I thought this one was dead and gone.
During the referendum campaign our then first Minister, Alex Salmond, assured the whole country that his separation vote was indeed a ‘once in a generation opportunity.’ Nicola Sturgeon, now in charge of the shop, picked up the refrain and it became both duet and mantra.
Just now I’ve seen someone on Twitter remind SNP MP Paul Monaghan of that fact. I’d love to see what Monaghan, about whom I’ve written previously, actually said. Unfortunately – have you got there before me? – he’s part of the growing band of SNP elected politicians (a.k.a. public servants paid for by you and me) who’ve decided they’re going to block this particular member of the electorate.
Anyhow, I thought I’d share a recent exchange with a less-than-bright nationalist who tried to persuade me that the word ‘generation’ had a particular meaning in this context. It also gives me a chance to practise my close reading skills.
First, my exchange with the man who knew all about generations in politics. It went something like this.
ME [he having mentioned the subject]: So what is a ‘generation’ in relation to independence referendums?
HIM: It’s defined in legislation.
ME: Thanks. Can you point me to the source?
HIM: UK parliament.
ME: I meant the actual Act(s).
[He provides a link that goes to an Act about Northern Ireland from 2002. I download the pdf and patiently search it]
ME: Thanks again. The word generation isn’t mentioned.
HIM: It’s seven years.
ME: Where’s that from?
HIM: Well, a parliament lasts for four years [not true].
ME: So it’s in a law that it’s not in, it’s seven years and it’s four!
At that point there was silence. The exchange although piffling does demonstrate the world of illusion and fantasy that some nationalists live in.
The cynic might say that the phrase itself demonstrates what a wily old bird Salmond was in using a word that sort of sounds a long time but in fact is difficult to define.
So, my attempt at a close analysis of the famous phrase, and first the individual words.
‘Once’ – well that’s clear enough isn’t it? One, one only, not more than one, less than two or twice. Agreed?
‘Opportunity’ – a chance, a possibility, not certain, by no means guaranteed, as in ‘The lottery, your opportunity to win a fortune.’ OK?
Now we come to the thorny question of what a generation is. The authoritative dictionary of the language (I know, I’m sorry to have to use the quisling word) the Oxford English Dictionary has a number of different definitions (for example, ‘children, offspring’) but the one that most clearly suits our situation here is surely:
The average time it takes for children to grow up, become adults, and have children of their own, generally considered to be about thirty years, and used as a rough measure of historical time.
That seems pretty definitive to me but if Salmond were talking Scots, an increasing conceit amongst SNP politicians these days, and the word ‘generation’ has a different meaning there, do let me know.
But let’s turn to what Alex Salmond might have meant rather than the literal sense of his individual words.
The context in which he uttered the words and how he said them clearly meant
This is the only chance you’re going to get for a long time.
Resting on the OED, I’d say the ‘only chance’ for about thirty years. I’d concede something a wee bit shorter, but not much. His words were both rallying cry and warning that the chance wasn’t going to come again soon. They also had an unspoken hint of panic in them as he realised he was unlikely to win the referendum. He did not mean ‘Don’t worry, if it doesn’t work this time we’ll come back and do it again in four or at the most seven years.’
That’s it really.
I expect to be taxed again online occasionally at random intervals on the subject. I don’t really care if I’m told the facts have changed (although many facts, including the shambles of an economic case for separation, have not changed). My answer will probably refer to the male testicular organs, make a passing comment on honour and truth amongst politicians generally and by Alex Salmond in particular, and provide a link to this article. And that will be that.