I’m getting fed up with this.

Humpty DumptyIt’s easy to see why this might be seen as an inflammatory gesture (ho ho). Just seven weeks after 1.6 million people had their hearts utterly broken, East Sussex City Council saw fit to promote an effigy of the democratically elected First Minister of the Scots, brandishing a 45% spoon, wearing a Yes badge, and accompanied by Nessie wearing a Tam O’Shanter. Which is to be incinerated in a mass conflagration in Lewes. (UPDATE: not this one! See updates below)

So, predictably I fear, I’m rather annoyed about this. But I think it’s important to put forward why, and I think there are quite a few layers to it.

The first, most obvious, reason is that it’s still too soon. It’s barely been two months since the referendum on Scotland’s future, seven weeks after 1.6 million people had their hearts broken, forty-seven days to come to grips with what was, for them, the worst-case scenario. I realise you can’t exactly reschedule Bonfire Night, but surely it must have struck somebody in Lewes that it might have been the tiniest bit insensitive? Just a wee bit? A smidgen?

Remember Remember

Celebrating the execution of a tortured revolutionary seeking greater tolerance of his minority group does seem to be what Britain stands for, according to some people.

The second is the greater complexity of the 5th of November itself. Guy Fawkes’ Night has always been one of those most insidious of things: a celebration of the British Establishment’s triumph. The vagaries and complexities of Catesby’s politics, the possible outcome of a successful Gunpowder Plot on religious freedom in the UK, and so forth are almost besides the point – the end result is that the same Establishment whose anti-Catholic legislation caused the plot was triumphant, and anti-Catholic measures in the UK would continue for two more centuries. The Establishment was emboldened, and the fact that they actually put observance of the 5th of November into law shows what a cynical sham the whole thing is. And Lewes has always been right at the centre of Establishment machinations.

Lewes City Council have, predictably, attempted to backpedal, pointing out that this had “nothing to do with them,” and it was all Waterloo Bonfire Society’s fault, they couldn’t do anything to stop them, no sir! Certainly they had no choice but to retweet it and implicity endorse this display of naked anti-Scottish sentiment. Considering the Lewes Bonfire festivities’ previous inductees included Pope Paul V, and the town hosts marches with burning crosses & “No Popery” banners, they’re clearly no strangers to controversy: you’d think they’d be used to it by now.

lewes-bonfire-the-argus-report-2003-1

Lewes Burning CrossesLewes No Popery You really expect tact & understanding from these people?

Certainly we’ve had people coming out to defend this, as is obviously their right: it’s not that big a deal, “you wouldn’t complain if it was Nigel Farage or David Cameron (which they totally did once in 2010, see, that makes it alright) they were burning,” stuff like that. But the one that sticks in the craw the most is the insistence that this is just an effigy of Alex Salmond. It isn’t an effigy representative of Scots, or even pro-independent Scots: just Alex Salmond, the man. Except it’s clearly not true: quite why they then chose to put on badges with “Yes” and “45”, let alone Nessie – who, as far as I’m aware, has not spoken out one way or the other on the matter – if this was supposed to be just Alex Salmond is beyond me. After all, that’s 45% of the Scottish Electorate you’re burning too. But if you ignore the “45” and the “Yes” badge and the Nessie on his shoulder, then this is “just” an effigy of Alex Salmond, on a purely technical level. The effigy of Angela Merkel was just Angela Merkel. The effigy of David Cameron & Nick Clegg was just Cameron & Clegg.

Here’s the thing: for years, if not decades, the establishment has been equating the independence movement explicitly with Alex Salmond. Even back before the SNP got into power, independence was presented as the mad dream of one man. The newspapers constantly, incessantly, relentlessly linked Scottish independence to Alex Salmond: a simple perusal of more than 50% of the headlines that name an individual in regards to the referendum show that. New Labour politicians simply could not help themselves from bringing up Alex Salmond regardless of the context when talking about the referendum. The SSP, Scottish Greens, even Labour for Indy were considered SNP fronts – and thus, Alex Salmond’s puppets. Independence = Alex Salmond. Alex Salmond = Independence.

So when the media, the establishment, and the press have been hell-bent for leather in making Alex Salmond and Scottish independence one and the same, what kind of message do you think it sends to burn an effigy of Alex Salmond only 7 weeks after the biggest constitutional referendum the UK has ever faced?

