I can understand pandering to an audience, up to a point. With all the room's attention fixed upon you, rapt attention turned to whatever idle toadstool thought you happen to have recently cultivated, it takes an honest spirit, fundamental decency, sincerity or practice not to assume drawlingly provocative airs, overheating the milder rhetoric of one's mind and generally turning into a confounded ninny. Alternatively, of course, if you are already a blustering gobjobber, full of egotism and demi-profound maunderings, the attention is likely to induce an excruciating concentration of your ordinary vices. So it seems on Friday's edition of Any Questions? on BBC Radio 4, excerpts of which have been inflaming corners of Scottish opinion since*. Two speakers in particular have quite properly invited a contemptuous analysis, Baroness Ruth Deech and Douglas Murray. The question concerned the release of Megrahi. Clearly the panellists didn't know much about the subject. Modest people, sensible people - might have decided to reserve judgement, with a nod to the complexity of the issues, perhaps lingering on one known element or another. There is no shame in a shrug. Unfortunately, a surfeit of modesty was not in evidence. In contrast, modest command of fact and inflammatory opinions were to be found in abundance. Sans informed opinion, both Murray and Deech took the opportunity to give free rein to their prejudices in the most depressing and personally discrediting fashion. For those gentle spirits, unwilling or unable to endure listening to the exchange themselves, here is a transcript of the panel's full remarks.
Eddie Mair: “Was the government sensible to release the Lockerbie bomber?”
Baroness Ruth Deech: “No it wasn't sensible and it was wrong. First of all because of the health issue and he wasn't properly checked up. Though I know that Ronnie Biggs is still alive, is he not? And we've been told I don't know how many times that he is at death's door and he was let out.”
Mair: “- Is continuing human life not something to celebrate.”
Deech: “Erm. I'm very glad that people live but if you start letting out a prisoner, everyone who has a dodgy medical history - well we'd save money wouldn't we but I'm not sure it is a very good reason. Secondly, there may be doubts about his innocence but Al Megrahi himself or his advisers dropped the appeal. If he was so sure he was innocent, he should have allowed that appeal to go ahead and then he could have walked out a free man with his head held high. And from what I've read there is a fair chance he would have won that appeal and the fact that he didn't pursue it seems to me very odd. But the final reason is I'm fed up with this Scottish waving of nationalism when it suits them. All right, they're devolved. I think they did this just to show the rest of us - oh! that we are independent, we make our own decisions. And it has been very embarrassing to the rest of us and it started me thinking along these lines. If Scotland wants to be independent - OK - be my guest - go ahead. Do what you want (*applause from the audience, cheers*) and please take back with you all the Scottish politicians (*laugher*) starting with Blair and Brown and Campbell. Take them all back and off you go on your own because actually we’re all subsidising them, I think, by way of benefits and all sorts of reasons and if they want to show how independent they are – okay, thank you and goodbye (*applause*)...”
