14 March 2011

On being the cartographers of a new Scotland...

Those of you who have been lurking about here a good while will be familiar with my ideas about Alex Salmond's speech-making powers. Of his remarks in Aviemore in 2010, and then at the SNP Conference in Perth later that year, I suggested that he performs gallantly enough compared to your average punter or your commonplace politician. However, I've never been wholly convinced that delivering formal, buttoned-up addresses is the Maximum Eck's real forte. For me, his talents are primarily of an extempore character. Here's an excerpt from my earlier posts which sums up my view...

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.

His performance at this weekend's SNP Spring Conference in Glasgow tended to confirm my existing feelings. The Corbie has picked over the bones of the speech already. To pry a rib or two from her sharp beak, we should probably begin by asking who are conference speeches for? The serried activists in the audience, certainly - and a media whose shell-likes are bent for quotable passages and concrete messages. Your average voter is unlikely, I fancy, to give much of a fig.  Most of the public are likely to catch such snippets as are mentioned in the papers or those snatches  caught on the telly that evening. Their importance, it seems to me, is primarily atmospheric, allowing emphasis to be placed here or there. The speeches allow narratives and counter-narratives to pursued and buttressed by the press - and by party apparatchiks alike. We shouldn't indulge in a surfeit of poseurish cynicism limiting the good of such gatherings to their instrumental capacity to change public opinion. Conferences ought to be a site for discussion, for the articulation and vindication of collective values, even dare I say, the airing of debates. They're about diffusely enacted solidarity, or something along those lines.  The full text of Salmond's address can be read here. I just wanted to pick up on a few thoughts provoked by its final section.


We have a rich land, but too many of our people live in poverty. We have a 21st century vision, but are held back by 19th century prejudices and structures. We are ready to play our part in the world, to help from the personal to the universal.If we are to become a crucible of the new society. Then we need the power of independence – we must have these powers. And there is only way of getting those, of making further advance. To vote for Scotland, not because we are better than anywhere else. But because we are the same people as people all over the world.

We seek fairness and justice and responsibility. And we are the lucky nation, rich enough to deliver it all, yet we cannot without power. Our sense of the common weal is strong and should not be denied by the rich elites of elsewhere. A Scotland caught between the universality of hope, and the parochialism of power for power’s sake. And as Labour peddle fear we have led hope.

We live in tough times, but when the decision came to protect family budgets, it was straight forward - the council tax freeze stays because it's worth more than £300 to the average family since 2007. The NHS budget could have been cut but for us it was a clear decision - the health service protects Scots young and old. Its budget is safe with the SNP. We have made Scotland secure not by the kneejerk nonsense of locking people up for short sentences, but by putting 1,000 extra police on the street and taking crime to a 32 year low. We have the best team on the park and we govern for the whole of Scotland.

But politics is nothing without a bigger vision. In government, much is in the day-to-day. But you must still keep an eye on the horizon. On the big prize. For us that prize is independence. But independence is a means to an end. That end is a society safe, happy, healthy. Confident in its skin. A global citizen acting to help the world where it can.Because the map makers’ ink is becoming smudged on every border. Globalism, the rise of the knowledge economy, the big economic changes, the great environmental challenges. All point to a world where the responsibility of the nation. Is to raise people who are responsible to the world.

And the definition of a nation is a community of people with a shared commitment to their culture and to their children. By having a strong sense of ourselves. That allows our new communities from Asia to know what it meant to be Scottish. And to give them something to join, to be part of. And that sense of self is built on community. On the shared value of helping each other out, lending a hand. On a sense that society should try to be as equal as it can be. That is what we value and what we think is the purpose of government. To the rights of the ordinary to triumph over vested interests.

In our capital city of Edinburgh there stands a monument to Thomas Muir and his fellow friends of the people. His memory should cast a beam across the work of every civil servant in the Scottish Government and every Minister – because the monument to Muir and his fellows revolutionaries spikes out of Calton graveyard like a shaft of stony light across from St Andrews House. And this monument contains Muir's own vision:

" ... “I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph.” ...

And his message was not just for this place, but for every place. For his spirit, for Robert Burns' spirit, Jimmy Reid’s spirit, our spirit. It is for the common weal. The rights of man - and of women. And the legitimacy of the ordinary over the powerful.

This party has travelled a similar path. This movement, this nation, has been patronised, talked down, told it wasn't good enough. And yet this party has risen from a few MPs and a land without a parliament, to a Scotland with a parliament, and an SNP government.

We never lost the strength of hope - and we fought on to triumph. But we, in our mix of the national and the international, of the personal and the political, we fought not to govern over people. But for the people to govern over themselves. It is for that reason and that reason above all that we are the Friends of the People of Scotland and for that reason we shall prevail."

