Robert Burns’ strength lies in speaking truth to power – Ewan Aitken

Present-day politicians would do well to learn from Burns’ words on hope and honesty, says Ewan Aitken

Thursday, 24th January 2019, 11:15 am
Updated Thursday, 24th January 2019, 11:19 am
Robert Burns. Picture: JP

Given the enormity of the decision it involves for all of us, I wanted to write about Brexit but in truth I found it impossible – partly because so much has been already said and partly because despite all those words no-one yet really knows whats going to happen!

Tomorrow is Burns Night, when we mark in incredible contribution our national Bard has made, not just to our sense of who we are, but to a huge diversity of nations and cultures. Translated into around 120 languages his work is popular across the globe; though sometimes his powerful poems lose a little in translation – for example To a Haggis’ opening line “Fair fa your honest sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin race” translates in Japanese as “Good luck to your honest friendly face, Great King of the sausages”!

Burns speaks of deep and universal themes; love, hope, honesty, truthfulness, challenging hypocrisy, the connection between humanity and nature and exploring the opportunity of a life lived in good relationships with others whatever their status.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Despite this extraordinary capacity to think deeply and profoundly about life and humanity’s place in the universe, Burns knew his limitations and his flaws. He was grounded in his roots, he made compromises, chose at times to publish anonymously and saw positives in institutions he also challenged. He was not an advocate of tribalism and though trenchant in his views, transcended sides rather than took them.

He wrote in support of the abolition of the slave trade but when in deep poverty he signed up to work on a slave plantation. He challenged with satire the power of kings and politicians but twice took an oath to the monarch. He fathered 13 children with five women yet still understood and articulated the power and significance to the human condition of love and relationships better than most. He was, as the poet Edwin Muir once put it; “to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious”. He was not deliberately all these things; he was simply able to speak of life, its flaws and it’s flourishing in ways which resonated with people from vastly differing views of life.

Burns’ power was to speak to those tensions and differences. He knew seeing things from different perspectives can tell us interesting about ourselves. He understood the power and creativity of difference. He understood it was possible to learn from those we disagree with and to do so did not mean we support everything they stood for. His views both transcend division and offer the possibility of finding common ground. It’s a lesson for today’s public debate where the fundamentalist “shunning” of those who do not agree with every aspect of a particular stance or who seek to understand those with whom they are in disagreement is one of the most destructive aspects of modern public debate.

In 1792, a mere four years before his untimely death, Robert Burns wrote:

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of empires and the fall of kings;

While quacks of State much each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Right of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Women merit some attention.

It could have been written for today’s political turmoil – our eyes are fixed on Brexit plans – with power plays and politics getting in the way of real solutions. Burns reminds us there are much more important things we should be focused on; the rights of women being one of many rights and needs and hopes and flourishing of folk who are suffering and struggling because of the failures of those whose task is to use power they have been entrusted with wisely, compassionately and with love for the stranger and even their enemy.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians