Sense and Worth: Burns Night and Peter Tatchell Day

One hundred and ninety-three years apart, Robert Burns and Peter Tatchell share the same birthday, 25th January. Today Alex Salmond announces the launch of the consultation for the independence referendum, but let’s talk about Tatchell and Burns, first.

[Update, 14:49 – the independence consultation is now live, and will be open till 11th May 2012 – 14 weeks.]

Peter Tatchell Day

You are maddening.
You are threatening.
You are insanely brave.
A Poem For Peter Tatchell, By Stephen Fry

Peter Tatchell was born in 1952, in Australia. He’s been an activist for human rights for nearly his entire life, beginning at school, where he campaigned to set up a setting up a scholarship scheme for Aboriginal pupils, and to abolish the death penalty. He came to the UK in 1971, and joined the Gay Liberation Front. Over the four decades since then, his campaigning activities have ranged from sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve “poofs” to attempting to arrest Robert Mugabe for torture – during which he was beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s bodyguards. He’s marched with Moscow Pride and stood for by-elections (once, ironically, losing to a closety bisexual Liberal candidate because the Liberal party went all-out in homophobic attacks on Tatchell): he has always stood up for equality and human rights, wherever he thought it right and at considerable personal cost.

Today is Peter Tatchell‘s sixtieth birthday, and Pink News have declared the 25th of January to be Peter Tatchell Day, a celebration of Tatchell’s work and worth. From December 2009:

After surviving more than 300 physical attacks, two stabbing attempts, a live bullet posted through his door and a succession of vicious beatings that have left him mildly brain-damaged, Peter Tatchell must be one of the only people in the world who could still consider himself fortunate. “I’m lucky,” he insists with the quiet nonchalance of someone discussing the weather. “What helps me cope is to put things in perspective. My injuries pale in comparison to the pro-democracy campaigners in Iran or the environmentalists in Russia or the political activists in Zimbabwe. If I was doing what they are doing, I’d be dead.”

Peter Tatchell, still on the front line at 60:

Far from making him a single-issue campaigner, gay rights brought Tatchell a universal understanding of human suffering. Because he knew that the left could be as prejudiced as the right, he never fell into relativist excuse-making for socialist dictatorships. Because he opposed the supremacist attitudes of heterosexual men towards gays, he became a natural supporter of the emancipation of women. Because he saw how religion is everywhere used to justify the persecution of homosexuals, he became an unbending opponent of all God-inspired hatreds.

He warns anyone seeking political change that they must prepare for the long haul. “Savour your victories when they come,” he says, “and don’t be put off by defeat. Above all, never lose your idealism.”

Richard Fairbrass on a blind date with Peter Tatchell:

He’s absolutely overloaded with compassion for other people to the point where I think he neglects himself. I told him so. He’s going back to Moscow and I said,”Why are you going? It’s ridiculous. They knocked you about last time. Don’t go.” So I got a bit bossy. He gets 600 emails a day. And he helps something like two to three and a half thousand people a year with all their particular problems. And I think even he’s aware that it’s tiring and that he doesn’t get enough support.

Burns Night

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, South Ayrshire, in 1759. He was the eldest son of a poor tenant farmer, literate thanks to the successive Education Acts of the Parliament of Scotland in 1633, 1646, and 1696 which established schools funded by taxes on the local landowner across Scotland: he wrote poems “chiefly in the Scots dialect”, and they were first published on 31st July 1786, as a means of raising money for Burns’ passage to Jamaica, to become bookkeeper on a slave plantation. An enlarged second edition was published on 17th April 1787, and Burns became famous: he never went to Jamaica. Walter Scott records his impressions:

There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated, the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were the most learned of their country, he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty.

For uncomplex and unstudied reasons, Robert Burns is regarded either as a sort of Scottish cliche (“Tam O’Shanter” and “To A Mouse”, “My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose” and “John Anderson, my Jo”) or else as a kind of left-wing poet, though he was born before the French Revolution that gave us both the terminology of Left and Right and our modern sense of equality. Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, dismissed Burns’ more radical poetry as “prating” – and rightly pointed out that critics who had never known Burns defined him as a “peasant poet” though he was in fact “a country farmer of the old Scotch school” – “none of your modern agriculturists, who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough”. Still, though Burns wrote poems like “The Tree of Liberty“, a poem celebrating the French revolution:

Upo’ this tree there grows sic fruit,
Its virtues a’ can tell, man;
It raises man aboon the brute,
It maks him ken himsel, man.
Gif ance the peasant taste a bit,
He’s greater than a lord, man,
And wi’ the beggar shares a mite
0′ a’ he can afford, man

and The Slave’s Lament, yet I think Burns was a man of his time, and would most likely have thought of equality and liberty as rights of white men. We can acknowledge this without either whitewashing the past or prating about it overmuch – Burns might, after all, have changed his mind about the business of treating human beings as items in a ledger if he had seen it with his own eyes.

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999, this is the last verse of Robert Burns’s fiercely egalitarian song that Shenna Wellington got all the MSPs singing with her in the Assembly chamber:

Then let us pray that come what may
(as come it will for a’ that),
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree an a’ that,
For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.


There’s been a firm presumption at Westminster that the independence referendum, if it were to happen at all, ought to be managed and run from the UK Parliament, not from the Scottish Parliament. This presumption has even extended to decrying the traditions of the British civil service, as Kenny Farquharson declared in the Scotland on Sunday:

What function does a civil service have if it isn’t to pursue the objectives of the politicians it is there to serve? If a government has a policy – say, for the sake of argument, independence – should the civil servants not pursue that aim with vigour, intelligence and application? And if that government has been elected with a majority and an unimpeachable mandate, can there be any real debate about where the civil servants’ priorities must lie?

Today Alex Salmond launches the public consultation for the legislation on the Scottish referendum. That means that over the next 12 weeks, anyone – anyone – who has some view on the referendum, can go to the current consultations page at, click on the link to the independence referendum consultation, go to the online response form (or download and print out a copy of the paper form) and write it down. The right to respond doesn’t stop at the Scottish border: if you live in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, and feel you have a view on the independence referendum, well, here’s your chance. Go for it. Responses from outside Scotland will be considered separately and with different weighting, but all responses have to be taken into account.

A public consultation normally stays open for 12 weeks. [This one is running till 11th May 2012.] Then the Scottish government has 12 weeks to consider the responses and write a report. The report will then be published on the website, so on or about the end of July [ – or more likely end of August, since it closes in May], it ought to be on the Recent Publications page. The Parliament will at that time be in recess, and neither MSPs nor Committees will sit again till 2nd September 2012. For the referendum to be held by autumn 2014, the legislation must get Royal Assent on or before May 2014 – before the summer recess and the Commonwealth Games, with the six months grace required by Scottish law. In fact for all the guddle and fuss that the English newspapers were making, September 2012 to April 2014 – 18 months – is not an unusual length of time for Scottish legislation to pass through the various stages of debate and committee. All of which are publicly available on the Parliament website.

But the plain fact is: Once the process of drafting legislation begins, in the standard Scottish style with a public consultation as I have described above, there is really nothing that Westminster can do to stop it without defeating their own cause – assuming their cause is to keep the Union intact.

At Westminster, they cannot stop the Scottish government from passing the legislation, nor keep the people of Scotland from voting. I am still for the Union, for devolution not independence, but I am getting increasingly scunnered at just how bad the campaign against independence has been so far, and we’re barely into it!

…and Worth

There’s a good deal to talk about in the coming months. Unlike the Scotland on Sunday, I do not consider defense to be the most pressing issue – though given that the SNP have pledged to get rid of Trident, if the independence vote wins in autumn 2014, the UK government need to have a plan all set for where they’re going to put those nuclear subs. Nor do I think we should be fretting about the economy, still less about stories in the UK press sourced to “A senior UK minister saidabout Spain veto’ing Scotland’s successor membership of the EU. (A piece of nonsense which Craig Murray deconstructs more thoroughly.) There seems to be so little scandal that the Scotsman is doing its best to make one up.

I want a positive case for the Union: and a positive case for independence: and the democratic right for the people of Scotland to give our views and to vote.

Peter Tatchell:

“My message to everyone is very simple: Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be – and then help make it happen.”

That’s what we should be doing in Scotland when we talk about the independence referendum.

Support Peter Tatchell at

Happy 60th birthday, Peter. Many happy returns!

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Filed under Equality, LGBT Equality, Scottish Politics

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