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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.