Humans are strange creatures. Take public speaking, for example. Timid little things who’d melt if they were forced to open their mouths in front of a small crowd, in relaxed company will cheerfully slam the merely competent orator for his want of spirit. Sportsmen are measured against a parallel, crooked standard. Even if we know we could never return that tennis ball, or survive that tackle, or snatch that soaring cricket ball from the air, we can despise those who stumble, fail, miss. They are more excellent than we perhaps, but that comparison is of no interest in assessing excellence. Each must navigate according to the victor’s lights. Humour is another case in point, where to try to be witty is risky, for the slump-wits in the crowd will devour you if your jibes falter. Although we might regard the hollow man without laughter with his own sort of contempt, the dull thing that knows his dullness is forgiven too much censure. He puts it not unto the touch, to win or lose it all.
Whatever his virtues, Salmond is not a natural static orator. A whiff of domesticity always seems to cling to him, that near-half-present jocularity that seems ill-suited to a lecture’s stolid gravity and the unspontaneous pre-prepared remarks. A harangue, he can do, but it will never been a particularly elegant affair. While he cuffs and clubs his way through First Minister’s Questions, he has the interesting habit of producing compound words in the heat of the phrase. Letters are dropped, syntaxes substituted, he roars and plunders on. The word ‘gusto’ seems to suit the First Minister, ironic mirth shoogling his aubergine-shaped frame, quick with the repartee. All of which contribute to a satisfyingly earthen sort of prowess. It isn’t the Senator, imparting sonorous wisdoms with gravity – or managerial listlessness. I’m not sure if I care for the politics of high inspiration, exactly; folk who clamber up on their soap boxes and then conspire to sound like bishops. It is sufficient to make my point, however, to say that I don’t think Salmond takes to this latter character terribly well. He’s more like one of the venal cardinals of Jacobean tragedy, jovially roving about in his belly-puffed red drapery, clutching a tart and a tankard.
All that being so, I’ve never thought that lectern-clutching speeches are really the Maximum Eck’s thing. Unless he particularly warms to his theme and keeps it brief. He's exceedingly nimble when speaking spontaneously, but something about prepared remarks seems to douse his rhetorical fire. We can at least be grateful that he wasn’t issued a microphone and ordered to deliver his peroration without notes, shifting from foot to foot like a two year old who needs the toilet but can’t let on. On content, yesterday’s speech read to me as a long essay on Scottish Labour’s lost authenticity – and the now familiar attempt to situate the SNP as the natural successor to those lapsed social democratic values. Labour. The party who brought us into
. A party of ID cards. A party of trident missiles. A party of nuclear power. Take this example. Salmond references Michael Foot. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, certainly – but I’d suggest that to choose to make the remark at all reinforces the notion of a Labour Party which has lost its way: Iraq
“Friends, the recent death of Michael Foot, another politician of principle and passion, brought to mind one of his most memorable speeches. He recalled as a child being taken to see a music hall conjuror. The conjuror took a splendid gold watch from a member of the audience, smashed it to bits, and then announced ‘I’ve forgotten the rest of the trick’. Michael Foot compared that to the economic policy of the Thatcher Government of the day. And in those dark days of the Tory recession Michael Foot had it right. The Tory response then left communities devastated and a generation of Scots out in the cold. Today, it is both Labour and Tory who have forgotten the rest of the trick. And they have forgotten the lessons of the past.”
This theme is made far more explicit in his section on Trident.
“A cosy consensus on Trident. The extent of their disagreement is whether we have three new submarines or four new submarines. But we say – no nuclear submarines. No nuclear missiles. No weapons of mass destruction on the river
Clyde. Theirs is a consensus on nuclear power. On nuclear dumping. Consensus on the deeply flawed tax proposals from the Calman Commission - proposals that would see a 5p hike in income tax just to see ’s budget stand still. Tory and Labour agree on student fees, punishing taxes on fuel, post office privatisation and post office closures.” Scotland
And thereafter, the final section.
“Because after 18 dismal years of the Tories, and 13 dismal years of Labour – Thatcher or Major, Major or Blair it’s always been a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Friends, we remember Labour’s feeble fifty who stood by while the Tories imposed the Poll tax on
. We remember Labour’s lobby fodder who voted shamefully for war in Scotland . Labour MPs who went to Iraq to settle down. Who remained silent as the gap grew between rich and poor. As inequality in this nation reached levels not seen since the end of the Second World War. 13 years to make a difference – an unlucky 13 for too many Scots. Let down by the London machine .And yes, people are raging. But friends, it doesn't have to be like this. With MPs who are champions for the people of Westminster . SNP MPs who will be at Scotland , to stand up for Westminster , not stand up for the system. To protect the people, not the perks. Not to settle down in Scotland but to settle up for London . Scottish MPs who will put our nation first. National champions, local champions. MPs worthy of the peoples trust.” Scotland
We can be languid if we like. Say that we are against things in the loose abstract, without lifting a finger to change them. We might repeat bland saws about all parties being the same as one another, and cultivate our private dislike of nuclear weapons and the great death of war through a secular transcendence of the very politics that make these weapons and these wars possible. If you are a Labour voter, however, committed to CND, how can you bring yourself to scratch in that ‘x’ every time? Do you whisper to yourself, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? If you dislike ID cards, how can you forgive your Labour masters? If you oppose war, how can you slavishly adhere to your warlike chieftains, murmuring increasingly desperately, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow! Peace tomorrow! In
, you might argue that you are ruined by your politics, that you aren’t voting Tory. And find yourself voting Labour to the last syllable of your recorded time, overlooking, ignoring, forgetting. In England , however, you have no cause to cling to the torn and degenerate rags of party. What is the diligent Labour party man’s answer to this? This message – and these urgent questions – seemed to me at the heart of Salmond’s story yesterday. Scotland