218 years after his death, legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns still exerts an influence. An example this week has been the spat between the Glaswegian singer Eddi Reader, regarded by many as the greatest living interpreter of Burns’ songs, and Lord Steel of Aikwood. In his pre-lordship incarnation as plain old David Steel, he was Member of Parliament for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale and leader of the Liberal Party during its alliance with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, before the two parties merged to become the Liberal Democrats. After he was ennobled, and after the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999, he served too as the new parliament’s Presiding Officer.
I suspect that most people today, if they remember Steel at all, will remember him as the hapless little puppet on Spitting Image, being bullied and abused by his bigger and nastier alliance partner, Social Democrats leader Dr David Owen. However, Steel was a cannier political operator than his Spitting Image puppet suggested. I’m sure he’d have been too canny to do what the present Liberal Democrat leadership have done, entering into a governing coalition with the Conservatives – a move so unpopular it looks likely to wipe them out in Britain at the next general election, apart perhaps from a few remote seabird colonies in the northwest Atlantic, where they may still cling to power. Then again, in an Edinburgh council election two years ago, they were outpolled by a penguin, so even that might not happen.
In a debate in the House of Lords about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum and the possibility of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom – the Scottish National Party don’t have any representatives in the House of Lords, and with only representatives from the pro-Union Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties participating, it was a pretty one-sided debate – Lord Steel poo-pooed the idea of an independent Scottish broadcasting corporation, an ‘SBC’, being anywhere near as good as the existing BBC. Why, he said, all an SBC would be capable of doing would be “feeding us a diet of Eddi Reader murdering Burns’ simple melodies.”
This week Eddi Reader hit back at Lord Steel. Writing on a website, she complained that “I just had to scrabble around to find the money to pay an enormous personal tax bill this month… Some of that goes into that guy’s pocket.” She also referred to him as a ‘dishonourable birkie’. A birkie is a Scots word for an arrogant and well-to-do young man – I suppose what today we’d call a Hooray Henry – and that’s hardly a term I’d use for the seventy-something Lord Steel. Though no doubt she was referencing a line in the famous Burns poem / song A Man’s a Man for A’ That: “Ye see thon birkie ca’d a ‘a lord’ / Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that?”
Well, I can’t say Eddi Reader did herself any favours with her appearance on a recent edition of the BBC’s Question Time, in which she behaved like a crazed harpy. And I’m no fan of her version of Auld Lang Syne, which I find needlessly drawn out and strangulated. But most of her interpretations of Burns, in my opinion, have been commendable and she’s worked hard to popularise the Alloway bard among modern music audiences. No wonder that the late John Peel would usually give a birl to a few of her renditions during his radio show each Burns Night.
Furthermore, I would hazard a guess and say that even Reader’s take on Auld Lang Syne, caterwauling though it is, is superior to Lord Steel’s one foray into the musical world. Yes, prior to the general election in 1983, Steel saw fit to lend his vocals to a song called I Feel Liberal, Alright, intended to raise his party’s profile among young voters. The song was beyond horrible. At least Steel showed himself to be a little ahead of the curve in trying to appear ‘in with’ and ‘down with’ the kids and their popular music. Later decades would see Tony Blair hobnobbing with Oasis, Gordon Brown professing a love for the Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron making The Killers one of his choices on Desert Island Discs. Aye, right.
I read somewhere that Steel’s missus, Lady Judy Steel of Aikwood, intends to vote ‘yes’ to Scottish independence, even if an independent Scotland means she’ll be a Lady no longer. I just hope that after hearing her husband’s discourteous words about Ms Reader, she walloped him over the head with a rolling pin – or with a more Burnsian, thick, wooden spurtle – when he arrived home from the House of Lords.
Incidentally, I have tried to treat the Scottish referendum debate – with all its claims and accusations, and counter-claims and counter-accusations – with a level-headed, objective detachment, but that debate in the House of Lords did make my blood boil. It boiled particularly when Lord Lang of Monkton got up and declared that the creation of an independent Scotland would ‘dishonour’ the memories of all those Scottish soldiers who died fighting for Britain during various wars.
I’m sure that over the centuries British propagandists told those soldiers – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – that if they made the ultimate sacrifice, they’d at least be fighting for freedom, the highest cause. But Lang’s concept of ‘freedom’ is apparently not one that includes the freedom of a group of people to vote for political autonomy.
Once upon a time Lord Lang was Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland under John Major’s Conservative government in the 1990s – a less-than-democratic period when the Conservatives had just ten MPs out of a Scottish total of 72 and Lang had to run the place like a colonial governor. I remember when there were peaceful demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh calling for (a degree of) Scottish home rule, Lang described the demonstrations as being ‘a nonsense’ organised by ‘headless chickens’. (For the record, I was one of those headless chickens, back in my relatively un-grey, un-wrinkled and un-cynical youth in 1992.) When a devolved Scottish Parliament finally was established at the end of the decade, under a Labour government, the number of Scottish Conservative MPs had been reduced to zero. The irony is that the handful of Conservative politicians who got elected to the new parliament, under proportional representation, was the only thing keeping Lang’s party alive in Scotland as it entered the 21st century.
Lang no doubt wanted to stir things up in this, the 100th anniversary-year of the start of World War I, when about 100,000 Scottish soldiers died in what was essentially a face-off between Imperial powers, orchestrated by jackasses like Field Marshal Douglas Haig. To use the famous phrase coined by the late historian Alan Clark, who as one of Lang’s old Conservative Party comrades was no left-wing revisionist, those Scottish soldiers were some of the ‘lions led by donkeys’. I would like to think that an independent Scotland would still honour the men, but not honour the cause.
Sadly, nobody in the House of Lords saw fit to take Lang to task for the offensive stupidity of what he’d said — nobody from the Labour side and nobody from the Liberal Democrat side. Quite the reverse. Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, who was formerly Helen Liddle and was Secretary of State for Scotland for two years during Tony Blair’s Labour government, praised Lang as a ‘noble lord’ and gave the proceedings the air of a gruesome, ermine-clad love-in. In addition to Lord Lang of Monkton, Lord Steel of Aikwood and Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, the debate’s participants included Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale, who used to be Jack McConnell, First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007, and who presumably was given a title in recognition of his services to bad kilts; and Lord Freddy of Kreuger – or as his mum used to call him, Michael Forsyth.
Whatever the pros and cons of Scottish independence, surely the prospect of Scotland being able to uncouple itself from the gravy train of Grade-A numpties that is the House of Lords must be a major incentive to vote ‘yes’. In fact, looking at them all, another Burnsian turn of phrase comes to mind: a parcel o’ rogues.
Here, if you can bear it, is a chance to hear a little bit of I Feel Liberal, Alright.
GLOSSARY (My vocabulary tends to turn Scottish when I’m riled)
Eejit – idiot.
Birl – spin.
Spurtle – a kitchen utensil used for stirring things, like a wooden spoon but without a spoonhead.
Numpty – idiot.