Was Burns a Socialist, Whig, Nationalist, Tory – or floating voter?

Robert Burns statue, Stirling <em>Picture: Andrew Smith</em>
Robert Burns statue, Stirling Picture: Andrew Smith
By John Knox

One of the delights of the Burns Supper season is watching every political party claiming to be his true inheritors. Each can ransack Burns’ life and his works for samples of their philosophy – though it must be said from the outset that the Tories’ claim is about as credible as Tam O’Shanter’s account of his journey home after a night out among the honest men and bonnie lasses of Ayr.

But let us start with the Tories in any case. Burns was a self-made man, the son of a hard-working gardener, farmer and entrepreneur. Like all lower and middle class Tories, he laughed at the toffs “who strut and stare and a’ that”.

He was prepared to get on his bike, or at least his horse, to find work – in a linen mill in Irvine, in the plantations of Jamaica (very nearly), on various farms in Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. And at the end, he despised himself for being forced to take a job with the government as a customs officer. But hey, he had a large family to look after and writing poetry was not “wealth creating” work.

And didn’t he join the Royal Dumfries Volunteers to put down those revolutionary Frenchmen? “Never but by British hands / Maun British wrangs be righted!”, he wrote in his patriotic poem Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?

If we look more closely at this Tory Burns, however, he begins to fall apart. Hugh MacDiarmid tells us Burns only joined the Volunteers to spy on them. Only months before, he had tried to send four cannonades to the French Assembly – guns he bought at the sale of the smugglers’ ship, the Rosamond, he had helped to seize.

Burns had also written approvingly of the “deserved fate” of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. And it is no coincidence that he sent his revolutionary poem Scots Wha Hae to his publisher on the day the rebel lawyer Thomas Muir was being tried for sedition. And even earlier, he had written an Ode For General Washington’s Birthday, in which he praises all revolutionaries and appeals to Scotland to revolt too:

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columba’s offspring, brave and free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!

So does this make Burns a patron saint of the SNP? It is certainly a stronger case than that for the Tories. I am not convinced, though, that he wanted a totally independent Scotland. He says nothing in all his poems and 600 songs about the Jacobite rebellion which took place just a generation before him. His praise for William Wallace and Robert the Bruce was more to do with opposing tyranny than seeking outright independence. And the sentiment of A Man’s a Man for a’ that is of international brotherhood, not nationalism.

Even the much-cited poem A Parcel of Rogues can be taken two ways:

But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold –
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

It can either be read as “Scotland should never have sold its independence”, or “Scotland is a parcel of rogues and cannot be trusted with independence”.

Officially, of course, Burns was a Whig. He joined “honest man” Patrick Heron’s by-election campaign in 1795 in the seat of Kirkcudbright, writing three popular election ballads against the local Tory lairds. He managed to recycle some of his better lines from A Man’s a Man:

But why should we to Nobles jouk,
And isn’t against the law that?
For why a Lord may be a gowk
Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that.

For a’ that and a’ that,
Here’s Heron yet for a’ that!
A Lord may be a lousy loun
Wi’ ribband, star and a’ that.

But being a Whig was not quite the same thing as being a Liberal or a Liberal Democrat. The Whigs (originally a name for Scottish cattle drovers or cowboys) came in a broad spectrum of colours. Some were followers of Tom Paine and his Rights of Man, while others were happy to go into coalition with the Tories under William Pitt. Burns probably regarded the Whigs, whoever they were, as the lesser of two evils.

Had the Labour party existed in the 1790s, there is little doubt that Burns would have been a member. He even presages the name in his Address to a Haggis:

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reeking, rich!

Throughout his poetry and songs, Burns champions the working man and insults, lampoons, despises, rages against the upper classes and their hangers-on – the clergy, the fawning unco-guid, and yes even white-collar government employees like himself, as in The Deil’s awa’ wi’ the Exciseman.

It is difficult to know what Robert Burns would make of the modern world – which is why those Burns Supper claims by the political parties are so quaint. To ask if Burns would have approved of New Labour or the new Tories or independence in Europe is absurd – all is utterly changed since the 1790s. And Burns would not be Burns if he was alive today.

As for his political philosophy, all we can say is that he was egalitarian, patriotic and against hypocrisy of any kind. This is the appeal of his poetry for the working class everywhere, from Ayrshire to Azerbaijan.

But Burns was not really a political animal. In fact, he despairs of politics, as in his Ode to the Departed Regency Bill, in which he attacks the shenanigans at Westminster – “All would rule and none obey”.

He was much more interested in people, their lives and loves, and in animals and plants and landscape. He wrote about mice and men, women and wine, songs and sinners, a fly on a lady’s bonnet, a family round a fireside, the nagging pain of a toothache.

In the end, Burns remains a floating voter. He casts a critical and twinkly eye over every party, indeed over politics in general. And he would be most amused by the attempt to wine and dine him every 25 January.

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  • Danceswithhaggis

    “Alas, 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 name !”
    Burns in a letter to Mrs Dunlop, 10th April
    “This morning I knelt at the tomb of Sir John the Graham, the gallant
    friend of the immortal Wallace; and two hours ago I said a fervent prayer for
    old Caledonia over the hole in a blue whinstone, where Robert de Bruce fixed his
    royal standard on the banks of Bannockburn:”

    Robert Burns in a letter to Robert Muir of Kilmarnock, 26 August 1787