23 October 2010

"The infant Robespierre..."

"That this House, aware of the rejection by the Scottish nation of the policies of the Conservative Party at the General Election of 1987 and the further decline of the Conservatives into third place behind both the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party at this year's district poll, believes that the Government has no mandate to continue to impose its alien values and divisive programme upon an unwilling population; notes the Government's refusal to allow the Scottish people to determine their own constitutional future by the holding of a referendum or the establishment of a constitutional convention; further notes the developments in the European Community towards a single market; and considers that it is in the overwhelming interests of the people of Scotland to seek full independent status within the European Community, rather than accepting continued colonial status within the United Kingdom."

More than two decades may have passed, but the late Margaret Ewing's House of Commons motion of 1988 poses questions that many Scots are undoubtedly asking themselves today. Plus ça change and all that. In the subsequent debate, the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind remarked:

"I begin by complimenting the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on the style of her speech. My hon. Friends and I find her style and approach considerably preferable to that of the infant Robespierre, her Honourable Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who takes a different approach to the conventions of the House and who consequently fails to impress."

This memorable description of the Salmond features prominently in David Torrance's recently published biography Salmond: Against the Odds. I don't blame Torrance for plucking out this emphatic characterisation, but as someone who entertains a fascinated fixation on the French Revolution, its life, complex progress and characters, I can't say I find Rifkind's historical parallel particularly convincing. Between Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel and the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, our own age has been left a curious compound picture of Robespierre. A man associated with radical vehemence, an earnest humourlessness, but also effeminacy and prissy fopperies, stiff exactitude in wig and dress.  Impractical, abstruse - a copy of Rousseau's work kept under his pillow - a friend of the people, but the people conceived in their abstract, not the rough Sans Culottes. A man with Manichean sensibilities, ultimately Maximilien is most often recalled as a canting Tyrant, in his quiet, brittle little voice - giving orders for men and women to be trimmed by the patriotic shortener, in one of the morbid phrases of the day. In his The French Revolution, a History (1837), Carlyle was particularly keen on describing Robespierre as a "seagreen Incorruptible", reptilian, uptight, unspontaneous, lecturing and sententious - always critically contrasted with the manliness, fleshy, laughing, rabble-roaring political creature that was Georges Danton:

"A Danton, a Robespierre, chief-products of a victorious Revolution, are now arrived in immediate front of one another; must ascertain how they will live together, rule together. One conceives easily the deep mutual incompatibility that divided these two: with what terror of feminine hatred the poor seagreen Formula looked at the monstrous colossal Reality, and grew greener to behold him; - the Reality, again, struggling to think no ill of a chief-product of the Revolution; yet feeling at bottom that such a chief-product as little other than a chief windbag, blown large by Popular air; not a man, with the heart of the man, but a poor spasmodic incorruptible pedant, with a logic-formula instead of heart; of Jesuit or Methodist-Parson nature; full of sincere-cant, incorruptibility, of virulence, poltroonery, barren as the eastwind!"

In the event, Danton lost his head first and Robespierre misplaced his own in the end. In all probability, their bones mingle fraternally in the catacombs beneath Paris. While he may not share in Danton's love of women wine and song - if he was to be identified with a French Revolutionary character, I'd suggest the hardly ascetical, hardly sartorial Salmond would find much more in common with Georges  Danton - a clever, jesting, jousting, provincial, roistering fellow who pulled himself through life by dint of his wits and ended up at the heart of the politics of his time. I can hardly imagine Eck partaking in the young Robespierre's Rosati, a gathering of the young bourgeois men of Arras reciting garlanded verse, cultivating literary pretensions and sipping wine enlivened by rosepetals. I've always felt a certain sympathy for Robespierre's vulnerabilities, his strange passions - and some of his virtues. Yet as someone who values the ironic and the Voltairean over the rigorously unsatirical spirit of Rousseau - as someone who is long on questions and short on certainties - we part ways and part sharply. Folk do change across their course of their lives. Young Eck may have been different from the Maximum Eck of today, but I struggle to believe that a Robespierre could ever grow into a Danton, or vice versa. 


  1. A decade ago? 1988 was over TWO decades ago!

    Time flies...

  2. Er... Quite.

    Glad to see one of us has a command of elementary arithmetic, Holebender! Will amend.