In March of this year, after the SNP party conference in Aviemore, I made the gently controversial suggestion that Alex Salmond isn't a natural speech giver. A natural talker, a pugnacious and limber debater without question, but I often feel as if the motionlessness, uninteractive qualities of speechifying leeches away his more compelling rhetorical qualities:
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 nature of 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.
I note this by way of analysis rather than a stinging critical spirit. Some speaker's have the easy lyricism and feeling of a Shakespearean actor, the range of emotion. Some have other virtues. Others have no appreciable virtues at all and barely blunder and stammer their way through others' pre-prepared remarks, sans passion, sans rhythm, sans everything. So how did the Maximum Eck fare in Perth? You can read the text here, but lifeless words on a digital page - while easier to scrutinise in terms of content - lacks much of the warmth and emphasis that delivery brings. We should also be aware of the mediating role of the camera lens - and how differently rhetoric can play in the room - but this recording gives you a better sense of what was said. The speech included some snappy lines, snappily delivered - Our water will not be privatised – not a tap, not a drop and plenty of intertextuality including Edwin Morgan, Robert Cunningham Graeme, Jimmy Reid. I noticed that he twanged on one of my own favourite strings - that independence is not the radical irresponsibility of the teenage tearaway in the huff, but fundamentally a movement about civic participation, active citizenship - and the tensions of responsibility. Not to be prodded about, no longer to be spoken for, no longer secured in a biddable, bovine comfort that bobs to Westminster institutions, blinking credulously at their decisions, and abashedly saying "Whatever you say, sir. I'm sure these shackles will keep my wrists warm." Salmond used that critical word - responsibility early on in his remarks.
"Either Scotland stays in the Westminster straightjacket of low growth, public sector cutbacks and blighted futures or we take responsibility and deliver the better society we all want."
Popularly, folk seem agreed that by far the best section of the speech is the last five minutes or so. I think it is fair to say that Eck began and largely continued stoking his oratorical furnace in a workmanlike manner. As has two dominant tones - one wry Eck, jocular, slagging off Labour's Invisible Man and his attendant undead shadow cabinet - and then general speechifying Eck. At least to my ear, he has surprisingly few expressive shades of tone and feeling. In the final section, his speechwriters certainly demonstrated their prowess and with a far more stimulating tone, Salmond rose to the prose. Given his passionate attachment to its content, you can see why. Its a crucial concern - why independence? How to rebuff the familiar Unionist critiques of the position which by turns allege constitutional dreaming and obsession; distraction from the tyranny of bread, butter and the ordinary lives of Scottish people; vanity, bagpipes, shortbread, Romanticism, impracticability, even vacuity. Salmond, a chubby Sancho Panza, wobbling his mule along after the lean, wild-eyed and armorial Quixote of independence. The answer that Eck had prepared for them resonated profoundly with me - and I imagine yesterday's Comprehensive Spending Review now inscribes the words with particular significance, the invocation of a better society all the more meaningful given a Westminster politics that is advancing such an opposed conception of what it means to be fair and equal and just. There are also little archaic touches of gravity in the writing. I'm sure "explain it thus" isn't a regular Eckly idiom, while the sentiment with which I entirely agree - "I fight not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion" - is in clear structural echo of Fergusson's English translation of the Declaration of Abroath - "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself." Here are his closing remarks:
"We are not helpless agents of globalisation, but free citizens of a wealthy land. We are not slaves to the banking system or vassals to the lords of high finance.
"And nor are we the tartan clichés of media myth, or the historical poetry of yesterday. We are the prose of today, the facts of here and now, the truth of Scotland.
"And when we look to our neighbours, we can all see the family who can’t quite make ends meet, the child you needs some extra help, the grandmother alone who needs a hand, the mother struggling with hands full, the man at the end of his tether – for we are all the people who choose to live on this land, and by our shared values, we are the welfare of everyone in our community.
"We must never make the mistake of confusing having a national parliament with having a national purpose.
"I stand before you now not saying that independence is everything but saying that to protect our values is absolutely all, and to do this, within ourselves, is – all. And that is why having the powers are all.
"And perhaps when we have spoken of independence, we have assumed everyone else knew exactly what we meant.
"Well, should there be any doubt, then what I mean by independence is the profound right to enjoy the same equality of opportunity, and to live in more equal communities. What I mean by independence is jobs – to protect to create them.
"Is this a grand dream? Yes. But that is the difference between us and the other parties at this coming election. We have the vision, and we have the means to deliver it. For be assured. I do not want Independence for its own sake, but for the sake of the people here and now and those to come.
"I will not be a manager of Westminster directed cuts nor part of a parliament which acts as a message boy for decisions made elsewhere.
"I want to see a better nation. I want us to act together, in common purpose, to deliver that better land. I want you and everyone here in Perth, in this land, to know that having a parliament in itself is not enough.
"We need a purpose – and it is my purpose to get the powers to address our problems.
"I believe our people want a better society. Not a bit better, not a wee change, not some tinkering at the edges, but a better land full stop.
"Perhaps from now on I should explain it thus –
"The referendum we wish to have is first and foremost a jobs referendum. The Independence I seek is the independence to create jobs. The powers I wish for us all are powers to protect us all. This is not an arcane question removed from the people – it is the people, you and me, and how we protect our society, and grow our economy.
"That is what I mean by Independence. I fight not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion. I fight for a generation that is not burdened by the mistakes of this one.
"And as you know, I fight and I do not give up. I fight for this party, because I believe in our hearts we have nothing but goodness, and I fight for this nation because I believe the people of Scotland will choose a better way, a better society, and a fairer society as their way.
"And I fight in the knowledge that is a big fight. The cuts will be bad. The pain will be great. And I fight because I know how we should act.
"And I know where we are going – I am the First Minister of Scotland, and I intend to continue to be the First Minister of Scotland, not because I have all the answers, but because I have the absolute commitment, the experience and above all that sense of national purpose.
"I, we, have the purpose to make this a better land. Join us, be part of this, be part of better."