Two State of the Union addresses were delivered within hours of one another on 24 January, by two of the most compelling speakers of the modern age. Politics aside, it is undeniable that the speaking skills of both Barack Obama and Alex Salmond have played a significant role in getting both to where they are today.
Click here to see the video [NOTE: Video on Guardian website]
As a Scot with a keen interest in politicians and political oratory I have a dual interest in Alex Salmond’s delivery of the Hugo Young Lecture in London. I am aware I will be voting in a referendum soon and can, in true Dragon’s den fashion, tell you where I am: my heart says yes, my head says maybe. I am, like the Dragons and many of my fellow Scots, a pragmatist and am presently ploughing my way through a biography of Salmond and gathering information on what will be a big decision for me, one that I can remember an older generation bottled in 1979.
I’ll not spend time on Salmond’s delivery as I’ve not heard it yet, save a few short clips, but one thing that can be objectively stated is that Big Eck knows how to deliver a speech. It will have been despatched with his usual assertion, gravitas and humour. Looking at the text, there is plenty opportunity for all three. Provided he gets neither too angry nor too smug, and he is capable of both, what the audience hears will be just fine. Salmond will certainly have enjoyed the spotlight, though he prefers to extemporise more than was allowed here.
I want to look at two things, humour and vision, in order to reprise the lecture.
Churchill said that “a joke is a very serious thing” and Salmond excels at humour, both in the debating chamber and on keynote duty. The lampooning of William Hague’s threat to stop promoting Scotch whisky as foreign secretary is classic Salmond. The laugh-line, about “scraping the bottom of the cask”, is clever but will raise only a smile. The real slap-down is the information that the whisky industry has to pay for the promotion of its product by embassies, and the understated assertion that the industry would “get by without the promotional efforts of the British foreign service.” There’s the often-used quotation as punch-line, “How nice it would be if the whisky was free and the embassies full up to the brim.”
So it’s not the laugh-line about whisky, or the pandas parody just after, that lasts long in the memory. It’s the serious point that the senior politicians in Westminster are not taking this thing seriously enough. In this Salmond, so far, is right: If the politicians want to know how badly it will go if they merely raise the spectre of how disastrous it will be if Scotland cuts itself loose, they need only look at what happened to Labour when they tried that at the last election.
If I might offer some advice to those who believe the Union is the best way forward: find a narrative, and quickly. Scots will be more than willing to listen. In fact Salmond suggested, on more than one occasion, that those in Westminster need to get their act together, suggesting that Cameron’s strategy is “still on the drawing board.” Salmond himself eschewed the rabid, bug eyed, tartan-clad separatist route about three decades ago, if he ever subscribed to it, and became a gradualist. There will be little point in tub-thumping Unionism from Westminster. He is saying, let’s stay friends, let’s stick together but in a new way. Salmond knows his brief; he knows what he needs to say; he knows what he needs not to say; he is right now reeling in both the English and the wavering, pragmatic, middle class Scots. That reeling in will include those in Scotland clamouring for a “third way” question on “devo max”. I get the impression that there is no-one in Westminster who fancies the job of taking him on. A debate, one-to-one, anyone? When the people who take up the cudgel are identified they had better have a vision for the future because that’s what we got, and what we get, from the First Minister. Whether you agree or not, the man who would be the first First Minister of an independent Scotland for the first time in three centuries gives the impression he knows where he is going.
(Oh, and if you really, really want Scotland to vote overwhelmingly for independence, have John Redwood on Newsnight Scotland every week. It matters not what he says. And despite my great love for Jeremy Paxman - I have a picture somewhere of a smiling Jeremy with my wife - more knockabout like last night on Newsnight will only advance Salmond’s cause. Great entertainment for sure but, Paxo, the Mugabe reference was quite bizarre and you were only saved by the good grace of your interviewee).
And now, the vision thing, which is what it is all about. In measured, reasonable tones that he still has to consciously ensure he maintains, Salmond appeals to the rational rather than the emotional. Or, at least, the rational as well as the emotional.
He knows his fellow countrymen well. For all their bravado and tartan-clad embracing when under the influence of amber bead, especially around this time of year, they will take a measured, sceptical and cool look at their options when the time comes. Salmond, therefore, proposes a friendship of equals; it will be fair and equitable; it will be better for both; you will learn from us, and us from you; things will continue much as they are; we will still share things, like currency and monarchy (but not the oil). Who could possibly object to that reasonable vision, especially when there appears to be a vacuum on the other side? Or at best a reductive, sometimes snide, often scolding and hectoring narrative that tells Scots how lucky they are and that disaster is being invited.
The vision is beguiling and will become more so. Salmond is very good at this. Anyone who invokes Chesterton and Burns; Donald Dewar and the Daily Mirror; the Institute for Public Policy Research and the X Factor; the Financial Times and Eastenders; John Smith and the Edinburgh pandas; and puts the Guardian and Tory MPs not just in the same speech but in the same sentence, knows what he is doing as an orator.
That does not mean Salmond will get what he wants. Obama, as I said at the top, is good at this too and you would hardly say it has worked like magic for him. But if you want to admire the skill in constructing a message that resonates and probably sticks in the mind of the listener this is worth a look. Leaving the room at the end some said that it was a bit light intellectually for them, that it needed a bit more rigour and empirical evidence. You have to remember two things about that: it was hosted by the Guardian, who invited the audience; and Salmond was not really speaking to the people in the room.
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