But let’s look a bit further: the First Minister (let’s remember that he’s still in office as of the 5th of November) is depicted as Humpty Dumpty. How does that rhyme go?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

The version we know today seems to date to James William Elliot’s 1870 National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs, but an earlier version exists in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements (1797):

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

The exact symbolism of Humpty Dumpty has been a source of much debate in folkloric circles: some say Humpty Dumpty represented an individual like Richard III of England, others that it was a siege or defensive engine of some description. And some even say he was an egg. (What is it with politics and eggs?) In this context, however, we obviously know who Humpty is, and what he represents. Taking the Alex Salmond = Independence paradigm into account, the message Waterloo Bonfire Society appear to be going for is this:

Scottish Indy sat on a wall,
Scottish Indy had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Indy together again

In other words, Alex Salmond was defeated, and the matter of Scottish Independence was over, dealt with, finished for a generation – perhaps forever – and no amount of reforming or effort could bring it back. Or, to bring it down to their level, “YOU LOST YOU LOST NYEH NYEH NYEH-NYEH NYEH” from an affluent formerly Liberal Democrat Tory constituency, currently haemorraging voters to – where else? – UKIP and back to the Liberal Democrats. Evidently Waterloo Bonfire Society don’t appreciate how many times Alex Salmond – and, indeed, the cause of Scottish independence itself – has “had a great fall” only to reform like the T-1000.

Gordon Brown clearly styles himself as Arnie in the "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" of Scottish politics

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson “yes, I really do have a quote for everything” Mandela

So sorry to disappoint the folk of Lewes and elsewhere who wish us Jocks would just shut up about independence already. But since they insist on commemorating the martyrdom of 17 protestants from over four-and-a-half centuries ago, I’m sure they’ll understand why we won’t just give up on something we believe in after a mere seven weeks. Since they have the freedom to fly their sectarian banners and broadcast their half-millenium old sentiments, I’m sure they’ll respect our freedom to pursue Scottish self-determination. And since their stock response to any criticism of their bigotry is to say “be mindful of the past, people died for our freedom of expression,” I’m sure they’ll understand we have our own martyrs. There are only two routes left for Scotland in Westminster: Home Rule – as in actual Home Rule, as promoted by Keir Hardie and so many others – or independence. Until then, sad to say, you’re not going to hear the end of it.

For as long as the media, establishment & press continue to equate Alex Salmond with Scottish independence, by their own rules, any attack on Alex Salmond becomes an attack on Scottish independence. We must never, ever let them forget this. Either Alex Salmond is not synonymous with Scottish Independence – a case the SSP, Greens, Solidarity and Labour for Indy have been pushing for ages, not to mention it being, you know, the actual facts of the matter – or he is, and you accept that anything you say about Alex Salmond is, by extension, about Scottish independence as a whole. You can’t have it both ways.

As for the man in question? Alex Salmond had just about the best response possible to this:

(Face stern and appalled) I think it’s totally outrageous, I mean what has Nessie ever done to the East Sussex Conservative Party, and the Council, that they want to burn Nessie? One of Scotland’s greatest iconic symbols on a bonfire! … (Face cheerful and jockular) I’m in pretty good company, Angela Merkel, she got the burning treatment from East Sussex Conservative Council: I think their judgement’s askew. But if they think I’m a threat to the WM establishment like Guy Fawkes (face suddenly becomes super serious) they’re right.

You’re not the only threat, Alex. We’ll see to that.

UPDATE: At 9:00, Sussex Police’s official twitter posted the following:

Thank goodness. Or, rather, thank common bally sense. You’ll note it says effigies, plural. It turns out there was another one, and it’s somehow even more offensive:

The Other Lewes EffigyThe Other Lewes Effigy 2

More offensive, mostly, because I don’t even understand what it’s saying. The Humpty Dumpty metaphor of the first one was at least logical in theory, if not in practice: a shallow parody of Scottish politics, about as nuanced as the average Private Eye. But this? This is Steve Bell level tripe. It doesn’t even have the good grace to make any sense. It’s just a kilted Alex Salmond sitting on Scotland’s resources because… Braveheart was a thing. If I could discern any symbolism, it’s the Union Flag cape, which is about as damning a symbol of the “We Own You Jocks” attitude as any I’ve seen. “You lost, now you wear our flag, because WE OWN YOU.”

That’s not much better than Humpty Ecky, but at least this one doesn’t throw the 45 (and Nessie) on the fire with him.

UPDATE 2 – THE PLOT THICKENS: Now, this is extremely strange. The above tweet from Sussex Police is fairly clear: “there won’t be any burning of the Alex Salmond effigies this evening in Lewes.” The BBC has followed up on that, also claiming the effigies were “not burned.” But if that’s the case, how does one explain this?

Lewes Effigy 1

Lewes Effigy 2Lewes Effigy 3

So… what’s going on? The original news story says that the first effigy (by Waterloo) was indeed withdrawn, but curiously makes no mention of the fate of the second effigy (by the Commercial Square Bonfire Society). Were the effigies burned, or not? Is the Council employing the Rocksy & Mugsy approach, where “burning” and “blowing it up with fireworks” are completely different, ergo no inconsistency has happened? (part of me is glad this one was destroyed, if only because it was such a nasty piece of work – though I would’ve preferred a less spectacular destruction, perhaps melted into paper recycling fluid).

