Politics, Burns and
Burns's political allegiance has been claimed by supporters of every political party or faction from extreme right to extreme left. He was, in fact, a good example of Dr Johnson's dictum about the unwisdom of giving one's loyalty of mind to a
Single party in that his attitude to the political parties of his day changed as he grew older. In any case he was never wholly committed to either.
In a sense, however, Burns's involvement in the wider issues of politics the values behind politics, of which political parties are necessarily so partial an expression remained fairly constant, although, like sensitive Scots of his day (and, for that matter, our own) he had to try to balance seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Thus, on the face of it, Burns was at the same time a Jacobite and a Jacobin. But only 'on the face of it!'
His nationalism, his internationalism, and his radicalism never wavered. He believed constantly and passionately in Scotland, in 'the brotherhood of man' and in the rights of the ordinary man.
In his autobiographical letter to John Moore, Burns described his recognition of his feelings for Scotland: '... the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil alang there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.'
His Jacobitism led him to write such songs as 'O Kenmure on and awa' ' and 'Scots wha hae'. It could lead him to send to the Editor of the Edinburgh Evening Courant a protest when a minister of religion, celebrating the Revolution of 1688, reviled the Stuarts:
'Bred and educated in revolution principles, the principles of reason and common sense, it could not be any silly political prejudice that made my heart revolt at the harsh abusive manner in which the Reverend Gentleman mentioned the House of Stuart, and which, I am afraid, was too much the language of that day. We may rejoice sufficiently in our deliverance from past evils, without cruelly raking up the ashes of those whose misfortune it was, perhaps, as much as their crimes, to be the authors of these evils... The Stuarts have been condemned and laughed at for the folly and impracticability of their attempts, in 1715 and 1745. That they failed, I bless my God most fervently, but cannot join in the ridicule against them... Let every man, who has a tear for the many miseries incident to humanity, feel for a family, illustrious as any in Europe, and unfortunate beyond historic precedent; and let every Briton, and particularly every Scotsman, who ever looked with reverential pity on the dotage of a parent, cast a veil over the fatal mistakes of the Kings of his forefathers.' Whatever his sentimental attachment to the Jacobites, Burns was aware that theirs was a lost cause. In 'Ye Jacobites by name', he advised:
"Then let your schemes alone,
In the State!
Then let your schemes alone,
Adore the rising sun,
And leave a man undone
To his fate!"
That he was keenly aware, however, of the inadequacies of the ruling representatives of the House of Hanover he showed in 'A Dream'.
"Tis very true, my sovereign King,
My skill may weel be doubted;
But facts are chiels that winna ding,
An' downa be disputed:
Your royal nest, beneath your wing,
Is e'en right reft and clouted,
And now the third part of the string,
An' less, will gang about it
Than did ae day."
Nor was he under any illusions as to the real nature of the political jobbery which accomplished the unpopular Treaty of Union of 1707:
"What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station:
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation."
Which of us today does not echo his protest: 'Nothing can reconcile me to the common terms, 'English ambassador, English court, & etc...'?
His internationalism and his radicalism were bound up with one another:
"For a that, and a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that."
What was coming, so far as Burns was concerned, was not only the brotherhood of Man, but changed social conditions where no longer hundreds would have to
"... labour to support
A haughty lordling's pride."
One aspect of his attitude prior to the French Revolution is perhaps summed up in 'The Twa Dogs', in which the manners of the rich are satirised much as Beaumarchais satirised them in The Marriage of Figaro. (Incidentally, the kin
Ship between Mozart and Burns, whose short lives coincided within a few years, is not unworthy of comment, since social satire lies behind not only Figaro, which appeared the same year as the Kilmarnock Poems, but also Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni.)
Nor are his 'Lines on Meeting with Lord Daer' the toadying contradiction they are sometimes made out to be, for Daer sympathised with the Friends of the People, as did Burns. Besides,
"The fient o' pride, nae pride had he,
Nor sauce, nor state that I could see,
Mair than an honest ploughman!"
But after 1793, Burns's sympathy for France seemed to sharpen. Certainly, if 'The Tree of Liberty' is by him, there can be no doubt about his revolutionary sentiments:
"But vicious folk ay hate to see
The warks o' Virtue thrive, man;
The courtly vermin's bann'd the tree,
And grat to see it thrive, man!
King Louis thought to cut it down,
When it was unco sma', man;
For this the watchman crack'd his crown,
Cut aff his head and a', man."
This certainly accords with the sentiments in his letter of 12th January 1795 (the month in which 'Is there for honest poverty? was written) that so offended Mrs Dunlop:
'What is there in the delivering over a perjured Blockhead and an unprincipled Prostitute to the hands of the hangman, that it should arrest for a moment, attention, in an eventful hour, when, as my friend Roscoe of Liverpool gloriously expresses it -
"When the welfare of Millions is hung in the scale
And the balance yet trembles with fate!",
Nor is there much doubt about the significance of the 'Ode on General Washington's Birthday':
"Here's freedom to them that would read.
Here's freedom to them that would write!
There's nane ever fear'd that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!"
So much for Burns's political attitudes. His actual political alignment can be gauged from his various election Ballads. Those written in 1789-90 the 'Election Ballad for Westerha', 'The Five Carlins', and the 'Election Ballad at Close of the Contest for Representing the Dumfries Burgh, 1790' are more or less Pittite in sentiment, and therefore pro-Tory. But in 1795, Burns had swung over to the Whigs with his four Ballads in support of Patrick Heron of Kerroughtree, which show, as Thomas Crawford puts it, Burns 'interpreting the French Revolutionary doctrines in terms of the general Whig demands for Parliamentary Reform'. The threat of French invasion may have induced doubts about the intentions of France:
"... For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted !"
but not about the original principles behind France's revolution: so, said Burns:
"...While we sing God save the King
We'll ne'er forget the People!"