At its conference in Perth SNP leader Alex Salmond couldn't resist rallying the faithful with another of his beautiful one liners. Now that he had secured a referendum on independence for 2014, he told them, the Scottish people would no longer have to be governed by a bunch of "incompetent Lord Snooties!" For those of you who were not avid readers of The Beano in their youth, Lord Snooty was the name given to a much loved character, lord Marmaduke of Bunkerton, a very ordinary boy who just happened to be an earl. He and his pals in the Ash Can Alley gang, - Skinny Lizzie, Hairpin Huggins, Happy Hutton, Scrapper Smith and their mascot, Gertie the Goat entertained generations of Scots from 1938 to 1990, when the strip was retired.
Like any good politician, the First Minister knows how to dip into his people's psyche. Following the much contested union of Scotland and England in 1707 there has been a steady drift of Scotland's leaders toward London, not withstanding two concerted efforts to reverse the process in 1715 and 1745. With this drift came a change of cadence. To get on, Scotland's old leaders often assumed an English accent. In more recent times, Scots with English accents have been branded as an occupying force by those anxious to restore Scotland's independence. And there was another psychic strand to be tapped: the anti-establishment rhetoric of John Knox whose booming pronouncements from the pulpit proclaimed a new social order. Lord Snooty was the perfect butt-end joke for both.
As a longtime fan of Lord Snooty, I will try to ignore the 'divisive' undertones of the First Minister's cheap shot. Nowadays you can be arrested for combining a derogatory adjective with a collective noun as in 'incompetent blacks', or 'incompetent women,' when the intention is clearly to brand a whole group as being beyond the pale for political reasons. And it is quite right that it should be so, as such gutter-politics gets mankind into no end of trouble. Instead I will concentrate on whether populist one-liners are likely to lead the Scottish people into the promised land.
Now don't get me wrong. Populist politics can get results. Benito Mussolini was a master of the art and led his people a merry dance until they saw through his bombast and strung him and his mistress up by the ankles in a garage forecourt. But for those, like myself, who want to see Scotland take its place amongst that community of nations that is Europe, these are challenging times that demand real leadership.
Europe itself is in crisis and the first minister should have told us where he stands on that. Time and again the Westminster parliament has pulled away from Europe, threatening to veto any changes that might move it towards the federalism that has to be its destiny. Give us the free market, they cry, but don't burden us with any changes that might make it work. Slowly, Europeans are coming to the conclusion that they can do without Britain. Where will that leave Scotland?
When Malta, where I live, voted on whether to join the European Union, the alternative put to its people was to be 'like Switzerland'. The vote to join was won by 53.6% to 46.4%. With the Scottish people stuck on only 30% in favour of independence, the first minister will have to rely on more than canny one liners. There is a case to be made for independence within Europe, even for independence outright, but it needs to be built around what an inclusive Scotland (Lord Snooties and all) can become, region by region, sector by sector, age group by age group. We must be persuaded by sound analysis, not by trumpet calls to class division.
And one last thing. In the Beano there was an ostrich called Big Eggo. Just a thought. Yes, I know. Another cheap shot!