There’s nothing you can tell me about beacons on the Border – I come from Selkirk. It is part of local lore that when danger threatened, the bonfires were lit on the hilltops and everybody got ready for attack.
Put all to fyre and sworde, burne Edinborough towne, so rased and defaced when you have sacked and gottenwhat ye can of it, as there may remayne forever a perpetual memory of the vengeunceof God. That was the English instruction in the mid-1600s.
And it wasn’t just Crown versus Crown over the Border. Families and clans had long-running conflicts from which no one was safe as reivers and brigands cavorted savagely and with impunity. The english words ‘blackmail’ and ‘rustling’ derive from the time.
Home must be guarded whatever betide, and the brave lads of Yarrow must saddle and ride, when the beacon is lit on the Border…those words may date from centuries gone but we still sing them today in Selkirk where the commemoration of the defeat at Flodden – 600 years ago – is central to the collective town memory.
So when I hear of a ‘hands along the border’ idea to link people along Hadrian’s Wall and ignite a series of beacons, I’m intrigued. The Tory MP Rory Stewart is promoting the plan as a means of telling Scots not to vote for independence. I think it’s a good one. It’s voluntary and collective, moving in its imagery and potentially inspiring in impact.
There are questions though. As you’ll gather, the beacons weren’t used as a means of saying Hello. They weren’t a warming welcome to our friends over the Border. When the hilltops were ablaze, it created panic and fear, desperate attempts to hide property, people fled from homes, weapons were broken out and everyone knew that, if it wasn’t them, somebody nearby would lose their livestock, home, and family members to unsparing brutality and rape. Beacons have been adopted in modern times as emblems of peace linking people, it’s true, but the history Rory Stewart is alluding to was anything but peaceful.
I also think it is contradictory to use the Border itself as an icon of Unionism. One of the weird aspects of the debate has been the Yes claim that there will be no formal border in the sovereign sense with guards and passport checks but it is a constant theme of the Union that a frontier will remain, in currency, trade and movement of people. Linking arms along the line emphasizes the very thing Stewart wants to overcome – the dividing line between countries.
Indeed I thought the message from his personal history of the area was that it was artificial in the first place – I suppose all border are historically, except those composed of mountains or oceans. It was based on the idea that we were all part of Middleland from the Forth down into (what now is) England and the frontier was the fault of the Romans so we shouldn’t really bother with it now. Pity about the last 1000 years, really.
But, effective as this could be as an image, if it works, the question for us is: will it have impact? Do you think anyone will change their vote because thousands form a human chain and light bonfires at night? Is there some ancient primeval urging calling us to stay united? I think it might encourage Borderers themselves, substantially No voters I would guess, to stay loyal to Union and some will join in. I wonder what the English people would think if the Scots massed on the other side of there Border at the same time? It could be a project for Yes – to copy the demonstration in favour of Yes.
But the striking thing about the Stewart demonstration is how it conflicts with the orchestrated line of the British government and the official Better Together campaign.
Suppose, instead of coming after a year in which lorry loads of political slurry have been emptied on the Scots by the government, this had been done at the start of the Unionist resistance to self-determination. It would have been a non-governmental, mass demonstration of affection whose images would now be routinely repeated on screen and could have set a positive tone to the whole debate. It would have been a point of reference for them. Instead it’s a one-man afterthought, unfortunately tagged to a television documentary of doubtful historical veracity and is left looking forlorn and desperate as the barrage of regressive propaganda hails down – the Treasury’s ‘assessment’ of the financial implications is due in weeks. (I’m not expecting to hear independence will make Scots wealthier, but you never know).
Why did it take a lone MP to think up something remotely positive to say about Britain? It shows how lacklustre and dreary, how knuckle-dragging and unappealing the whole Union show has been. In fact, here’s a question. When did you last year someone say with a straight face that it is a clever and well run campaign? I don’t think even their own side claim that now. It has become a crisis-ridden parody which has earned a place for McDougall and Darling in the Horror section of the Political Joke Book.
I see today that unnamed Labour people claim that David Cameron is ‘toxic’ to the campaign. What an insight! How smart these senior Labour figures are to work out after only a year or so that the most right wing, Eton educated posh Tory leader in history who is crushing working people and the disabled while backing the bankers might be not a very clever choice of comrade in a Scottish election. Why did we stop voting Labour?
I smell a rat. I think Labour are now trying to extricate themselves from the looming disaster by blaming the Tories for a dismal campaign and, even if it isn’t a total loss, then a very close-run thing that leaves us where we were – with ill-defined Devo Max plans on the stocks and no commitment to enact them. Labour knew exactly who Cameron was and what the likely implication was of working with him. They misjudged it, horribly, in the desperate hope of crushing Salmond and finishing off he SNP. They believe they would win comfortably. Instead, as time goes on, the flimsy basis of the British Union is exposed as are the lies of the MPs and the secretly aligned experts who back them and the very voting base of Labour is being educated in how this country really works and in whose interests. A significant number of them are disengaging from Labour’s message, dismayed at their new friends, unconvinced by Lamont or Miliband as leaders and hearing a true left wing community agenda from the Yes campaign.
I’m afraid, like Rory’s beacons, it is all too late for Labour.