The effigy of Alex Salmond is paraded through Lewes on 5 November. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty
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So they burned Alex Salmond in my hometown

I grew up in Lewes. I know this town. The Bonfire Parade has always been exactly this problematic. The surprising thing is that people are only just noticing.

There’s a picture that quite a lot of British schoolchildren still get shown in our history lessons. It shows two signatures of Guy Fawkes, one of the Catholic conspirators who in 1605 plotted to blow up parliament, before and after he was tortured into a confession.

Fawkes’ script is looping, cursive, neat. The letters are still sharp after hundreds of years: a name that had not yet become infamous. The second signature, if it can be called that, is different. It was scrawled in a shaking hand by someone who could no longer write his own name, either because he had gone past the point of pain where such things matter, or because he could no longer hold a pen, or both.

When I first saw this in primary school, it was presented without moral judgement. Torture is obviously bad, but it was all a very long time ago, and besides, he tried to blow up the king. Let’s make a dead man out of paper and burn him in his clothes for the kids to watch. Let’s all sing the nursery rhyme about what happens when you plot against power. It’s traditional.

Britain has a lot of history, and the bits we choose to remember, remember, and the bits we choose to forget, forget, and the bits we choose to dress up in pretty lights and march through the town, say a lot about who we are after so many hundreds of years.

We have a lot of history to choose from. It’s no accident that the current Conservative government, alongside decimating the welfare state, cracking down on dissent and instituting reforms which have plunged millions into poverty, is pushing a new History syllabus that will teach British children about the importance of Empire and the glory of war. Michael Gove loves Niall Ferguson and hates Blackadder.

Like most little girls, what I really loved when I was six or seven was watching things burn. Lucky for me, I spent part of my childhood in Lewes, a small, genteel Sussex town which happens to host Europe’s most enormous bonfire celebrations. November the 5th is like Christmas in Lewes, except with more arson, sectarianism and explosions. Tens of thousands of people descend on the town, and the crush is so huge and dangerous that that the council has had to ask non-locals not to attend. There are six competing bonfire societies, each with their own giant, dangerous fire parade, their own costumes, and their own songs, and there are so many fireworks and bangers and rolling tar barrels that your ears ring for days and the night sky glows sodium orange.

Oh, and we burn an effigy of the pope, because it’s traditional. And march through the town with massive flaming crosses, because it’s traditional. And there are a lot of people in blackface, because it’s traditional. And often we burn political leaders, because that’s traditional too. Especially leaders we don’t like. A few years ago, Lewes burned an effigy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel making a Nazi salute. The town has also burned Blair, Brown, Cameron and Thatcher, with various degrees of outcry.

Today, people in Scotland are upset because the town of Lewes is burning Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who was the face of the most recent, narrowly defeated, campaign for Scottish independence. People are really angry about this. It trended on Twitter. This makes me weirdly homesick for the parochial racist revisionist history of my own country, as opposed to the parochial racist revisionist history of the United States, which is similar, with more pumpkin pie.

I grew up in Lewes. I know this town. The Bonfire Parade has always been exactly this problematic. The surprising thing is that people are only just noticing.

To be clear, I bloody love Bonfire Night. Always did. Always will. I love bonfires so huge and hot and primeval they make the skin on face go tight when you get too close. I love mulled wine and apple-bobbing and the sharp thrill of being half-drunk and cosy in the cold with your friends. I love watching a town full of well-behaved, latte-drinking Liberal Democrat voters get blasted and howl like pagans at the sky. I love the crick in my neck and the dots on my vision from too long watching fireworks. I love the tiny scar on my shin from when a bit of a french firecracker got up my trouser leg ten years ago when I stood too close to the burning barrels. I love the smell of phosphorus and flaming tar.

I love it so much that it took me years to notice and admit to myself how fucked up it was that Lewes Bonfire Night also involves blackface, because it’s traditional, co-ordinated chanting about killing catholics, because it’s traditional, burning crosses, because they’re traditional and, on one occasion, a massive flaming effigy of the first Black president of the United States, because, because….

Just because things are horribly problematic doesn’t mean they’re not fun, or meaningful, or loaded with personal significance unrelated to all the awful stuff*. And just because things are fun and meaningful and significant doesn’t mean the awful stuff isn’t there.

Lewes’ most famous son was the radical writer Thomas Paine, who wrote that “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” You’ve got to wonder whether Tom Paine would have approved of that of Alex Salmond. I hear he was quite a fan of tolerance and independence.**

Winter festivals are older than the stories that accrete around them like unwanted gifts from embarrassing relatives. You get together, you greet old friends, you celebrate surviving another year, you remember the people you’re missing, you stuff yourself with delicious food and set things on fire. The stories change, in time. Old, violent stories are replaced by new ones which are still, at root, about power. We can remember, or we can forget, or we can half-remember, and dress our children up like pilgrims and Zulus, and redraw history in simple shapes that can’t describe pain and fear and betrayal.

Or we can confront our history like fucking grown-ups. In America, Seattle recently renamed Columbus Day ‘Indigenous People’s Day’. Just because the past is dark and full of terrors that force their fingers into the present doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t have a day off work. God knows they get few enough of those.

Tradition is a great excuse for a party and a shitty excuse for ritualised racism. Tradition is a great reason to get drunk with your cousins and make bad decisions with roman candles and a shitty reason to defend xenophobic, sectarian, bigoted local customs and update them for the 21st century by reminding kids what still happens when you don’t doff your cap to the monarchy.

And history? History is what we make it.

Remember, remember.

*For more on this, have a listen to Tim Minchin singing about Christmas. Tissues at the ready. You have been warned.

**I hear he also beat his wife. History is never the simple story you want it to be.

This article first appeared on laurie-penny.com and is crossposted here with permission

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred