How Would The Daily Mail Have Reacted To Robert Burns?


It’s ironic that The Scottish Daily Mail chose 25 January to publish an article entitled FIVE YEARS IN JAIL FOR THE ONLINE BULLIES. This double page splash, focusing on pro-Yes tweeters:

“unmasks some of the worst ‘cybernats’ to highlight the way they have poisoned the national debate ahead of September’s referendum.”

The article (albeit clumsily) seeks to imply that certain Yes supporting twitter users could face jail terms of up to five years. However what’s so striking about this coverage, is that the examples cited are remarkably tame in the field of online ‘trolling’ including:

@UK_Together No thanks, I’m no good at lying to my fellow Scots in the hope they vote No, I’m no good at fear bombing or smearing either.’

@UK_ Together Sure, tell lies and spread misinformation from the comfort of ur home… easier not doing it face face.

Given that it’s Burns Night, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Mail would react to certain utterances from our national poet. Indeed, the bard’s posthumously published ‘A Revolutionary Lyric’ makes even the most belligerent examples of cybernatery look like letters to the editor of The People’s Friend.

‘The starving wretch who steals for bread
But seldom meets compassion –
And shall a Crown preserve the head
Of him who robs a Nation?’

It goes on…

‘…The guillotine on Peers shall wait
And Knights we’ll hang in Garters.
Those despots long have trod us down
And judges are their engines:
These Wretched Minions of a Crown
Demand a people’s Vengeance!’

Of course, this poem was too risky for Burns to publish, even under a pseudonym. This was an era of Scottish history in which a notoriously autocratic regime, of which Dundas and Braxfield are the most notable figures, regularly executed, imprisoned and exiled those thought guilty of sedition. A crime defined as:

…an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to exite disaffection against the person of His Majesty, his heirs or successors, or the government and constitution of the United Kingdom…

Many radical Scots were tried for this crime:, not least the lawyer and reformer Thomas Muir of Huntershill

It’s thought that Burns’s most ‘unionist’ verse, about giving the French a doing: ‘Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?’ was written to prove his loyalty at a time when his radical sympathies were under scrutiny. Thankfully, we live in an era in which people do not have to join a local militia and pen a militant anthem for them in order to survive. We’ve moved on. At least some of us have.

Lying behind the Mail’s predictable and deliberate attempt to blur the difference between hate-speech and anti-union speech, is its favourite pastime: manufacturing outrage against an easily identifiable group.

As the Mail’s anti-cybernat campaign shows, there are numerous problems surrounding McCarthy-esque paranoia: not least the damage that it can do to the individuals singled out as examples. It also risks obscuring the fact that in a democratic society (in pursuit of which Burns was prepared to resort to such violent language) the right to free speech must also contain within it the right to offend. This is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that we can take from reading a poet like Burns.

The Scottish Daily Mail has scurrilously conflated the ubiquitous behaviour of online abuse and hate speech with a specific political viewpoint. This is dangerous. It suggests that to mock the established order, to hate it and seek to alter it, is criminal. Like benefit claimants or immigrants, those of us with a twitter account and a desire for self-determination are lambasted, not for illegal behaviour, but for the strength of our opinions. In the social media age policing the line between hate-speech and offence is a complex one: defamatory caricatures only serve to make the effective marking of that line a harder task.

I’d therefore ask whether The Scottish Daily Mail thinks it fitting that we celebrate the legacy of a man who wished on the despotic Catherine the Great of Russia that “the deil in her arse ram a huge prick of brass!” Given the paper’s reverence for a certain royal derrière, it would surely demand a sentence of more than five years.

Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom were enacted to protect minority groups: hence why the Mail quotes a legal authority on responses to the Clutha tragedy, not to the endless stream of abuse that appears on both Cameron and Salmond’s twitter feeds. Fevered though its imagination might be, the paper would surely be the first to agitate against laws that would make the mocking of public figures, or political institutions, a crime.

Of course, if we had a functioning fourth estate in Scotland, it would not be expounding pro-Britain hysteria on Burns Night, but rather looking at the legacy of Burns and how his words can still speak to us.

Criticisms of politicians may be unpleasant: even a poet as compassionate as Burns was moved to wish the guillotine upon them. Yet without the ability to question those in power and to mock them, we’d still be living in a society like Scotland in late 18th century: with no free press, scant personal freedom and a tiny electorate.

Frequently Burns struggled to make ends meet. The lack of a welfare state meant that he spent much of his childhood labouring on his father’s farm, a factor that may have contributed to his early death at the age of 37. The experience of engaging in back breaking work on behalf of others more fortunate; along with the stress, insecurity and creative turmoil that such a society visited upon him; places his hatred of the established order in context.

In short Burns would have been hated by The Daily Mail. As a paper that has no issue about questioning the loyalty of the dead, they’d have a field day exposing his poverty, promiscuity and support of revolution and radicalism.

Though he might be an anathema to the favoured mouthpiece of the British right, Burns may be the single most important figure behind Scotland’s sense of itself as a progressive, potentially left-wing society. He was an internationalist, republican, egalitarian, who would have equal disdain for the delusional, reactionary Britain that the Mail speaks to, as he did for the forces of reaction in his own day.

He would have seen today’s slow decline of working class identity, the relentless attacking and demonisation of the poor and the powerless, as the simple propaganda to justify inequality that it is.

For the bard introduced something into Scotland’s sense of self that made exploitation, however prevalent, harder to thole. Understanding, like Marx, that the realm of freedom begins only where labour determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.

For a poet trapped by the mundane considerations of an unjust economic order, political dissent was perhaps inevitable. Burns  would have understood that there would be no room for him in a Britain forever dancing to the tune of a right-wing press.

As it happens, I think that Burns would have voted yes, not as the idolised Victorian national bard he was later cast as, but as a radical worker who knew the bitter hardship of dependence.

That’s why the lines that will be in my head when I walk into a polling station in September, will not be from ‘Scots wha hae’ but from the lesser known ‘Epistle to a Young Friend’:

To catch dame Fortune’s golden smile,
Assiduous wait upon her;
And gather gear by ev’ry wile
That’s justified by honour;
Not for to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent.

Christopher Silver
National Collective