The headline on her column in The National today is rather misleading as Lesley Riddoch doesn’t deny that Johnson’s outburst was a “mistake” – she refers to it as a “gaffe” – and opines that it is the panicked and clumsy attempts by Tory mouthpieces to paper over that gaffe which “reveal what Tories think of us”. But does it matter? Whether Johnson’s claim that devolution had been a disaster for Scotland was blurted or intended would seem to be a rather fine point. Does it really make any difference? Either way, does it not reveal to us – or more accurately, remind us – that the British political elite holds Scotland in cold, casual contempt? And not only Scotland! The British establishment evinces similar disdain for democracy.
I think it does matter. If language is important – as it surely is – then the motives and attitudes and intentions of the person choosing and using the language must also be significant. Context is crucial. The psychology of the speaker is as much part of the context as the setting and has to be considered along with other factors, such as the occasion, the venue and the audience.
Chatting with a group of Conservative MPs from constituencies in the north of England on Monday, Boris Johnson reportedly said devolution was “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. We may assume it was a fairly relaxed affair. The setting was, therefore, conducive to a politician dropping their guard. There are things that might be said in such a setting to such an audience that no politician would want in the public domain. But the boundaries of the public domain are blurred at best. The sensible politician assumes that other than in very particular settings – such as might be associated with matters of national security – everything they say is going to be reported by the media at some point.
But neither can they remain silent. More’s the pity, I hear you say. Be that as it may, politicians have to speak. They have to be proficient communicators. Whatever position they are playing in the game of politics – ‘game’ being a perfectly appropriate term – a substantial part of every politician’s job will be to convey a message. Only a few get to craft the message themselves. And even they do so only under strict but discreet ‘guidance’ from an army of aides and advisors. Mostly, politicians in the lower ranks are briefed with the message and supplied with soundbites thought to be appropriate.
You may already have spotted the big, bloated bluebottle in otherwise pristine ointment. That’s right! Politicians are people! And so are their aides and advisors. They are all people. And people are generally shite at stuff. Never more so than when there is more than one of them involved in whatever the stuff may be. People make mistakes. People get things wrong. Sometimes, people get things disastrously wrong. Organisations are supposed to compensate for this by providing various checks and balances intended to stop the rot of error spreading and doing real harm. The history of human endeavour suggests that organisations are not always – some would say not often – up to the job.
Toss the vagaries of language into the mix, put it all into the mass media blender and you have a recipe for gaucherie gateau. Or faux pas fondue. Or solecism strudel. Or… Sorry! I shouldn’t mention food when I’m on one of my fasting days.
Because so much of politics is so much concerned with communication it is particularly susceptible to human error. Boris Johnson more than most. Apparently. But appearances can be deceptive. But that doesn’t mean things aren’t exactly as they seem. But people wear various masks. But masks tend to slip. How the hell can we be sure what anything means!?
We can’t. Not 100%. We go by best guess. Not randomness. We read the the person and the situation. We come to conclusions based on our knowledge and experience and prejudices and preconceptions as much as on what we see and hear. Communication is a participative process. Both the sender and the receiver are involved. The proficient sender will limit the ways in which the message can be read. The active consumer of mediated messages – and all messages are mediated – will test the limits looking for what is being concealed. Human communication is generally as much about concealment, disguise and deception as it is about conveying information and ideas and feelings.
When Boris Johnson said devolution was “a disaster north of the border” and “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake” (Let us assume for present purposes that reports are accurate.) did he misspeak? Did he, as Malcolm Rifkind claims, intend some meaning other than that which would normally be taken from the words that he used? Did he accidentally let a smelly, cankerous cat out of a bag too transparent to serve the purpose alluded to by the cat-out-of-bag idiom? Or was the appearance of a brainless blurt actually contrived? More than a few folk think the whole Bumbling Boris thing just a veil cast over a deviously clever mind. Supposing this is even partly true, we must consider the possibility that Johnson said what he said quite intentionally.
But did he say it accidentally-on-purpose solely for the benefit of his audience? Did he say it on purpose in the possibly naive and self-evidently futile hope that it would remain between him and a group of trusted colleagues? Or did he say it intentionally and in full awareness of the fact that that it would inevitably be leaked? Is Boris the embarrassment to Malcolm Rifkind that the latter’s inventive reinterpretation of the former’s remarks would suggest? Or is Rifkind simply out of the loop and not party to Boris Johnson’s cunning plans?
Were this last true then it would imply that others who have sought to cover Johnson’s arse on this occasion are also out of the loop. That some of these are members of the arse-barer’s retinue and/or cabinet may at first glance seem to make this proposition less than entirely credible. Until one takes due account of all the available evidence of how the Johnson regime (mal)functions. Then it becomes quite easy to believe that Boris is a loop of one. It’s not difficult at all to imagine Boris having hatched a tactical egg and kept the ugly duckling to himself in the hope that this one would turn into a majestic swan where all the others had gone from ugly ducklings to even uglier ducks.
I have long maintained that when analysing the twitchings and squirmings of political pond-life it is best to look for the overarching imperative and the options available to serve that imperative. What’s the ‘big picture’ objective? And what tools are available to help achieve that objective? The relevant imperative here is the preservation of the Union. It’s a biggy! It might easily be argued that preservation of the Union is, for the British establishment, the overarching imperative. It could quite reasonably be maintained that everything the British political elite says and does is said and done under the pressure of this imperative.
For the sake of the brevity I generally fail to achieve in practice I’ll skip over the exposition that might be prompted by the above and go straight to the proposition that the imperative to protect something regarded as both existential and in unprecedented jeopardy has engendered within the British establishment a medium in which animosity towards Scotland can live and grow in the open. An environment suffused with the impulse to undermine Scotland’s democratic institutions and national identity. An impulse which to a greater or lesser extent, informs everything that British politicians say and do.
Think of BBC Scotland and the hatred of the SNP that seeps into so much of its news and current affairs programming. This hatred of the SNP – derived largely from the bitterness of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) – has combined with the BBC’s role as the media arm of the British establishment and therefore staunch defender of the Union and become so much part of BBC Scotland that it’s as if it was in the organisation’s DNA. It touches and infects everything that BBC Scotland does. It is ingrained and entrenched and ineradicable. Even those few BBC Scotland employees who harbour no personal ill-feeling towards the SNP are affected, without necessarily even being aware.
Think of that phenomenon and then apply it to the entire apparatus of the British state. However much the observation might be protested, Britishness as defined by the ruling elites of the British state now embraces an element of anti-Scottishness powerful enough to influence everything that is said and done by British politicians.
Johnson quite literally couldn’t help himself. Whatever he wanted to say he was inclined by the overarching imperative of British Nationalism to reach for language that would denigrate or defame or calumniate some aspect of Scotland. He may have overreached a bit on this occasion. He may have made an ill-judged choice in the political word-game. But the purpose and intent of what he was saying would have been the same even if he had been as circumspect in his choice of words as Malcolm Rifkind et al evidently wish.
If what Boris Johnson said had not been said by Boris Johnson when he said it, then it would have been said by some other prominent British politician at some other time. Johnson has simply got ahead of a hateful curve that is relentless. It cannot now be stopped. The anti-Scottish language will be ramped up at an accelerating rate and with it the actions rationalised by the words.
The ground has been prepared. The British Nationalist onslaught begins in earnest. Unimpeded by a pusillanimous Scottish Government, there is only one way this ends. Devolution is a disaster. Scotland is all crisis and collapse and catastrophe. The British are coming to save us. We are truly fucked!