First Student Society Burns Night

The St Andrews Students SIU Society held an informal Burns Night in a pub in St Andrews on 5th February, shortly after the students returned for the new term. The evening was a great success, featuring speeches and poetry, and some interesting discussion about how to promote the positives of the UK.

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Scotland in Union Director Alastair Cameron and Regional Organiser Allan Sutherland joined Student Society President Elen Young, Vice-President Jordan Cavell and Social Secretaries Mark Edwards and Ellie Hope in welcoming the members.  Ellie provided a rendition of Burns’s ‘A Bottle and Friend’, and Alastair gave a short speech introducing SIU and considering the work of Robert Burns. 

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Alastair’s speech can be read below:

I’m delighted to be here and thank you for inviting me; it’s such a pleasure to be back in St Andrews.  I’d first of all like to say thank you and well done to all of you for helping to get this group off the ground and for organising this evening’s get-together.  All of the Scotland in Union team send their best wishes, and they want you to know that they are happy to help in any way they can, to assist you in continuing and growing this society.

It is fitting that this first student group should be in St Andrews – of course it’s appropriate that Scotland’s first university should have our first SIU students group, and it’s a neat coincidence that this institution is also my own alma mater.  Of course, St Andrews did give Alex Salmond a degree, but more recently the university has been associated with supporting Scotland in the UK: Louise Richardson refused to bow to SNP pressure in 2014; Professors Colin Kidd and Ali Ansari were both being early supporters of SIU; and, of course, the University of St Andrews refused to host that grandiose stone monument to Salmond’s ego which is now residing at Heriot Watt.

Elen asked me to say a few words about SIU, and also very importantly about Robert Burns: a kind of ‘welcome to the campaign’ with an element of ‘immortal memory’.  I’m quite glad to have that brief, as I’m sure I couldn’t compete with any of the speakers at our recent SIU Burns Supper in Glasgow if I was to stick solely to one of the traditional speeches.

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 I’ll try to do both parts of what Elen suggested, but at the same time not to go on too long, as I’m sure we can catch up during the evening.  We started Scotland in Union in late 2014, after the independence referendum, when it became clear that the SNP were not going to respect the referendum result.  There was an urgent need for a group to make a positive case for the UK, and to oppose Scottish nationalism, in a way that no one party could do on its own, and that remains the case today. 

An important point about the start of SIU is that none of the founding Directors had been politically active before the referendum campaign – SIU was born as a genuine civic grass-roots movement, though we have subsequently become more professional and we have built links with all of the main pro-UK parties.  I think that’s relevant because it may help any of you who haven’t been politically active before to see what can be achieved with a bit of initiative and a vital cause to support.

At SIU, we have had for a while the idea of three themes: rational, political and cultural.  The rational theme is fairly straightforward: highlighting the practical benefits, economic and otherwise, to us collectively and as individuals to Scotland remaining in the UK, whether that’s the ‘union dividend’ to Scotland’s public finances, or the way individuals can move throughout the UK for work or can call on top-tier consular support when travelling abroad with a UK passport. 

The political theme also kind of does what it says on the tin – most importantly, it is about opposing another divisive and unnecessary referendum, and to that end some of SIU’s activities do count as political campaigning.  If the SNP were to renew their push for another referendum, we would be very active politically, providing a voice for people who want to keep the UK together, using leaflets, street stalls, social media and so on.

The cultural theme is more complex, but is absolutely essential.  We will continue to celebrate the shared cultural, historical and family ties between people in Scotland and people elsewhere in the UK, and the harm which would be done by tearing the UK apart.  That’s where SIU’s celebrations of St Andrew’s Day, and Burns Night, come in.  The nationalists will not out-Scottish us, or force us to choose between being Scottish and something else – we can be Scottish as well as British, and we can celebrate Scottish culture just as much as a nationalist can.

Indeed, we can enjoy Burns, whether we call ourselves Scottish or not.  And why not, too – make the most of it – after all, has anyone been to a Shakespeare Supper; or Goethe Gathering; or an Ernest Hemmingway Evening (and if you have, I bet they’ve been less fun that a Burns Night!)?

There can be endless debates about whether Burns was a nationalist or a unionist, or even “how would Burns have voted in 2014?”, but I think all of that is missing the point.  Robert Burns is a towering figure in Scottish culture, an ahead-of-his time master of wordsmithing, and I’d be happily celebrating his life and works regardless, as part of my Scottish heritage.  Indeed, the whole “how would Burns have voted in 2014” discussion is something of a nationalist trope, as it seeks to force everything into a false, binary world of ‘for us or against us’.  I suspect Burns, being an intelligent and well-travelled man, would have rejected that simplistic world-view, whichever side he might have come down on in the end.

The reason I suggest Burns would have been too clever to fall for the nationalist define-yourself-by-your-car-stickers trap is that he shows his sophistication in his work.  Burns proudly wrote "Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled", against "proud Edward's power, chains and slaverie".  However, that feels to me to be an anti-authoritarian cry as much as anything to do with nationality, and this would be in line with Burns’s support for the French Revolution and American independence – Burns was an internationalist.  I also can’t see Burns falling into line with the SNP’s dictum that no MP or MSP should criticise party policy.  The ‘man o independent mind’ describe in ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ is independently-minded, not minded towards Independence in a national context.

And Burns had a sense of fairness and pragmatism which is not a normal trait of populist nationalism – for example when he wrote, in a letter to a newspaper, of the Jacobite risings: ‘That they failed, I bless my God most fervently, but cannot join in the ridicule against them.’ 

He was a complex character – with interesting relations with women and family.  I’ll stay off the romantic aspects here, which is probably wise, and at risk of falling back onto an old favourite, I’ll use Ode to a Mouse to illustrate some of his diverse viewpoints:

Initially, Burns addresses the mouse he has disturbed in very formal terms:

“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion has ruined Nature’s social union, and justifies that ill opinion that makes thee startle ….at me, thine own earth-bound companion and fellow morta.l”

But he then becomes very practical in considering the mouse’s situation, with winter weather on the way:

“Thy wee bit housie, too in ruin! Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! An’ naething now to big a new ane, O foggage green! An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin, Baith snell an keen!”

And he finishes with a more profound and general reflection:

“Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me! The present only touches thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An forward, tho I canna see, I guess and fear!”

Fantastic stuff, and a great example of Burns’s complexity of thought and command of words.

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So, to bring together the two parts of my brief: how do we build on Burns’s internationalism today?  How do we follow his example in politics (if not in romantic adventuring)?  I suggest that we do what the best universities do best – by seeking evidence to make up our minds, to support the case we want to make, or to deny dogma; by taking that evidence and presenting it in a compelling way; and being prepared to follow up in word and deed, to pursue the paths which provide the best outcomes for the greatest number of people, at personal cost if necessary.  That’s what SIU is about, and it’s what I hope SIU Students will be about. 

We can talk about the truly practical steps (meetings, social events, leafleting, online activity and so on) later, but the important lesson from Burns is that we should be true to ourselves and to the truth.  We can use our energy and evidence to push for the best outcome for people in Scotland, for the UK as a whole, and indeed for the wider international community, which is to keep Scotland secure within the United Kingdom.

I’ll close with a bit of indulgent quoting, which can’t really be resisted at an occasion such as this, just for fun:

Be Britain still to Britain true,

Among ourselves united;

For never but by British hands

Must British wrongs be righted!

Now, please join me in a toast to Scotland’s poet, Britain’s poet, and the world’s poet: Robert Burns.

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