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It is Burns Supper season, and I have enjoyed traditional entertainment and inspiring speeches at SNP events in Baillieston and Perth, and joined in an international commemoration of Burnsʼ life and work in Brussels. Burns was not just a great Scottish poet, but a great poet, whose reputation is international. He still has a massive following as far afield as Russia and China, as well as in all the places in the world which have expatriate Scots communities.
Portrayed as the peasant poet, Burns was by no means uneducated. The remarkable thing about the Scotland of the eighteenth century was that people from Burnsʼ humble background could, for the most part, read and write. In fact, it has been asserted that Scotland was, by that time the most widely literate country in the world.
For almost two hundred years, there had been a system of parish schools which ensured that education was opened up, at least to some extent, to all classes. In Burnsʼ lifetime, Scotland already had five universities, and the boast could still be heard that "England haes twa universities – an sae dis Aiberdeen!". On top of the parish school, Burns was also given a schooling in Latin and
French by various benefactors and he was certainly not the half-savage peasant that some have tried to paint him as. Much has been speculated about Burnsʼ politics. Many of Burnsʼ poems brim with good-natured contempt for the nakedly corrupt Westminster politicians of his day, commenting on the failure of politicians to live up to their election promises: "In getherin votes, ye werna slack" !
Burns would have been shocked to know that the whisky taxes which he derided are still with us today, and that whisky sold here is still among the highest taxed commodities in Europe, and that the Scottish Parliament still doesnʼt has no say in such matters, and no access to the revenues either.
President Obama is said to have been inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who was famously inspired by the works of our Rabbie Burns. When he was once asked to toast Burns, President Lincoln said; "I can not frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I can not say anything which seems worth saying."
Burns outlives all the caricatures of him and remains one of the worldʼs best loved and most often recited poets. Referring to Scotland and the British union, Burns said "I sometimes wonder what are the boasted advantages of this union", and he wondered if any of the claimed advantages could outweigh the complete lack of political autonomy, let alone democracy, which he saw in the Scotland of his day.
Thanks to SNP success at the ballot box, Scotland has moved forward considerably in recent years. We now have a degree of political autonomy in Scotland, but I suspect that Burns would say not enough. I agree. It is not enough for Scotland to be world-renowned at Burns supper season. To effectively build on the successes delivered by the SNP Government, Scotland must regain all of the normal powers which independent countries have at their disposal.
The imminent UK General Election provides another opportunity to win votes for Independence. Let us make it our mission to inspire voters in Scotland to put Scotland first, and to boost our nationʼs progress towards normal, independent, status as part of the international community of nations.