One of the things which has always interested me about the story of Thomas Muir is that his is not a Bannockburn story, or a misconstruction of Culloden along English vs Scots lines. Thomas Muir was ruined by Scottish elites - the despotism of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville - which was supported by the Tory "crony state" of its day. Taking the relatively moderate Muir to be its inveterate foe, Muir was crushed by Lord Braxfield and an obeisant Edinburgh jury in the High Court of Justiciary at the instance of the Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas of Arniston.  Along with his fellows, Muir was transported to Australia, then escaping to South America with an intention of heading north. The best laid plans... Muir's hopes were frustrated, and  his Candidesque journey was to continue. Ill-fortune stalking his footsteps, he was arrested by Spanish authorities and sent to Cuba, there to await sail to take him back to Spain. Having crossed the Atlantic, his ship was waylaid off the Spanish coast. Shrapnel tore into his face in the pitched naval battle with the British navy that ensued. Horribly injured, he was finally freed from Spain under the auspices of French diplomacy, dying in France on the 6th of January 1799, aged only thirty three. But I digress.

On the main thrust of this final peroration, the Maximum Eck's line from Perth was arguably neater - "I fight not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion". Nicola Sturgeon made the same connection explicitly in her address yesterday. Indeed, so pleased was she with the formulation, like Shakespeare, she said it twice, in case you missed it the first time:

"Fairness, justice and equality - these principles are the very essence of independence and that is why we are determined to win it for our country."

We may be familiar with these sort of themes, but we shouldn't forget that it is astonishing to hear nationalism articulated and envisaged in this way. I've long found inexplicable that longing one sometimes encounters amongst Labour supporters for the SNP to be a racist party - or the paranoid certainty that the SNP is "objectively" such a party, and that only a conscious PC fraudulence keeps private hatreds from public view. Nationalists frequently find ourselves responding to a snide managerialism that insists that the public don't care about independence. Annabel Goldie prefers to deploy what I think of as her High Tea rebuttal, which invariably involves "bread and butter" issues, dismissing nationalism as glitter-speckled fairy-cake (or fruitcakery, depending on what Bella's been baking...)  

This is patently an unworthy argument. I'm willing to entertain a vigorous discussion with folk who are pro-Union about the range of values involved. For example, the more thoughtful should be willing to concede that there are areas of policy where the sectional Scottish interest is simply different from some overall assessment of British priorities, refracted through particular ideological lenses. To admit such is hardly fatal for the Union case - for other saving values might be invoked. To put the case most strongly, it is perfectly possible to admit that self-governing Scotland might be better off  economically speaking - but the Union should be maintained. Now, such a position is not necessarily a particularly attractive one to defend - but my point is that it is not necessarily an incoherent view. We're in the realm of substantial politics here and the managerialist vision simply won't do.  It shouldn't satisfy Unionists either. What is an incoherent position, however, is to say that one wants to be independent to transform the character of the Scottish state - potentially to something along more Scandinavian lines - and simultaneously to imagine that ideological questions can be bracketed until after independence. A gradualist independence movement which predicates its political activity on the idea of a better and more virtuous Republic, defined along primarily political rather than ethnic lines - simply doesn't have the luxury of deferring ideological questions. As responses to this post indicated, some of you disagree. As I understand the position, you see the issue being one of the SNP being a vehicle to deliver independence, which will then afford an opportunity to choose what sort of state to choose to be. I disagree and take heart from the fact that Alex and Nicola are beginning more clearly to emphasise that nationalism is about your bread, your butter and your bacon. It is about the plate of food your neighbour sits down to of an evening, or if your neighbour hae no meat and cannae eat. Significantly, the remarks of both Salmond and Sturgeon undeniably go beyond a case for independence based on a delimited promise of bare autonomy.

I have a legal background and a sociological interest. I'm concerned with what actually happens in the world, in detail - rather than the crystalline structure of sovereignty or what was implicitly demurred in Salmond's speech - independence as an end in itself.  That also entails an interest in the concrete - in justice close to home - not a spangled, flighty goddess, pirouetting across the distant heavens. It is for this reason that the croaking, toad-perspective of Unionist managerialism is so deeply unattractive, soulless, heatless, heartless. I have no doubt that it is manifestly insufficient to cry "It is not too late to seek a newer world!". One has to man the oars, to haul and "smite the sounding furrows". However, to borrow an Eckly metaphor, our horizon is lit and our destination chosen according to  our political lights, our conception of justice, our understanding of possibilities and opportunities. Being the cartographers of a new Scotland is vital work, not secondary, not deferrable. I recently channelled Lewis Caroll to have a little fun at the expense of Iain Gray and his brother and sister Labour tribunes, in Punting the Snark. Leap one Fit on, however, and one finds a passable description of the SNP's political nationalism, if it is shed of ideological politics. Salmond is  much to be credited for not making this Bellman's Speech. However, our nationalist map-making is anything but complete.

