Andy Warhol included the words “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” in the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, to which Banksy replied 36 years later: “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes” to which Momus replied: “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people”.
If he was on Twitter today Burns would be bigger than Bieber. Pre-Shelley and Elvis, he was one of the worlds first celebrity rock n roll stars. Sex, poetry, gossip and charm were lethal. The celebrity endorsement industry for the independence referendum is a bit of a joke, it’s a sideshow for the chronically disengaged. In fact, in Bitain today we face “a perfect, instinctive symphony of elite ideology”. But such is the power of Burns you can feel the fear and trembling in No campaigners bleating when the case is made for Burns as an enthusiastic Yes campaigner.
The Unionist squealing is getting increasingly shrill as people begin to get deeply uncomfortable about some cultural truths being disinterred. You can actually watch this unfolding on a daily basis (probably all year and beyond): what does it look like as people (re) discover their own culture?
The idea that a (inter) national icon like Burns – possibly the figure the country is known best for throughout the world – being articulated as an obvious and articulate voice for Yes, and one that will be the central focus of celebration over the next few weeks, is driving them to delirium. Blair’s advisor John McTernan decided to join the very debate he described as ‘moronic’ tweeting: “Scott and MacDiarmid both No. Trocchi – No. Spark – No. Scott – No. Dunbar – No. MacDiarmid – No.”
Alex Massie, who, you’d have thought should know better writes: “Other people whose views are irrelevant: Mary Queen of Scots, Jean Brodie, Harry Lauder, Burke & Hare, Andrew Carnegie and Greyfriars Bobby” before adding with a scintilla of desperation: “Who the hell cares whether Robert Burns would, if alive today, have voted yes or no to Scottish independence!?”
Clearly lots – otherwise they wouldn’t be putting such enormous energy into trying to stem the flow of the insanely obvious that, the author of Scots Wha Hae or the Inscription for an Alter to Independence would vote Yes.
The efforts to try and maintain and resurrect Robert Burns as some sort of everyman figure with a bland malleable politics is doomed.
We’re All In It Together
The celebrity obsession of turbo capitalism is tightly linked to the feeling of extreme inertia, exclusion and social immobility characteristic of Late Britain, first screened under Blair, having suffered a disastrous second series under Brown and then a miraculous re-boot under the Cameron. The desperation of the Big Brother [insert any reality show] contestants is closely allied to the feeling that extreme wealth is essential, fame is possible and talent is equated with sullying yourself to media exposure. It’s the media-manifestation of the cold realisation that we really don’t like in a meritocracy. Britain’s changed in thirty years: from Coronation Street Benefit Street. From Enoch to Nigel.
So the obsession with celebrity endorsements isn’t just silly, it’s absolutely tied to the idea of extreme inequality poverty and class politics that’s one of the defining features of the Labour-Tory experiment.
What’s telling about the Burns debate is that we know he goes to the heart of theses questions and that rattles down the centuries putting a chill up the spine of Scotland’s establishment.
This isn’t a new debate, this is an old question about what sort of society we want and whether we want to live in a democracy and what cultural identity we do or don’t have:
‘What are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union that counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence, and even her name?’”