Saturday, 29 October 2011

The (bad) language of Scottish politics

(This was originally drafted for another purpose, but since it's become a bit unwieldy and otherwise unfit for purpose it seems a better idea to post it here instead of merely deleting it.)

A few weeks ago the SNP's John Swinney described UK spending cuts as "malicious" and "disturbing", language perhaps more appropriate to describe a violent psychopath than politicians attempting to balance the country's books.

Ironic, then, that at the end of his TV interview Mr Swinney condemned the "silly rhetoric" of opposition politicians, but he was certainly right to question the tiresome use of exaggerated language in politics, albeit that there was a self-evident element of hypocrisy in making his case. And in view of his claim, what words would the finance secretary use to describe his £75,000 gain on the sale of his taxpayer-funded second home, a sum that would take someone on the minimum wage six years to earn?

By the same token, however, at around the same time Alex Salmond used FMQs to highlight what he described as a "threatening" letter from Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, which conjures up images of promises of violence rather than political spats about legislation and public spending.

And which in turn perhaps provides a bit of context for the first minister's use of the word "threatening" to describe comments from Labour MP Ian Davidson, who told the SNP's Eilidh Whiteford that she risked (or had received) a "doing" regarding a private meeting of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee.

Thus Mr Salmond seems to consider Ian Davidson's comments as on a par with the "threatening" letter from Danny Alexander. Of course, looking past the hyperbole no objective observer would do likewise, but in view of the faux outrage and self-righteous reaction to Davidson's remarks, what precisely did the MP mean by what he said?

The most obvious meaning of giving someone a 'doing' is to inflict physical violence on them, but I personally doubt if he meant that in the literal sense. Or at least no more than when we perhaps say that someone got 'skewered' or 'crucified' in debate, sport or other competitive environment, or even that they got - or maybe deserved - a good 'hiding' or 'kicking'. Indeed, in relation to Danny Alexander's letter Alex Salmond claimed that the Treasury was “holding a gun to the head of the Scottish Government". Really? Did he call the police? Oh, I see, he was talking figuratively.

Thus although I consider Ian Davidson to be a bit of a clown (no, not because he's funny, or at least in the sense that we're laughing with him rather than at him), a loose cannon (another metaphor, believe it or not!) and that his words were inappropriate, on the other hand the reaction to his remarks has been typically overblown and - for many at least - clearly politically motivated. Hence a rather convenient way to ensure that the predictable conclusions of the select committee's investigation into the SNP's independence referendum are discredited in advance.

In particular, does Dr Whiteford's reaction perhaps demonstrate that she's ill-suited to the rough and tumble of Westminster politics? Why not tell Davidson to 'do one' or at least ask him to clarify his remarks at the time rather than subsequently making a complaint to the Speaker with Angus Robertson holding her hand?

Of course, the obvious response (casual sexism alert!) to that is that Dr Whiteford is a woman (good to know that the feminists still expect us chivalrous males to treat the fairer sex differently) and that there should be zero tolerance towards this kind of thing, blah, blah.

All this smacks of double standards. For example, many of those coming over all zero tolerance in relation to what's said in the House of Commons are the same people shouting 'ethnic cleansing' or 'petty rules and bureaucracy' when travelling (sic!) people are brought to book for riding roughshod over planning laws.

More specifically, it's interesting to compare blogger The Burd's literal interpretation of the disputed phrase (in a call for "zero tolerance") with her own figurative (presumably!) construction and use of the same words in an earlier piece on Scottish politics, as cited by Dave Hewitt in a Caledonian Mercury article:

“Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians. I don’t recall David Steele [sic], George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces”; and “But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore”.

And in relation to violence and intimidation per se, when I drove a taxi in Dundee a few years ago I was regularly threatened (with violence, not a letter from Danny Alexander), but never even considered making any kind of complaint to authority. Indeed, once I was kicked and punched in the head - while the perp's pal caved one of the taxi's doors in - and didn't even report that to police.

Why? Well an obvious lack of evidence in the latter case, but more to the point a lack of confidence in the authorities to do anything about such matters. For example, a few years later I complained to police about an individual who had threatened me on a couple of occasions. This was outwith Dundee, but the officer I spoke to seemed to think I should be able to deal with this myself because I lived in a tough city rather than a one-horse town!

More recently I managed to record on my mobile phone someone threatening me with violence, but a teacher of my acquaintance said it wasn't worth bothering about and that he got that sort of thing "all the time" at work. The powers that be are sometimes not particularly sympathetic to such complaints; they might not fit the narrative.

Indeed the last time I sought the assistance of police - who were standing in the street beside an individual who had earlier been making threatening and abusive remarks towards me - I was totally blanked. The message was obvious: please go away!

Meanwhile, things are different for the upper echelons of politics as compared to the great unwashed and two-bob bloggers. The first of my two favourites in this regard concerns Education Secretary Mike Russell's complaint to police regarding a stroppy email from his erstwhile employee and errant blogger Mark MacLachlan, which resulted in a breach of the peace charge and suggestions of extortion!

The second concerns Dundee's Lord Provost John Letford, who got riot police sent to the door of a city resident who had called him an "embarrassment" in an email!!

Thus excuse me if I'm unsympathetic to the hypocrisy surrounding much of the reaction to a bit of robust debate in a House of Commons committee room, which seems born of oversensitivity and political point scoring rather than proportionality and consistency.

Of course the overblown use and misinterpretation of language is hardly confined to the SNP. Witness, for example, Lib Dem Willie Rennie's recent mention of SNP "intimidation" of businesses and charities, and his claim that this represents a "sinister" development.

Equally, this kind of hyperbole is hardly confined to politics either. For instance, recent proposals for a lap dancing club saw the Dundee Women's Aid group describe this form of 'entertainment' as amounting to "violence against women". Er, hello?

But whatever your opinion on lap dancing and the like, the use of such overblown language distorts the debate and merely ups the rhetorical ante, as indeed does similar exaggeration in the political context. When Alex Salmond raised the supposedly "threatening" Treasury letter a contributor to a certain Scottish 'news' website responded thus:

"I was deeply disappointed when reading a history of Edinburgh to see that all the public hanging spaces in the city have been done away with. Criminals were frequently to be seen tarred and swinging from the Gallows as a public reminder not to err! Frankly, I'm not a football fan and I would much rather of a Saturday, head along to the Mercat Cross to watch a Danny Alexander, traitor to Scotland, swing! If they needed anyone to attach the noose, simply let me know or, would we all have to draw lots?"

Of course, while the hangman's noose is deemed appropriate for someone because of political differences (surely not what Mr Salmond was alluding to a few years ago when he threatened to "hang Westminster by a Scottish rope"), the same contributor is now getting all sanctimonious over silly remarks from an MP.

Thus maybe Mr Swinney should use words like "malicious" and "disturbing" to describe things other than public spending cuts.

And, more generally, perhaps our politicians should mind their language rather than irresponsibly stirring things up and in turn exploit synthetic outrage for partisan ends.

(Note that the above was drafted before Dave Hewitt's article, other than - of course! - the section referring to his Caledonian Mercury piece.)