Here’s the statement from Waterloo:

In a statement, the Waterloo Bonfire Society said it had a “tradition of creating satirical tableaux in caricature based on topical local, national and international events”.
It said: “It is a tradition which has endured for many years and is intended to portray familiar stories and characters in a light hearted way. Clearly the Scottish Referendum has been a big story in the news recently and Alex Salmond is high a profile figure.
“We are a traditional Sussex family bonfire society and have no political affiliations. We can assure that we have no wish or intention to offend and have never found ourselves in a position where we have done so in the past. To clarify we do not burn tableaux. They are incorporated into our firework display.
“In the light of the responses received to our tableau idea this year we have made the decision to withdraw it from our celebrations.”

(It would’ve been really nice if this was clarified a lot earlier, especially by news outlets. Not burning the effigy doesn’t change much of the thrust of the post, though: it’s still perpetuating the Independence=Alex Salmond paradigm, and still hypocritical to claim it only represents Alex Salmond one moment, and all independence supporters the next)

All well and good, Waterloo, but again, this is seven weeks after the referendum. Scotland doesn’t know what the hell’s going on: pro-indy parties are flourishing while unionist parties collapse even though the referendum should have seen the opposite, we’ve no idea what’s going on with the Smith Commission, we’re going to have new leaders for both the main party and the opposition mere months before a general election. It’s not exactly like we’ve had a lot of time to heal, you know?

And, again, I have to say it’s a wee bit rich to talk about this being a “family” society with “no political affiliations” with “no wish or intention to offend” when they are patrons to a festival that is based almost entirely around anti-Catholic rhetoric stemming from a period of history where anti-Catholicism was mandated by the government.

I do believe them, though, in that their intention was to portray “familiar stories and characters in a light hearted way.” Problem is, it’s not really that light-hearted to me. Every single Yes voter and campaigner I know actually wept on the 19th of September. Can you remember any election where you have seen every single one of the people you’ve come to know and love throughout the campaign burst into tears? Men, women, children – all of them? Campaign managers, Councillors, MPs, grassroots, campaigners, pouring their eyes out? Can you imagine any election even having that effect on people? I even saw No voters weeping, and not all of them were weeping out of regret – they were weeping out of sympathy! I’ve never experienced collective grief in a community like this. It felt more like a disaster or catastrophe than the aftermath of a political vote.

You may think it’s “light hearted” to show the cause for which so many fought so hard for as Humpty Dumpty, about to fall, never to be put together again. A cause which inspired pensioners to go out leafleting in the rain, people with severe disabilities and mobility problems door-knocking and canvassing, people who’ve never been involved in politics their whole lives getting genned up on economics and policy. A cause which encouraged all of us to better ourselves. Represented as a broken egg, never to be mended. Over. Gone. Lost. By the people who wanted us to stay with them.

It’s OK that you don’t understand, and I, at least, appreciate the gesture in withdrawing the figure. But we in Scotland are still healing. Everyone on each side talks of healing and recuperating after what has been an exhausting campaign. It would be nice to have some of that from our neighbours – who would be our neighbours no matter the outcome.

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21 thoughts on “I’m getting fed up with this.

  1. Cuilean says:

    I hate to tell you but there are, in fact, TWO Alex Salmonds being burned tonight by the good people of Lewes…. The second effigy is even more offensive than the first, if that is possible….

  2. tony567052457 says:

    Beautifully written I say.
    I saw this as an insult to the 45% first and foremost. I like most others think that if no connection was made to half the population of Scotland being burnt then it would have likely been shrugged off.

    But it wasn’t, its an attack on brave folk who were willing to make a change to the world. Who continue in the confines of their shackles today.

    The fight for a better world is never over, because the reality is that will never come under Westminster and a propaganda machine not seen since Nazi Germany.

    The referendum woke up many people to the reality around them, made them look very closely at what was happening (well the Yes side did), and once a persons eyes are open to the truth, it is impossible to close them.

    And you sure as hell best the current powers that be don’t like that one bit!

  3. Phil D. says:

    Brilliant piece Al.

  4. One thing for sure is the fire of Independence ain’t going out anytime soon.

  5. Time we started burning Butchers’ Aprons and leave them lying around in public places.
    Sorry, but I’m sick of being nice in the face of British arse-holery!

  6. V says:

    Racist and sectarian march in Sussex…..what more needs said.

  7. Richard Tait says:

    A very fine article, which highlights the hypocrisy displayed by East Sussex Council and the “Water Loo” people. They should possibly consider changing their name to “Public Urinal” or “Lamp Post” society because it is a rather offensive way of “taking the piss”. The First Minister has shown remarkable courtesy in his comments about this childish slur.

