16 May 2009

Michael Gove: Tarrrrrtan Burrrlesque!

When I was younger, and in an act of maximum political open-mindedness, I allowed myself to be dragged along by an arch-Tory school chum to one of Iain Duncan Smith’s “Compassionate Conservatism” conferences.

I have two abiding recollections of that London conference. Neither of them particularly political. In the first, imagine my pleasure when I encountered a charming, fresh-from-the-Gods stereotype of the ignorant South Englander, who advised my more youthful self, that he knew that “everywhere north of Manchester” was “basically the same.” At his elbow, another compassionate conservative. A leering mask of sticky oleaginousness, this youth squinted at me half-pubescently, and giggled at his witling crony’s wise remark. This particular picture had pinned a Union flag at his lapel and noosed the matching tie about his scrawny neck. I thought he looked like a Fascist, definitely Goebbelsesque.

It was, as you can imagine, a jolly time.

The only reason I bring up these poisonous memories is that at that conference, Michael Gove – then still a petty scribbler – joined mad harpy Melanie Phillips in a media session. What they said, I cannot recall in particular. I do remember, however, despite having seen Gove on the telly and being aware that he was Scottish, being unable to detect even a faint cadence of it in the flesh. Not a note of his adjusted modulations suggested an Edinburgh birth or an Aberdonian education.

Not that I’m suggesting one ought to be particularly offended by this. It is simply a curiosity. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bahktin perceptively pointed out, “languages are philosophies - not abstract but concrete, social philosophies, penetrated by a system of values inseparable from living practice and class struggle.” In Britain, to this we can confidently add that a politics and a philosophy surrounds accent to boot.

Curious then, in marked contradistinction to my prior experience, to see Michael Gove at the recent Scottish Conservative Party Conference, rrrrolling his ‘r’s grrrrowlsomely.

Gove edifies his audience with recognisably clipped Scottish vowel sounds. Listen for yourself here. His speech is in the first section of the conference. The softening south-of-England nasal varnishing which he normally applies when speaking in the open spaces of London is absent. While he didn’t quite lapse into full Mel Gibson mode, to my ear, there are distinct overnotes of fullblown tartan burlesque here, distinctly different from his normal “British media” voice.

I wonder why he does it, and how aware and consciously Gove chooses the differential styles he uses. Ho hum.


  1. I've lived in London & the South East of England for over 40 years and, sadly, have almost lost my Scottish accent. I only return north of the border about once a year, but within a few days the accent starts to come back. Perhaps the same applies to Mr Gove.

  2. I've always detected slight Aberdeen cadences in Michael Gove's speech; perhaps I'm more sensitive to this because I spent a part of my pre-teen and teenage years there, although my own accent is quite different, although still vaguely Scottish. I think your whole article is influenced by your own politics and how they compare with those of Gove. There may also be something in what the earlier commenter has written, that he tailors his accent depending on whom he is addressing or speaking amongst; I'm sure a lot of people do this quite sub-consciously. But for me his [well-educated] Aberdonian speech patterns are glaringly obvious.

  3. That'd by my guess Jockdownsouth. I'm a little concerned, however, that you might have read me in condemnatory form here, Bill. It was only idling speculation , and I concede, not being an Aberdonian for my own part, it is perfectly possible that I missed or misapprehended the cadences you allude to.

    Mostly, I find this sort of thing a curiosity and its causes a matter for polite disquisition. Any hint of daft and disapproving accentiphobic allegations of tonal treason I'd repudiate utterly.