30 July 2009

Salmond's gravedigger impersonation and the politics of accent

Accent is a funny thing in Britain. Someone, I forget who offhand, suggested that accent is the par excellence class locator. Those who wish to explore newer vistas of middle class life are advised, in this formulation, quickly to dispense with their regionalisms and adopt something more genteel. Obviously, this isn’t a simple matter of centre and periphery – while London and the “safff” of England exercises its gravitational pull, plucking out the exciting vowels and consonants of the regional timbre - similar forces undoubtedly effect their judgements in other regional capitals. I knew a chap who was working in the South of England, who had some hue of ‘northern’ accent, at the English Law Commission. At some sort of soirée for the new folk, a tubby and apparently infinitely self satisfied man asked the fellow why he hadn’t lost his northern accent in the course of his southward progress. Charmingly, the enquirer was one of the law commissioners.

Up to a point, we Scots with pleasant and comprehensible voices seem to escape this sort of judgement. Nobody would insist that you sink your clipped vowels in an estuary of the Thames. Such are the freedoms afforded to the “Other”. Equally, however, when I’ve been in Europe for academic reasons, sinews have been tightened in horror-filled anticipation when I was identified as Scottish. Past experience of the verbal squall of cat-in-a-bagpipe Glaswegians had been a mystifying encounter for my poor hosts. Their relief when they found me comprehensible was palpable.

Why is this relevant to Scottish politics, you ask? Merely this. As all of you anorak-enswaddled political followers will be well aware, the next Holyrood election falls on the decreasingly distant year of 2011. What will happen and why is clouded by significant uncertainties, despite the polling data available to us. Will the increase in the SNP vote prove hard or soft? Alternatively, will the experience of the SNP in government lead to more or less confidence in the Nationalists as a force in Scots politics? Everything is naturally relative. One has to weigh on the same proverbial scales the heft of Ian Gray, Liberal shrinkage, potential Green revival, the context provided of the 2010 General Election, both in terms of the morale of Tory and Labour troops – but also voters’ attitudes to whoever occupies Downing Street and the seats to the right of Mr Gopher Speaker. Once one has mixed these dry ingredients, toss in sticky situations, flung eggs of protest – in short, all of the gleeful and malicious works of the Goddess Fortuna – and then, at the end, matters will be all reduced to a number of tribunes, a slim or more bloated electoral count, inchoate triumph, miserable defeat. We can all go home.

I don’t anticipate being at the heart of it – I’ll be out of the country. Indeed, I’m disappearing from Scotland at the end of September to embark on PhD work furth of the realm. However, when I avidly follow the progress of the Eck (Maximum) and his train of capering angels and grinning demons – I’ll be wondering what effect something as apparently innocuous as accent will have on the unfolding electoral drama. Alex Salmond has a curious voice, with a smudging inclination around particular words. He takes a distinctly Shakespearean tack – speaking properly when loitering around princes, principals and presidents – but lapsing into comic Scotticisms with an ease and a naturalness when among the “common folk”. We’ll call this his “Hamlet’s Gravedigger” approach to linguistic politics, for maximal pretentiousness. If I was a politician, I certainly wouldn’t do it – it would sound drawling, invented, improbable, in short a Jack-McConnell’s kiltish incident – but for my money, the Eck gets away with it. As I’ve commented before, Salmond uses history interestingly, positioning himself and his party in the mainstream of the “country’s constitutional life”, “authentically”. Equally, this canny fellow absolutely, undeniably has a politics of language. These Burns-burlesque Scotticisms don’t detract from his stature the way a nasal West of Scotland wail would. Why? One reason – and a strong reason – may be that such norms of language are sanctioned, annually, by the Burns Supper. Anyone who has attended one of these will note that men and women who speak English perfectly “properly” suddenly run all guttural, growling patriotically in Burns’ familiar voice.

I’m not objecting to this – I enjoy it, regard it as a positive thing – but with a more scientific pair of goggles on, it is interesting to speculate on why the sniffish middle classes can forgive some uses of language and not others. Which brings me – very stumblingly – to the point I was intent on making at the outset. I’m not a scholar of this area, so what follows should be treated very much as lay jottings. Cast your ear – and mind – back to the Government of pre-2007. Listen to its tone of voice, its accents. Further, imagine that you are not the free thinker that you hope you are, liberated from social convention. Put aside the fact that you believe that we should judge people by what they say and not how they say it, keeping up the firm barriers between the rhetorical and the epistemological. Jack McConnell’s inanimate drone, the floppy, charmless howls and barks of Glaswegians and neighbourly cronies. Piercing cries, proletarian voices. Scotland’s voice under Labour was undeniably, primarily, that of the West Coast – with all of its unfair mental ties to sickness, to criminality, vulgarity, ignorance – you name it. Look in from the outside, you see a squadron of polished Glasgow City Councillors who sound like Glasgow City Councillors.

Remember, here, that I’m speaking as the character outlined above, of which I can assure you, there are many in the country. People who want someone who can speak to speak for them. Who are looking for Scotland in a different voice, less Clydeside, more general. Now listen to the government post 2007. Hear the diverse accents of Salmond, or Mike Russell, Swinney, Kenny’s roar, Nicola’s modulated Westie way. That Western electoral monopoly is not just shrinking on the electoral map, the rest of the country ganging up on a diehard and incorrigible Glasgow – we also hear it, day to day, in the verbal politics of parliament. Many, many people who have had doubts about the SNP, who did not vote for them on election day 2007 have commented to me how this Accent Question – dramatised more generally as the rhetorical persuasiveness and respectability of the Government – has moved their perspective on the occupier of Bute House and his labouring ministers in St Andrew’s House. People you’re not embarrassed to hear speaking for you, is how it goes. One can imagine similar arguments being used about the professions - who would feel confident if their doctor spoke like a 'ned', or the lawyer giving submissions on your behalf in the Sheriff Court in an undistinguished whine?

Which returns us to the division I mentioned - and the idea that we should distinguish between how people say things (rhetoric) and what they say and know (epistemology). If my thesis is correct, it would seem as if, in the empirical world, this aspirational division is not what drives the social life. We associate how people say things with what they know and if people can't speak, we assume they are being forced to keep silence because of their ignorance. Of course, exceptions always occur, but a generalisation admits exceptions. For some voters, these two notions are intimately connected. I'd argue to the benefit of the SNP government over their Labour opponents.

How many people will have their minds changed by this? How many linguistically sensitive souls does Scotland boast, ready to relocate their ‘x’s because of it? That is hardly the point. As I noted at the beginning, many are the reasons which buffet the moveable voter this way and that. For some, this confidence and the social authoritativeness of particular voices will, undeniably, add to the ease and comfort of voting SNP.


  1. Salmond gets away with using different amounts of broad-ness for the same reason the rest of us do: because we've done it for centuries. For centuries, the educated have used English in public, and Scots (accent, dialect, or language) to their family and close company. I'm sure you even do this today, speaking much more broadly with strangers than with kin.

    It's natural, most of us do it, and that's why he "gets away with it".

  2. A fascinating post lalland

    Your right to pick up on the distinctions between east and west, rural and city, inland and coastal.

    Power bases of SNP v Labour.

    What's interesting is that Labour even when in the East, often have west coast accents, nothing inherently wrong in that but it does suggest quite a narrow base from which they have built their party structure and says something I think about their current decline and long term sustainability with their current take on some major issues affecting the people of Scotland.

    I'd like to think with the SNP taking power in 2007, there is now a greater plurality of Scots voices being heard in the media, if not the parliament itself.

    I think the biggest 'accent change' is yet to come, wait and see how Cameron & Co's homes county accent's play in Scotland and the North of England.......

  3. Another example of the sort of post which might have got you a nomination to the Blogfather's Blogathon of Blogs.

    Eck as the gravedigger: love it.

  4. Cracking post; thanks.

  5. Anonymous,

    Note the context of the remark - my primary point is that I doubt I would seem sincere if I employed similar verbal tactics in public - but that I believe Salmond can and does.

    No more general comment on the (complex and interesting) relations between Scotticisms in public and private life intended. For today, this was primarily a narcissistic reflection!

  6. SU, James, Wardog,

    Always pleased to be mildly diverting!

  7. A fascinating read, Lallands, but are you saying the SNP appeal to class/linguistic snobbery or elitism, or whatever?

    Anyway, a recent political parallel with Mr Salmond's linguistic dichotomy - at least as regards taboo language if not dialect/accent per se - is perhap's David Cameron's 'laddish' recent comments re Twittery.

    There was also Tony Blair's business with the glottal stop, I think, which I never really understood, but think it was all about Tone sounding a bit 'estuary Englishish' and thus appealing to proles?

    Which perhaps also underlines the slightly paradoxical nature of your argument - the SNP generally are appealing to electors on the basis of their more refined use of language, yet Alex Salmond is getting down and dirty in specific contexts.

  8. I always thought that Denis Canavan mastered the cusp between braid Scots and Shakespearean in an admirable fashion.

    I feel a bit of sympathy for Eck as I know my own voice fluctuates in clarity and pluminess depending on who I'm talking to.

  9. An excellent post .

    Coming from "the West" (or , more accurately , the middle) I probably sound to some fellow Scots just as you describe .
    Here , however , there is a subtle difference in accent and vocabulary between those who think of themselves as primarily Glaswegians , looking out with suspicion to the hinterland , and those who regard themselves as part of that hinterland and see Glasgow as a commercial and educational centre .
    There is much more SNP support amongst the latter .
    Sadly , there is also a great deliberately proletarianised lump who wouldn't know two Scots words between them and who think our national accent is the drug-and Buckfast-induced nasal whine which you so eloquently describe .

    Or so it seems to me .