I'll assume, being a generous sort, that the reference to Ronnie Biggs' compassionate release is not here being attributed to the Scottish Government, and is merely being included by Deech by way of thematic inclusion. Briefly, paradoxically, Deech also appears to believe simultaneously that Megrahi would probably have been released on appeal, and somehow, the dropping of his appeal indicates that he was - difficult to say - guilty? She introduces this as the second reason why the release was wrong. She may be proceeding on the mistaken assumption that compassionate release disallowed a further appeal. As we know, it did not. As it is, Alexandrian prowess would be needed to chop Deech's knotted mental fibres and tease out precisely what she is getting at. My guess is that she only had minimal consciousness herself. Her first two points are tepid. She only really reaches a boil, warming to her third theme. The Scots being referred to as "them" on the BBC presents an interesting dilemma for a Scottish nationalist. Deech does this three times explicitly in her rousing, dough-headed peroration, and makes sundry other references to an unexplained community - the we, the us and the our - which I can only assume primarily denotes our English and Welsh friends south of the Tweed. On the BBC's avowed purpose, the public them is a united British public, an encompassing we. The show was recorded in Sutton Coldfied, so we can reasonably calculate that the us in the room is primarily an English we. Radio expands that audience Britain-wide. Deech seems not to notice or not to care. She was rewarded with applause, no doubt sending a glad frisson tingling up her warm spot. If Deech comes across as a bumptious nag, airing her vacuity in public, Douglas Murray more thoroughly discredits himself in his drawling outburst:
Douglas Murray: “I absolutely agree with that. Megrahi should have died in prison, no doubt about it. And er. The advice ... er ... of the alleged doctors is galling here. Because Kenny MacAskill, the so-called Scottish Justice Secretary – there’s not very much to do if you are the Scottish Justice Secretary in a devolved Scottish Assembly. You can at least read the one important bit of news that’s come across your desk the last five years. The problem that I think the most galling thing about this whole thing is this pretend, horrible, charade building in Edinburgh called the Scottish Parliament and the horrible charade politicians who inhabit it and who occasionally crawl out of the eh darkness and explain something to the to the rest of us as if, as if we we we’ve never thought of moral questions before. I mean Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond these horrible grandstanding, em, y’know Mickey Mouse politicians have been parading around talking about unique compassion of the Scottish people. We we are uniquely compassionate no one else feels compassion like me I’m feeling so compassionate at the moment I can hardly bare it (*laughter*) - I think this is appalling and the most appalling way to do politics and no good can come from this institution – the Scottish uh, uh, Parliament and whilst it’s there and the Union continues to fragment while mini-nationalists like Salmond and MacAskill are around – whilst this continues I say no good will come from it and this country will continue to be faced with these ridiculous figures making ridiculous pronouncements which embarrass us all (*more applause*)...”
I despair, truly despair. The remark is honestly too absurd, too excessive to spend too much time rebutting. No serious minded person would have made it in earnest. By making it, Murray foregoes any claim to be taken seriously. This is the self-importance, poseurish flippancy and exaggerated manners of a buffoon vaingloriously striving to coax a titter from his audience. Is he seriously suggesting that the various drafts of the Criminal Justice & Licensing and Sexual Offences Acts which have been on MacAskill's desk over the last years are not serious documents? Does he not find rape, knife crime, rates of incarceration, numbers of police officers and their use of taser technology or serious organised crime offences "important bits of news", as he puts it? How sad, that such a man has grown to find his own ignorance charming. The programme ended on a mirthful note, only slightly abashed by this baseless vitriol...
Maajid Nawaz: Just to say for our Scottish listeners, just to say that we do love you all , you know (*more audience laughter*) I love the Highlands -
Alex von Tunzelmann (chortlingly): They're not listening any more, they've all -
Murray (titteringly): - they've just turned off! -
Nawaz: I just wanted to add something. I think there does have to be a full inquiry into this and there needs to be an enquiry -
Mair: Into this programme? (*laughter*)
Nawaz: Into the anti-Scottish rhetoric on this programme? No but into the decision made by the Scottish Government but also the involvement of generally of the UK in this, not just the Scots but everyone else as well.
One final thought. I wonder, in part, how Murray and Deech's respective half-Scottishness and riotous Unionist personas contributed to these high-handed, but tellingly implausible condescensions. They are, after all, fairly familiar if extreme examples of a genre fairly regularly appealed to by entrenched Scots Unionist characters like Fraser Nelson, making their way in London and in "British" institutions. I've certainly met folk with similar attitudes before, who feel terrifically urbane and are generally terrifically scornful if discussion turns to nationalist politics. What always strikes me is that in the name of generosity, open-mindedness, non-parochialism - they so often produce snarling diatribes similar in content if not extremity to Murray's comments above.
*My sincere thanks to Bugger (the Panda) for first alerting me to the programme..
*My sincere thanks to Bugger (the Panda) for first alerting me to the programme..