It’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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
For those enquiring we have been advised that there won’t be any burning of the Alex Salmond effigies this evening in Lewes.
— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) November 5, 2014
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:
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?
To be absolutely clear: tonight I saw an effigy of Alex Salmond lit by fireworks then blown up at Lewes. Before: pic.twitter.com/X09KCZkoWI
— Michael Story (@MWStory) November 6, 2014
Last tweet was mid burst, here’s before and after. Pics taken by me pic.twitter.com/IUg9GkPe9P
— Michael Story (@MWStory) November 6, 2014
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.