Talking Scotland down

To talk someone/thing down – to discuss someone or something in a way that makes them seem less interesting or attractive

– Oxford Dictionaries

I really struggle with this phrase and its use in Scottish politics. Its most recent manifestation was at first minister’s questions yesterday when Nicola Sturgeon responded to a question from the Labour leader about criticisms in an Audit Scotland report on Scotland’s colleges 2017. The first minister ended her answer with what she no doubt thought was a rhetorical flourish:

No matter how much Kezia Dugdale grasps around trying to find bad news to hammer the SNP she will not succeed in talking down our colleges or talking down Scotland.

As it happens, from scanning the Audit Scotland report I have a small degree of sympathy for the first minister. If my reading is correct, the colleges of further education have some real achievements to show as well as some major challenges. There is plenty in the report for both a government and an opposition to fulfil their parliamentary roles of governing and, well, opposing.

In other words, important as further education is, its state is no more or less than the everyday stuff of democratic politics. I expect government and opposition to pursue their cases robustly. I’m even resigned to each over-egging the pudding in any debate on the subject.

What I do find curious is the way in which the SNP’s argument, as so often for them, boils down to one thing – the opposition are ‘talking Scotland down.’

In my eavesdropping on debates in the House of Commons I cannot recall hearing a government minister of any of the three parties that have been in power in the last decade accuse the opposition of ‘talking Britain down.’ There’s plenty of hostility across the aisle in that institution. But it is based much more on political ideology than the simplistic notion that opposition is somehow making a whole country ‘seem less interesting or attractive’ (that dictionary definition of ‘talking down’).

The SNP’s use of the ‘talking down’ argument is both pernicious and dishonest.

First, it implies that their opponents are wilfully demeaning not only their own country but also otherwise blameless people or organisations within it; in this case ‘our colleges,’ in another recent example ‘teachers and pupils’ (when the government’s school policies came under attack).

Second, and again by implication, it says ‘We don’t do these things, we are the only true promoters of a positive view of Scotland.’ Well there’s a sort of logic to that in that they do choose to style themselves the ‘national’ party and frequently conflate themselves, wrongly, with the entire nation, a fallacy that recent electoral statistics demonstrate only too well.

Lastly, and I find this the most distasteful aspect of all, the argument suggests that the SNP’s opponents are somehow not patriotic. After all, who would go around criticising a whole country if they didn’t dislike and despise it? Except that’s not what they’re doing, of course.

Dr Johnson said that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ In the hands of the SNP patriotism is the argument to wheel out when others fail, as they frequently do in defending their mediocre record in government.

Footnote. Hard on the heels of Nicola Sturgeon’s use of ‘Talking Scotland down comes the Leader of the Commons’ statement that ‘It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic.’ No. It’s not their function.

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