ by English manners and language. Our elites were complicit. Scotland was effectively becoming a region, ‘North Briton’. Scottish culture was being washed away under the flood-tide of London-driven suave Anglicisation that diluted and sought to extinguish Scottishness. It was in satirical reference to Scots aping English habits that he wrote ‘Thou Englishman who never was south the Tweed’. Burns was in the vanguard of those so-called ‘pesky Scots’ who have long firmly defended the demise of their national identity.

His patriotism as a Scot was intensely passionate if also somewhat eccentric. On first crossing the Tweed into England he shouted back to Scotland the last two verses of The Cottar’s Saturday Night, beginning ‘O Scotia, my dear, my native soil’, a prayer for Scotland’s future. He knelt at the tomb of ‘Sir John the Graham, the gallant friend of Wallace’ and said ‘a fervent prayer for Old Caledonia over the hole in a blue whinstone, where Robert the Bruce fixed his loyal standard on the banks of Bannockburn’.

When he wrote his great patriotic anthem Scots Wha Hae, it was in the reactionary political crucible of 1793 when the brutal sedition laws gagged the rising pro-democracy movement and led to Thomas Muir QC being sentenced to Botany Bay for his pro-reform views. Burns seen the Tory government of Pitt and Dundas as tyrannical and loathed them with a vengeance. In his Ode for General Washington of 1794 he wrote:

England in thunder calls ‘The tyrant’s cause is mine!’
That hour accurst how did the fiends rejoice
And hell, thro’ all her confines, raise the exulting voice,
That hour which saw the generous English name
Linkt with such damned deeds of everlasting shame!

Burns detested corruption in politics. In his letters he made political remarks far worse than what Thomas Muir said when he was sentenced to 14 years transportation. Pitt’s Tory government were a ‘profligate junto’, a pack of ‘unprincipled miscreants’. He defines politics at Westminster as a process of ‘nefarious cunning and hypocritical pretence’ to govern society ‘for the emolument of ourselves and our adherents’ and damned politicians for ‘that horrid mass of corruption called Politics & State-Craft!’ In an Epistle To Graham of Fintry, Burns repeats the motif throughout his writings that whoever would sell out the people of Scotland should be damned to hell:

I pray with holy fire;
Lord, send a rough-shod troop o’ hell,
O’er a’, wad Scotland buy, or sell,
To grind them in the mire!!!

Scottish politicians who do not serve the people of Scotland are, for Burns, traitors to their nation then and now as true principles are timeless. Who do the modern No camp MP’s work for? Is it their post, payslip, pension and self-importance or for the people of Scotland?

Influenced by the progressive forces of the Enlightenment, the American and French revolutions he believed in the international rising of all common people’s to wash away the Feudal society of pompous rank and title who parasitical lived off the backs of the poor peasantry. The honest man and woman is worthier than a Lord to Burns even if that Lord is Jack (Me Me Me) McConnell or a landed aristocratic buffoon.

Burns, through his poetry, became the immortal vox populi of the poor. From The Twa Dogs to Epistle to Davie and other works, Burns articulates a language of the voiceless, the common people from whence he sprang. His anonymously published radical song Is There For Honest Poverty (A Man’s a Man) foresees the demise of the parasitical Feudal order where those at the top do no work and consume the fruits of the poor. For Burns the idle rich gambled the wealth of the nation. The song foresees a world of economic and political equality between nations still not achieved in Scotland in 2014 and only achievable via Independence.

The parallels between the degenerate reactionary British state under Prime Minister William Pitt and Henry Dundas, his thuggish Scottish deputy and that of the right wing ‘austerity’ under David Cameron today are clear to those who know the history. Burns asks us who ‘Is there for honest poverty, That hangs his heid and a that’? The answer then was no-one bar Burns and the pro-democracy reformers who were hounded as unpatriotic un-British criminals.

Today it is certainly not the Cameron Tory government where the rich get richer and the poor are to be robbed of the mite they have, to paraphrase Burns. He would have rallied against the bedroom tax and the poverty that exists in our wealthy Scotland and stood arm to arm with CND to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons. He repeatedly states in his letters that he would like to ‘wash away all tears from all eyes’. He would never have shed his political principles to endorse the rightwing shift of neo-liberal austerity politics in Britain now as so many (once socialist) Labour MP’s have done. Robert Burns was a passionate egalitarian.

If we extrapolate his political values, principles and beliefs to modern Scotland, he would unequivocally reject the degeneracy of austerity based London politics and urge all Scots to reclaim the birthright of their nation, to once again draw political sword and choose power over powerlessness, democracy over disenfranchisement and Scottish solutions to Scottish problems for the benefit of THE PEOPLE of Scotland. Is the wealthy Scottish economy there to serve the rich few or the nation?

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