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.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.