My current passport has a maroon cover with the gold lion and unicorn symbol. Inside, its pages, which are rarely stamped nowadays, are illustrated with ink drawings of birds perching on stamp spaces which faintly resemble eggs. I like the drawn birds, they are sweet and it is hard to imagine how they could cause offence to anyone. Why the UK government has felt the need to expend time and money on an unnecessary revamp of this object I don’t know. And why they have made the crass, insensitive and politically dangerous decision to pick seven English citizens to use as illustrations I cannot fathom. No Scots, no Irish, no Welsh. What are they playing at? There may be other constituencies which feel similarly annoyed – people from ethnic minorities for instance. But where is the need to select individuals to picture on the thing in the first place?
In the aftermath of the referendum and the ‘No’ vote it may seem to the English as if the danger of Britain splitting up is over – but that is not how it feels in a Scotland where the SNP looks set to take over Holyrood completely next May and where almost all of the MPs we send to Westminster are Nationalists.
It has never been more important that the institutions of the UK which are mainly based in London and sometimes have very narrow horizons and a parochial outlook are aware of the need to respect and to represent all of the countries which make up the United Kingdom.In the case of the passport designers, they have put a picture of some bagpipers on the background and presumably they then felt they had dealt with Scotland. At least, I suppose, we should be grateful they didn’t choose the Loch Ness monster headbutting a Scottie dog. It seems odd that on the list are two architects with the surname Scott, neither very well known: Elisabeth Scott and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. They seem slightly eccentric choices – could the instruction “make sure there are two Scots” have been misunderstood? Did someone blunder?
They could have chosen many important Scots, from John Logie Baird to George Orwell. Or how about Scottish resident JK Rowling? But if we are to have Shakespeare on every page, then we ought to have Burns. I am a fan of the work of the greatest Englishman. But the work of Burns is at least as dear to my heart as he is to most of my compatriots. His poems and songs have stood the test of time and are still performed in many countries in many languages. I first heard Green Grow the Rashes O in Russia, in Russia. A German version of ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That’ ‘Trotz Alledem’ became a signature song for the German left and is still widely sung. My friend Mairi Campbell singing Auld Lang Syne on the Hollywood movie Sex and the City has had 1,345,000 views on You Tube.
Burns Night is the only poet’s birthday celebrated across the globe. The best ‘Immortal Memory’ I ever heard was by Scottish law lord, Lord Prosser who died in April this year. He took as his starting point the verse by TS Eliot which goes ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality’, and he used the life of Burns to prove that this is not true.
Burns’ life was short and it was hard. He spent his youth in backbreaking work on the waterlogged soil of the farm where his father was a tenant. His work inspired his poetery: “Tae A Moose” begins with the introduction “On turning up a mouse with the plough” . There were crop failures, blights and disasters. His health was broken and he never fully recovered.
Burns’ great love Mary Campbell, Highland Mary, died giving birth to their child – an experience which inspired the song “Ae Fond Kiss”. Later he married Jean Armour and carried on a life of struggle and hardship, working tirelessly to care for his growing family – tormented in his last illness by the thought of the small sums of money that he owed.
Burns drank but he was no drunk – his workload and accomplishments are testament to that. But despite his many reverses, losses and despairing moments, Burns managed to draw joy from the simple pleasures of life as he showed in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” as well as the other great narrative poem Tam O Shanter, the songs, the satires and political poems.
I’m a proud Scot as well as a Brit, and I fear that when I get my new passport with the Greatest Englishman on every single page, it’s going to annoy, or even scunner me every time I look at it. And I’m a ‘No’ voter.