Joyce McMillan: Lewes relights the blue touchpaper

One of the two Alex Salmond effigies in Lewes for bonfire night. Picture: Getty
One of the two Alex Salmond effigies in Lewes for bonfire night. Picture: Getty
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The town’s spirited tilt at Alex Salmond reveals a lively vein of radicalism deep in England’s heart, writes Joyce McMillan

IT was in the unlikely surroundings of the Reform Club in London that I first heard tell of the annual goings-on in Lewes, Sussex. I was at a dinner to celebrate the annual George Orwell Award for radical journalism in Britain and was sitting next to a woman of impeccable liberal credentials who lived in Lewes and saw the place as a radical bastion against the Toryism of most of south-east England.

She acknowledged, of course, that many of the resonances of the town’s annual Bonfire Night event were distinctly dodgy, by modern standards. It has, for example, traditionally involved “blacking-up”, in a way that is now rightly controversial.

And, at its heart, the event still partly reflects the original sectarian impulse that transformed the ancient fire-feast of Samhainn into Guy Fawkes Night; it was, and very vaguely still is, a celebration of radical, popular anti-Catholicism in Protestant England, and of the frustration of the famous Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Until very recently, an effigy of the Pope would therefore be burned every year in Lewes, but the targets have also included a huge range of larger-than-life political figures, from Osama bin Laden to Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel (depicted giving a Nazi salute), present Prime Minister David Cameron and the independent-minded local Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker, who resigned from his ministerial post in the Home Office this week.

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So whatever strange survival of English folk culture the Lewes bonfire embodies, it’s certainly not a straightforward reflection of Home Counties Toryism; it perhaps makes more sense to read it as a late survival of that slightly rebellious Saxon sentiment that once existed along the south coast of England, a feeling that London surrendered to the Norman invader a millennium ago, selling the independent-minded English peasantry down the river in the process.

So when Yes-supporting social-media watchers spotted the images of this year’s giant Lewes effigies of Alex Salmond – one clutching the notorious 45 per cent placard and accompanied by Nessie, the other in a kilt, with a fetching bare chest and bottom – their immediate assumption that they were looking at some kind of typical Tory hate-campaign against Alex Salmond was slightly wide of the mark; even the First Minister himself, in his commendably humorous response, leapt to the false conclusion that the effigies were sponsored by the Tory East Sussex Council, rather than created by local associations in Lewes.

For it is, when all’s said and done, a long way from Lewis to Lewes, both culturally and geographically – 758 miles, by sea and land. And the conversation that has developed, over the past 48 hours, confirms a suspicion that haunted me throughout Scotland’s long referendum campaign; that far from shutting down or severing the relationship between Scotland and England, a firm and genial dose of moderate, Salmond-style nationalism from Scotland is exactly the force now most likely to open up conversations among all the peoples of these islands and to enable us, at last, to get to know one another better, without constantly being refracted to each other through the distorting mirror of Westminster.

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So the good people of Lewes may, for all I know, have been misled by poor media coverage of the referendum campaign into dismissing Alex Salmond as a reactionary right-wing nationalist in the BNP mould; but at least now they know that he is held in high regard by large numbers of Scots, and that it is not generally thought, even by his political opponents, that he really deserves to be equated with Vladimir Putin, another well-roasted guy in Lewes this year.

For those in Scotland who were outraged or merely baffled by the incident – well, there is a learning curve here, too, a reminder of the sheer, multi-layered complexity of our big neighbour to the south, of the radical impulses that persist even in its most conservative areas, and of the rowdy tradition of English popular politics that has been so obscured by the media-driven blandness of recent decades.

In the aftermath of a referendum campaign characterised by yowls of hypersensitive horror from the No camp every time one of its supporters was even heckled in public, the strong reaction of some Yes supporters to the sight of the Salmond effigy was perhaps understandable; double standards seemed, once again, to be in play.

Yet context matters, and in the context of Lewes’s rowdy and always debatable fire festival, the presence of Alex Salmond among their gallery of rogues can perhaps be seen as a back-handed compliment or act of recognition, certainly less offensive than the recent portrayal of Angela Merkel as a Nazi.

Issues of taste and inclusiveness are raised here, no question; one of the other Lewes guys this year was a horrifying effigy of the crashed Malaysian airlines jet in Ukraine, one that would surely never have been made if those who died had been mainly British.

Whatever happened in Lewes this week, though, Scotland now knows that it was something more complex than just a knee-jerk reflection of official British establishment culture. It was the kind of incident that makes those of us who enjoy real civic dialogue long to pack a few dozen Yes campaigners into a bus and take them down to talk to the guy-makers of Lewes for a couple of days, to see how much agreement they can reach about problems with the current governance of Britain.

And as for the apparent fact that at least one of the Salmond effigies finally went on the bonfire after all, despite police assurances to the contrary – or at least had fireworks spouting from his fleshy breasts, at the height of the fire – well, I find that I don’t mind. North or south of the Border, in times already characterised by far too much surveillance and control, we either live in a free society, or we don’t. And banning people from mocking, insulting and sending up the key political figures of their age is never a good move, even when the criticisms are crude, the facts debatable, and the art-work both riotously vivid and full of the kinds of clichés that can only be challenged and dispelled in the bright daylight of public debate – open, robust, and unstoppable.

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