Published in “Fairy Tales told for Children” in 1837, the story itself has a pedigree going even further back to 14th-century Spain and 11th-century India.
A tale worthy of repeated interpretation, the simple phrase “the Emperor has no clothes” has become an idiom with different variations of the theme.
Just last week an almost literal example was played out in real time in Holyrood. I refer, of course, to the First Minister being heckled by new Conservative MSP Tess White.
Having a black belt in karate could not save her from having to apologise and withdraw her comment in the home of free speech and open debate.
Naked or enrobed, the First Minster does not have a thick skin and today’s royally woke Scotland certainly does not permit political satire.
The fairy tale is simple enough; an Emperor is persuaded by a couple of chancers to purchase a bespoke invisible outfit on the premise those only who are ignorant and foolish cannot see it.
Nobody in the court is willing to say the Emperor is naked for fear of betraying their stupidity, until a little boy observes the obvious and has the audacity (and a great deal of chutzpah) to declare “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Even then, the Emperor carries on strutting about naked, believing his own publicity while everybody else can see the truth.
In the course of the First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Labour MSP Pauline McNeil referred to the singing the previous weekend by some supporters of Rangers FC of the “famine song”, which calls on 19th-century Irish immigrants to “go home”, drawing the point there is, “a growing feeling that, if those terms were used about any other minority group, the sentiments displayed on our streets would be treated far more seriously”.
It was a fair question, given how divisive and almost combustible Scotland currently feels, with everyone – or more correctly, every group – seemingly a put-upon minority.
The First Minister might have been an equestrian for she is always quick to mount her high horse and trot out the cliches like a Lipizzaner performing its pirouettes and counter-canters.
Declaiming, “I know everyone across the Chamber will support this”, she struck up a gallop and led the charge with “I take the view that, for anybody who chooses to live in Scotland, whether they and their families have been here for generations or whether they have come to Scotland very recently, it is home. This is their home and we should not allow anybody ever to say...”
Then it happened. A mere child of an MSP; only just elected, no doubt ignorant of the due homage that should be paid to the words of the First Minister, made the fateful error no MSP should ever, ever, make. She blurted out what came into her mind.
Apparently the inaudible words amounted to “unless you’re English”.
Looking to make the dressage team and win gold for Team Scotland in the Paris Olympics, (by when the First Minister assures us we will have voted for independence) Nicola Sturgeon became all self-righteous.
She, whose invective could turn Tories in Glasgow's George Square to pillars of Salt, was deeply offended.
Now we know (because Dominic Cummings has told us) the most effective slogans use only three words; thus, for top trolling the new slogan to be inserted into every SNP – and Green – minister’s speeches should be “unless you’re English”.
Heckling is only the start, T-shirts, button badges, even a Red (white and blue) bus are said to be on order.
The accusation was not so much Nicola Sturgeon wants to treat English people differently (well, except during a pandemic) – the implicit accusation is (pace Ms McNeil arguing about anti-Irish bigotry) not enough is being done about anti-English bigotry.
The First Minister’s words are nothing more than invisible clothes. She might believe she’s wearing them, her court might want to believe they see them, but the reality becoming more visible is in today’s Scotland is it’s easy to say you are accepted “unless you’re English”.
The accusation the First Minister is complicit in allowing this atmosphere to grow has reasonable foundation for she does not do enough to specifically condemn it.
Why are banners proclaiming “England get out of Scotland” so acceptable to SNP politicians? Where are the Twitter storms complaining and condemning? The First Minister is not accused of making a dog whistle herself, it’s more she has allowed a canine symphony orchestra to perform on her watch.
The First Minister might like to think Scotland is open, civil, welcoming, egalitarian, generous – and by implication better than “others” – towards accepting people of different faiths, races or sexes and those of other possible differences from Scots of, say, the 1950s or ‘60s.
But there is a growing number who feel Scottish nationalist progressiveness only applies “unless you are English”. Or a Tory. Or an Israeli. Or anything to do with Rangers FC. Or worst of all, all four.
For Ms White, it was a rookie mistake, and she will no doubt be more careful in future, although making mistakes might just win her many admirers among those lacking the courage (or naivety) to behave similarly.
For Ms Sturgeon, it is in her power to lower the temperature, to condemn the anti-English bile in her party or beyond – and she could start at this weekend’s SNP conference by inviting more English people to come to Scotland – including English Tories.
We need immigrants, don’t we? These new clothes would heal the whole nation – but would they fit?
- Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively