21 March 2010

Review: Eck's speech in Aviemore

Humans are strange creatures. Take public speaking, for example. Timid little things who’d melt if they were forced to open their mouths in front of a small crowd, in relaxed company will cheerfully slam the merely competent orator for his want of spirit. Sportsmen are measured against a parallel, crooked standard. Even if we know we could never return that tennis ball, or survive that tackle, or snatch that soaring cricket ball from the air, we can despise those who stumble, fail, miss. They are more excellent than we perhaps, but that comparison is of no interest in assessing excellence. Each must navigate according to the victor’s lights. Humour is another case in point, where to try to be witty is risky, for the slump-wits in the crowd will devour you if your jibes falter. Although we might regard the hollow man without laughter with his own sort of contempt, the dull thing that knows his dullness is forgiven too much censure. He puts it not unto the touch, to win or lose it all.

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 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.

All that being so, I’ve never thought that lectern-clutching speeches are really the Maximum Eck’s thing. Unless he particularly warms to his theme and keeps it brief. He's exceedingly nimble  when speaking spontaneously, but something about prepared remarks seems to douse his rhetorical fire. We can at least be grateful that he wasn’t issued a microphone and ordered to deliver his peroration without notes, shifting from foot to foot like a two year old who needs the toilet but can’t let on. On content, yesterday’s speech read to me as a long essay on Scottish Labour’s lost authenticity – and the now familiar attempt to situate the SNP as the natural successor to those lapsed social democratic values. Labour. The party who brought us into Iraq. A party of ID cards. A party of trident missiles. A party of nuclear power. Take this example. Salmond references Michael Foot. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, certainly – but I’d suggest that to choose to make the remark at all reinforces the notion of a Labour Party which has lost its way:

“Friends, the recent death of Michael Foot, another politician of principle and passion, brought to mind one of his most memorable speeches. He recalled as a child being taken to see a music hall conjuror. The conjuror took a splendid gold watch from a member of the audience, smashed it to bits, and then announced ‘I’ve forgotten the rest of the trick’. Michael Foot compared that to the economic policy of the Thatcher Government of the day. And in those dark days of the Tory recession Michael Foot had it right. The Tory response then left communities devastated and a generation of Scots out in the cold. Today, it is both Labour and Tory who have forgotten the rest of the trick. And they have forgotten the lessons of the past.”

This theme is made far more explicit in his section on Trident.

“A cosy consensus on Trident. The extent of their disagreement is whether we have three new submarines or four new submarines. But we say – no nuclear submarines. No nuclear missiles. No weapons of mass destruction on the river Clyde. Theirs is a consensus on nuclear power. On nuclear dumping. Consensus on the deeply flawed tax proposals from the Calman Commission - proposals that would see a 5p hike in income tax just to see Scotland’s budget stand still. Tory and Labour agree on student fees, punishing taxes on fuel, post office privatisation and post office closures.”

And thereafter, the final section.

“Because after 18 dismal years of the Tories, and 13 dismal years of Labour – Thatcher or Major, Major or Blair it’s always been a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Friends, we remember Labour’s feeble fifty who stood by while the Tories imposed the Poll tax on Scotland. We remember Labour’s lobby fodder who voted shamefully for war in Iraq. Labour MPs who went to London to settle down. Who remained silent as the gap grew between rich and poor. As inequality in this nation reached levels not seen since the end of the Second World War. 13 years to make a difference – an unlucky 13 for too many Scots. Let down by the Westminster machine .And yes, people are raging. But friends, it doesn't have to be like this. With MPs who are champions for the people of Scotland. SNP MPs who will be at Westminster, to stand up for Scotland, not stand up for the system. To protect the people, not the perks. Not to settle down in London but to settle up for Scotland. Scottish MPs who will put our nation first. National champions, local champions. MPs worthy of the peoples trust.”

We can be languid if we like. Say that we are against things in the loose abstract, without lifting a finger to change them. We might repeat bland saws about all parties being the same as one another, and cultivate our private dislike of nuclear weapons and the great death of war through a secular transcendence of the very politics that make these weapons and these wars possible. If you are a Labour voter, however, committed to CND, how can you bring yourself to scratch in that ‘x’ every time? Do you whisper to yourself, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? If you dislike ID cards, how can you forgive your Labour masters? If you oppose war, how can you slavishly adhere to your warlike chieftains, murmuring increasingly desperately, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow! Peace tomorrow! In England, you might argue that you are ruined by your politics, that you aren’t voting Tory. And find yourself voting Labour to the last syllable of your recorded time, overlooking, ignoring, forgetting. In Scotland, however, you have no cause to cling to the torn and degenerate rags of party. What is the diligent Labour party man’s answer to this? This message – and these urgent questions – seemed to me at the heart of Salmond’s story yesterday.


  1. I must agree with you about Big Eck's natural speaking talent. I read the speech he did in Edinburgh East a few weeks back, and it sounded like it should be a rousing, stirring thing, delivered with bombast. It was written with very good pacing and emphasis to allow this.

    None of which Alex Salmond actually took advantage of. It wasn't a bad speech, but if someone else had delivered it, then it could have been brilliant.

  2. Its a curious thought - but contrary to Jeff's review previously - the Maximum Eck may sound better on paper than he did in rhetorical reality! Or at least, more convincing, with more flair for his text. That said, to my mind Salmond fares best without a set-script, in interviews of the contingent exchange of pelters that is FMQs. In many respects, this is a far more nimble enterprise than delivering a pat soliloquy with feeling...

    Your point does raise the inevitable "West Wing" question, however, Hythlodaeus - (or in the Scottish not-yet version to be called, less emblematically 'Bute House') - who is Salmond's Sam Seaborn, his Toby Ziegler? It is a dimension of politics which, as an outsider, you are left with no sense of - particularly in the context of Scotland. How are the speeches generated? Who has a say, has a look, or is consulted?

    Interesting stuff to speculate on.

  3. Hi Lallands,

    I don't know who writes Alex's speeches, but they could do a lot worse than steal the last paragraph of your article above for incorporation in one.


  4. He is a good speaker when he's doing it spontaneously. Quite witty as well, which is something I've never really mastered in unprepared public speaking (not that I've ever been in quite the same situations that the FM has been in over the last four years).

    It would indeed be interesting to know who the people the speeches are. I know that Big Eck does retain a good few advisors, but they clearly aren't exactly publicly advertised.

  5. I won't be quitting my day job just yet, Rab!

    That said, I do think anyone who writes speeches should have a good quantity of heroic poetry knocking about in their memory. On which point, I'd be only too pleased to produce an elegant range of Shakespeare knock-offs for SNP politicians. I forgot to mention it in the body of the piece, but Salmond also half-quoted a very famous, very good poem by Tennyson, Ulysses.

    "We are part of all we have experienced...", quoth the Maximum Eck. Here is the Tennyson section which rings a bell:

    "I am a part of all that I have met;
    Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
    Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
    For ever and for ever when I move."

    Obviously a parsing. You may be familiar with the most famous political use of this poem, by the now-deceased Teddy Kennedy at the American Democratic Party Convention of 1980, in his "The Dream Shall Never Die" speech. Kennedy cut out some of the equivocating lines, but quoted from the poem's rousing finale...

    'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.
    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
    Though much is taken, much abides; and though
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

  6. Hythodaeus,

    It seems we are too outsiderish! Perhaps some benevolent creature, closer to the central beam of the party or government might be willing to shed some light on the matter. If anyone reads this and would rather that their gracious illumination prove discreet - do just e-mail me at lallandspeatworrier@gmail.com. As it is, the radiance is decidedly scant.

    To return, in passing, to my initial post, although I was labouring the negative there - I'd also suggest that people find few things more impressive that good, fluent public speaking, particularly if it is done without notes. By running the risks of forgetting your words, you heighten the demonstration of prowess. Equally, there is a sense that such speechifying is also more authentic, as you are (at least visually) less readily associated with spouting lines, worked out by others. The text before you is a guilty thing, paper confirmation of your manipulative intent. Then, of course, there is the co-present meet and greet, the constituency flesh pressing. In that context, I imagine that folksy derring-do can go down quite well.