Why is it that some words always make me uneasy, especially in the hands of politicians?
Alex Salmond used the phrase
The sovereign will of the Scottish people
six times in probably about twenty minutes during First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament today.
The words had a ring to them I couldn’t quite place. A quick search on Google and I found that the phrase ‘sovereign will’ has its origins in the history of philosophy, particularly in relation to the idea of the sovereign will of God.
But hang on, this is a fallible human speaking, not God.
I can’t offer a philosophical analysis of the phrase but I do think it worth looking at the detail and the overall impact of the words.
The adjective ‘sovereign’, the Oxford Dictionaries tell me, means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power’ and, for those who are believers, I can understand that in the context of a deity. Applied to people, the only justification I can see for the word is in relation to democracy, and even then qualified by the idea of the rule of law.
‘Will’ is another tricky one. The dictionary, again, offers ‘The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action,’ bland enough but combined with ‘supreme’ somehow hints at something superior or ordained.
Nothing offensive about ‘the Scottish people’ of course, although it does rather suggest a single collective entity with that ‘will’ of its own, unlike, say, ‘Scots’ or ‘people who live in Scotland.’
The slightly sinister effect of the words is when they’re taken together and in the context they were used, by a politician (a) in the aftermath of receiving (some would say) a bloody nose in a debate with an opponent and (b) intent on creating a separate state for the diverse peoples who live in Scotland.
A cynic might even say that ‘the sovereign will of the Scottish people’ fits well with the idea that a nation has a destiny (dictionary again – something that necessarily happens in the future, my emphasis) and with the ringing tones of the Declaration of Arbroath
As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule
which sound slightly less ringing when the web reminds us the declaration was actually a letter from the Scottish Barons to the Pope.
But this is history, isn’t it, and nothing to do with the ‘civic’ nationalism that some claim has replaced the old variety?
Well, I’m not so sure. Those words still make me uneasy. Let’s apply another test.
What would you think if other politicians used the same words?
Angela Merkel – ‘The sovereign will of the German people’: not that she would, but it’d be a tad sinister given the history.
Vladimir Putin – ‘The sovereign will of the Russian people’: bang up to date, it’s what he’s doing in the Ukraine now.
Ed Milliband – ‘The sovereign will of the British people’: ludicrous, the words would never pass his lips.
David Cameron – ‘The sovereign will of the British people’: nope, I can’t even imagine him saying it either.
Britain’s too diverse and the vast majority of Brits would laugh if any UK politician used that sort of language.
Even Maggie Thatcher, taking the country to war against Argentina, only used the word ‘sovereignty’ in a technical sense
the sovereignty of the islands is not affected by the act of invasion … what matters most is what the Falkland Islanders themselves wish.
How easy, and more accurate, it would have been for the First Minister to say something like
What the majority of people in Scotland want.
But no, he said the sovereign will of the Scottish people, and he said it six times. The impression is of a man under pressure and of a less polite nationalism than that usually spoken of in the referendum campaign.