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies--
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank"
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!"


  1. To take a simple or maybe even simplistic view of your piece, it is time that what independence means is spelled out or at least, what Frankly has been gumming about, what our reality will be.

    We need some meat on the bones and aspire to inspire the everyday voter with what the SNP sees as Scotland's future. Meat on the bones.

    If you cannot define where you are, and we have picked over the bones on that ad infinitum, how do you know where you want to go, when you will arrive and why you want to stay there.

    The party is growing up.

  2. You might be a tad unfair on Alex Salmond. Over the weekend we had images of the steel cordon round the Lib Dems conference in Sheffield, and some weekend BBC coverage of politics as well as Japan, Libya etc. At least Alex Salmond was mentioned on the Radio 4 bulletins, but until the Scottish government gets round to some control of broadcasting, and a review of the lacklustre press journalism there, the rest of the UK will just ignore Scottish politics. One reaction I got from a 'cultured' resident of Hampstead was: I heard Mr Salmond on Desert Island Discs. I didn't recognise any of his music. I had to explain the Scottish connections of Johnny Cash and Menotti, but the blank face still didn't get it.

    I'm ploughing through Edward II by Seymour Phillips (the book, i.e.!) and though I've reached 1318, the politics haven't changed much since. I remember Joyce MacMillan explaining to the English how Michael Martin could be described as a 'low flying Jimmy' (your crumpled suit and a bottle of non-alchoholic budvar) - though Martin was pilloried as Gorbals Mick, to the extent that Andrew Rawnsley frequently had to correct the 'likes his dram' image.

    Regarding coverage on the home front, I was on the phone to a chum ‘in the hills’ and she was saying that the government was going to connect the village to the gas network. We moved on to talk about something else and I didn’t get a chance to ask which government, which directive, is this an environmental issue. That was one example of the government being specified by someone who is totally apolitical.

    Your analysis of Salmond’s performance should be viewed with an audience in Scotland, Britain and abroad. He has to play to many galleries.

  3. A quick, knee-jerk reaction.

    The SNP can never be the cartographers of an independent Scotland. They can, however, hand the people the sextant, compass and a blank sheet of paper.

    So, why should we pursue this nebulous notion?
    Quite simply, it's not a nebulous notion.

    This pristine, national tabula rasa, untouched by ink as it may be, is still charged with meaning. Part of that, and an entirely legitimate part, is what we are rejecting - leaving behind: things that the UK is and represents that an independent Scotland could never be or represent.

    I'll stop at this point as my knee-jerk is in danger of becoming a breenge into an ad hoc essay.
    I'll spend some time to see if I can articulate my thoughts to my satisfaction.

  4. "Significantly, the remarks of both Salmond and Sturgeon undeniably go beyond a case for independence based on a delimited promise of bare autonomy."

    But don't the words you quote amount to little more than rhetorical motherhood-and-apple-pie-ish flourishes which could be made by any mainstream Scottish politician and don't really mean much substantively?

    And if they do convey something a bit more, don't they merely reflect at a rhetorical/macro philosophical level the kind of policies the SNP have been and are promoting, thus to that extent they add little of substance to the debate?

    And although I do subscribe to the view that many see independence as an end in itself, on the other hand this can only be taken so far.

    Thus perhaps the average nationalist would compromise on larger class sizes (say) if it meant an independent Scotland, but if a Scottish nation was to mean an independent nuclear deterrent, racial apartheid and free fags and booze for all then the average SNP supporter would then baulk at the idea of independence?

    I suppose what I'm trying to say is that in the main Scottish nationalism presupposes not just a an independent nation but also a predominantly social democratic (socialist?) one, and to that extent Messrs Salmond and Sturgeon told us little new at the weekend?

  5. There's few I think who expect independence day to dawn with Scotland morphed into Brigadoon.

    And the charts we have are well plotted and transcribed with dangers and failures experienced. The blanks we have are the course to be set; when the wind and tide will be favourable and the crew enthused.

    And you're right in that AS is no orator, but of late he does seem to have curbed his trait of triumphalism and, given a nation, may yet rise to the status of statesmen and turn promise into practice.

    Many - myself included - have argued for the pros and cons of the potential courses to be aired and debated now. Not just in the fine words of milk and honey writ on parchment, but on the grist, grit, commitment and wisdom needed to form a democratic parliament capable of administering to a sovereign people.

    This is a free Scotland's opportunity, its horizons; to take democracy a step further in its evolution beyond the stasis that has debilitated the old.

    Will it be capitalist, socialist or egalitarian. It will I hope be a mixture of them all but, again hopefully, not with the word stupid as a prefix to any of them.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. Apologies for my slightly tardy responses...