  8. Margaret White says:

    This was a well written and thought out article. It mirrored exactly how I feel about the effigy of Alex Salmond and the greif I felt and still feel over the result of the referendum. You have to question the sanity of the organisers, misinformed about everything Scottish to say the least.

  9. Angus Johnston says:

    I voted Yes for a confident, forward looking Scotland, not one with a victim mentality. The actions of Sussex Bonfire societies are a method of political lampooning – here lampooning Salmond and, like it or lump it, the yes movement. The fact remains that much of the campaign was linked to him do you can’t blame people at the other end of the UK for making the connection.

    We lost, now we need to look forwards and not moan when others mention it.

    • alharron says:

      We ARE moving forward, Angus. The Yes parties are flourishing while the Unionist parties falter; Yes meetings are being organised up and down the country; we’re dusting ourselves off, getting ready for the 2015 election. The entire point of this post is showing WHY we need to be confident and forward-looking, not cowering, insipid Jocks who simply take the belittling and ridiculing of their culture and cause with a weary grin. Confronting a perceived slight is not a victim mentality, in my eyes.

      As for satire: the entire point of political lampooning is to be provocative. From that point of view, it’s satire. But good satire stands up to scrutiny. It has a point. It cuts to the bone. It hits some basic internal truth. This doesn’t. The discomfort doesn’t come from it making a good point: it comes from the same triumphalism of The Sun’s “Gotcha” or the Daily Mail’s Triumph of the Union.

      “The fact remains that much of the campaign was linked to him do you can’t blame people at the other end of the UK for making the connection.”

      Maybe not them – but we can certainly blame the media, which moulded the political and cultural landscape from which they drew. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

    • Hetty Wilson says:

      Angus, I too voted YES for a forward confident Scotland, thing is the coniving establishment lied to their back teeth to stifle and stop what should have been a democratic process. I think we are doing pretty well considering, I wouldn’t be so hard on anyone that finds the anti Scottish sentiment soth of the border just a bit offensive. Scotland’s prospects are less favourable than we would like, especially with the backward looking bullies down in wasteminster at the helm.

      • alharron says:

        Also consider: if it was a Yes vote, do you think I’d give a damn about whatever those numpties in Lewes was doing? The problem is we didn’t GET a Yes vote – we’re still at the mercy of South-East England voters. Tory voters. Voters like those… in Lewes. They have more power over what happens to Scots than the Scottish people themselves. And they’re burning effigies of our democratically elected First Minister, as well as symbols of our movement. That’s what’s offensive about it.

        If it was a Yes vote, this would be water off a duck’s back. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.

  10. […] I’m getting fed up with this. | A Wilderness of Peace. It’s easy to see why this might be seen as an inflammatory gesture (ho ho). […]

  11. wwilmawatts says:

    As I have said in your recent piece about Catalonia, I have been AWOL. I did read this piece on the night you wrote it but was too busy sending it round Facebook and Twitter to comment. I spoke to my daughter, who lives in Worthing, just a few miles from the notorious Lewes, pronounced Lewis about the effigies. She is a dozy female and knew nothing about it. She was horrified about the Alex Salmond effigies but equally not surprised. This spectacle happens every year and when we lived in Brighton it just seemed to be about, “Who can we seriously offend this year?” It is as much about media attention as anything. Lesley Anne had no idea of the religious connotations at all. It is just a big celebration of bonfire night. This of course is how they get away with it. Oh! it’s just all a bit of a laugh. Totally offensive but the more we respond the more fuel they get for their fire.
    As a PS, can I just say that in the same call to my daughter she is definitely getting the impression that things are changing since the Referendum. In her regional news they are doing positive pieces about breaking away from London! One piece was about Cornwall which has always believed itself to be a different country. During each article she said the Referendum has been mentioned in a positive light and how they thanked the Scots for opening up the debate of power for the regions of England. She is also finding that if she chats to a stranger, say at a bus stop, they are very encouraging. It wasn’t like that before the Referendum, she had a really hard time. On yet another positive note: her partner, Tory voting ex public school, has joined the SNP and had a Saltire tattoo done. I am too modest to ask on which part of his anatomy.

    • Morag says:

      I used to live near there too. I never went to the Lewes Fireworks – I was well warned. Just bear in mind, not everyone in Sussex thinks it’s funny. When it was explained to me, by a local, it was described as an appalling spectacle which causes local Catholics to stay at home behind drawn curtains, and accompanied by a “don’t even think about going there” warning. (I’m not a Catholic, and neither was my informant.)

  12. […] the SNP and the independence movement – it’s because criticisms of the SNP too often throw Scots under the bus in their desire to get at Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon. Hence they couldn’t resist calling […]

  13. 45 says:

    Hopefully they will burn Sturgeon next year instead.

  14. […] You might think I’d be shocked, appalled, disgusted and outraged by this, as indeed I have something of a hair-trigger for this sort of thing. […]

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