Eddi, ermine and eejits


From partyearth.com

From flickr.com


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.


(c) BBC


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.


From glasgowunihumanrights.blogspot.com 


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.


The most embarrassing MP in history


In 1977, when my family moved to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland, I discovered that the Member of Parliament for our new constituency, which was Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (later to become Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale), was one David Steel.  39 years old at the time, Steel was the relatively young and fresh-faced leader of the Liberal Party, which is now the Liberal Democratic Party.  Initially, the knowledge that I was represented in Westminster by the leader of the UK’s third largest political party made me feel a bit important, even if I didn’t have a clue what his party’s policies were.  I suspect that a lot of the people who voted for him didn’t have a clue either.


In the 1980s, however, the Liberals entered a political alliance with the Social Democratic Party, led first by Roy Jenkins and then by Dr David Owen, in the hope of creating an election-winning centrist alternative to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.  This hope was never translated into reality; and Steel’s reputation, meanwhile, went downhill fast.  This was largely due to the satirical puppet TV show Spitting Image, which in the mid-1980s decided to depict Steel as a pompous but ineffectual squeaky-toned midget who was constantly manipulated and bullied by a Machiavellian and contempt-dripping David Owen.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwGvgC-r4IE.)  Steel is on record as saying that his Spitting Image puppet became so embedded in the British public’s imaginations that it seriously harmed his credibility among voters.


At www.capitalbay.com


Ironically, despite the uselessness of his puppet caricature, it was the real David Steel’s ruthlessness that ended Owen’s political career.  In 1988, after disappointment in the previous year’s General Election, he forced Liberal and SDP members to vote on a proposed merger of their parties, against Owen’s wishes – and when majorities in both parties approved the merger, Owen was finished.  However, Steel was by then yesterday’s man too.  He stepped down as leader of the newly-created Social and Liberal Democrats later that year and gave up his Westminster seat in 1997.


During the height of Spitting Image’s popularity, it was slightly embarrassing to have as your MP someone whom most people knew as a pygmy-sized, pipsqueak-voiced latex gargoyle who was browbeaten and tormented on TV every week by David Owen.  However, that was nothing compared to the embarrassment that befell Peebles following the fifth review of the Boundary Commission for Scotland, which in 2005 saw fit to transplant Peebles and its hinterland from the Borders region and onto an area to its immediate west, creating the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency.  A rural territory populated by obviously rightward-leaning farmers, this new entity elected to Westminster the Conservative politician David Mundell.  It was the only Scottish constituency to elect a Conservative MP.  That’s right, there’s only one Tory MP in Scotland and he’s representing me.


Now, each summer at the Agricultural Show held in Peebles’ Hay Lodge Park, the Conservative Party invariably sets up a tent and The Only Tory MP In Scotland sits inside it, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any flesh present itself.  Passers-by at least have the opportunity to point and crack a well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”


However, being represented by The Only Tory MP In Scotland is not the biggest embarrassment in the political history of Peebles.  The other day I was doing some research on the Internet and I happened across the incredible story of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, who became MP for the town in 1931, while it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency.  In that election Ramsay’s majority was nearly double that – 17,435 votes to 9,185 – of his closest opponent, the Labour Party’s Joseph Westwood, who’d been the sitting MP.  (By the next election, however, Ramsay had obviously lost much of his lustre for the victory-margin over the Labour candidate was reduced to less than 1,500 votes.)  Ramsay was a member of the Scottish Unionist Party, associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales – only in 1965 would it become the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and turn into a regional branch of a Britain-wide Conservative Party.


Scottish-born but educated at Eton and then at Sandhurst, Ramsay entered the army in his late teens, was seriously injured during World War I, and after leaving the military in 1920 became a company director.  He also became involved in conservative politics.  Deeply religious, Ramsay may have crossed the line from being merely right-wing to being extremely right-wing in response to what he saw as the terrifyingly atheistic and anti-Christian nature of communism.