    Lord Snooty,

    I'm always slightly mortified when someone neatly summarises an argument I've been making in three sentences or so! For my part, like you, I see this as a positive prospect and an opportunity - a guttering candle to be encouraged, rather than a fine opportunity to rave about the surrounding darkness.

  7. obreption,

    Unfair to Salmond in what way, precisely?


    I do enjoy a delightfully extended metaphor! Do share your thoughts, when they crystallise. I'd be interested. Indeed, I'd be very willing to guest post your argument here, on the topic. For my part, writing this sort of blog up is as much about making an argument as trying to work out my own opinions.


    This is not a sentence I write often, but I think you are being too cynical. You raise a number of issues which doubtlessly I'll come back to in time on this question. Just to pick out one, I don't believe that open-textured values such as "fairness" or "compassion" or "equality" are so without meaning that they should be jettisoned. Certainly, these concepts can be imagined in very different ways. Tories talk about such things these days, after all.

    However, I'm not convinced at all that we that we should limit ourselves to a particularist vocabulary, which outlines specific practical proposals only without any attempt to weave together a broader sense of political mission bent on realising particular conceptions of given values. I can understand how one can become rapidly jaded with vacuous boilerplate. Equally, I think you underestimate the practical usefulness (or in a strong version, even the necessity) of concrete political programmes being underwritten by the open-ended inspiration of concepts of goodness, fairness and justice.


    You are right to emphasise the continuing nature of these debates and do so very musically and pithily, if I may say so. Certainly, in publishing my views here I make no pretence to particular novelty or originality. At most, I hope to provoke a thought or two and foster discussion. It is encouraging to encounter folk who share that perspective.

  8. Thanks for the response, Mr LPW, but I should point out that I categorically don't do cyncisim ;0)

    Yes, you are correct in that the broad brush delineation of the Nationalist philosophy is important but, on the other hand, as you also allude, I think many people - particularly like myself - don't hold much store by these things and dismiss them as airy rhetoric and want to see something more concrete, not just in terms of specific policies, but also in terms of implementation. It's a bit like the manifesto promises/realpolitik juxtaposition, but at a more conceptual level.

    Thus twenty years ago I was bowled over by progressive rhetoric and even the Braveheart-style ethos, and even by the Blairite rhetoric when the Tories were deposed from Westminster.

    However, since about that time the "equality, justice and fraternity" kind of stuff is more inclined to make me cringe. Come Barack Obama and I blogged "prepare to be disappointed", as I'm sure a lot of progressives now are, but I'm not even sure if they mention him anymore!

    Of course, all this adds little to what I said earlier and will do nothing as far as your own opposing argument is concerned, but a couple of current examples might help illustrate the point.

    First, you yourself mention that the kind of language used by Salmond at the weekend is also used by the Tories these days, thus although they might sound impressive, in reality they're pretty meaningless without something in the way of substance, as you concede.

    Second, SNP high command has conceded that they want to steer the Holyrood debate away from policy and want to make the campaign into a Salmond v Gray personality contest, thus hardly consistent with the peroration to the troops at the weekend.

  9. SNP high command has not conceded that they want to steer the debate away from policy. It is simply that it is impossible to have a debate about policy when Labour refuses to have any - other than their ludicrous crime policy. On every other devolved issue they have adopted the SNP position to the extent of committing themselves to "saving" medical facilities that only they ever proposed to close!

    Therefore the debate will be around the personalities of the leaders - which I agree suits the SNP fine.

  10. Agree with you about Labour, Indy, but perhaps the reason they are able to flip-flop to match SNP policy is the dearth of much of substance from the latter.

    Oh, and the personality contest point was based on what Magnus Gardham said the other day, but if I'd recalled it was him who said it I wouldn't have made the point ;0)

    But I can't really comment on the efficacy of what he said because I wasn't at the conference:

    As plenty of other commentators have noted in the past few days, that's how it's starting to look after a sudden spate of spectacular U-turns.

    Labour have said no to tuition fees and yes to a council tax freeze, matching the SNP's position on those issues.

    And, for their part, the Nats have backed the Calman tax proposals in the Scotland Bill.

    All of this is down to pre-election pragmatism rather than genuine policy convergence.

    Nevertheless, it reduces the choice facing voters.

    Who benefits? The SNP are convinced it helps them more than their main rivals.

    The FM's spin doctor-in-chief made the point persuasively during the party's conference at the SECC at the weekend.

    As they grow closer on policy, he argued, the parties will be defined more by personality.

    And the Nats believe that's a good place for them to be because they are convinced Alex Salmond is their biggest asset.

    Indeed their number one campaign strategy is to claim, over and over, that he is "better" than Iain Gray.