During the Spanish Civil War, reacting against the anti-Catholicism of the Republicans (who were getting support from the Soviet Union), Ramsay became an ardent supporter of General Franco and founded a right-wing organisation called the United Christian Front, which confronted “the widespread attack on the Christian verities which emanates from Moscow.”  Alongside this growing horror at godless communism was a growing anti-Semitism.  He became leader of the British branch of another organisation, the anti-Jewish Nordic League, which operated as an upper-class counterpart to the more proletarian British Union of Fascists.  By the late 1930s, Ramsay had well and truly entered a paranoid fantasy land where all bad things in life were the result of Jewish conspiracies funded by Jewish money.  In parliament, he agitated against the then war minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Jew, whom he claimed would “lead us to a war with our blood-brothers of the Nordic race to make way for a Bolshevised Europe.”


By 1939 he’d launched another organisation, the secretive Right Club, which attempted to bring together under one roof all the extreme-right groups in Britain – “all the patriotic parties” as he described them.  The club’s logo consisted of a picture of an eagle killing a snake and the initials P.J., which stood for ‘Perish Judah’.  Among those in Ramsay’s orbit at this time was the Irish-American fascist William Joyce who, later as a naturalised German, would become the Nazi propagandist known by the nickname Lord Haw-Haw and would hang for treason in 1946.


Ramsay, who’d been a guest at London’s German Embassy in 1938, was not happy when Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany on September 3rd, 1939.  The following day, he wrote a poem (which was then printed and distributed to sympathisers by the Right Club) that began: ‘Land of Dope and Jewry / Land that once was free / All the Jew boys praise thee / Whilst they plunder thee.’


While he made increasingly anti-Semitic outbursts in parliament, the wartime MI5 took an interest in the Right Club’s activities.  Their interest was particularly piqued by Ramsay’s knowledge of the New British Broadcasting Service, a German radio station beaming Nazi propaganda into the UK – in a speech in parliament, Ramsay announced the station’s exact broadcasting times and wavelength, thereby giving it free publicity; and by a scandal involving the interception of messages between Churchill and Roosevelt and the possible passing of information to the Italian government.


It was no surprise when in May 1940 Ramsay was arrested under an emergency statute, Defence Regulation 18B, and placed in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley.


After four years of confinement in Brixton’s F wing, where he spent all but two hours of each day in a small cell, Ramsay was finally released in September 1944 – the authorities waited until after the D-Day landings before letting him go.  He returned to Westminster and took his seat again in the House of Commons as if nothing had been amiss.  However, according to Ramsay’s Wikipedia entry, the only thing of consequence he did during the remainder of his career as an MP was to table a motion calling for the reinstatement of the infamous Statute of the Jewry, originally enacted in 1275 by King Edward I.  Among other things, the 1275 statute had decreed that all Jews in England should be identifiable as Jews by having a yellow badge attached to their outer garments.


Ramsay’s constituents in Peebles, it should be said, had long since lost patience with him.  Back in 1939, when Ramsay’s anti-Semitism had finally bubbled up in public view, eleven Church of Scotland ministers in County Peeblesshire had sent a letter to the Scotsman newspaper denouncing his views.  After the outbreak of war, letters in local newspaper the Peeblesshire News were questioning the MP’s integrity, to put it mildly.  One correspondent opined that his speeches “might have been written by Dr Goebbels himself.”  And although Ramsay’s local Scottish Unionist association in Peebles and Southern Midlothian disowned him at the time of his arrest, the Peeblesshire News still had strong words for them: “This stain on the constituency should have been and ought to have been averted by Peebles Unionists.  In this hour of national trial, we ought to have been saved from such dire calamity.”


While Ramsay was incarcerated, the constituency’s needs were attended to by another MP, David Robertson, who for some reason represented the constituency of Streatham in London at the other end of the island.  And it was no doubt a relief for the town, which had lost some 70 inhabitants in the war, when Ramsay didn’t contest the seat again in 1945 and it was won by the Labour Party’s David Pryde.


The main event in Ramsay’s post-political life was the publication in 1952 of his autobiography, The Nameless War.  In it, he makes lunatic but typically Ramsay-ian claims such as that John Calvin, expositor-in-chief to the Presbyterian churches, had actually been called Cohen – and guess what religion he’d really been; or that Oliver Cromwell had been a Jewish agent who’d executed Charles I in order to facilitate the Jews’ return to England.  Ramsay died in 1955.


At www.npg.org.uk


For more information on a figure from my town’s political history whom most folk would prefer to forget, check out these articles: