Brian Monteith: Couthy colloquialisms can work

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: PA
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: PA
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Sounding like you are one of the people you want to vote for you is far from a mince idea, writes Brian Monteith

The language of political discourse can be quite revealing. Like body language can tell a story all by itself – if someone is being defensive, open and welcoming, or available – the words politicians use in their speeches can convey more than just their literal meaning.

When Johann Lamont addressed the Scottish Labour Party conference and had a rhetorical square-go with the SNP, she accused the Nationalists of not being interested in having a conversation with the people of Scotland. “It’s an attempt to chat Scotland up,” she alleged. Lamont then delivered the pay-off line, saying: “Their chat-up lines are mince and the people of Scotland are going to give them a hell of a knock-back.”

Apart from the high probability that the metaphor – that the SNP is trying to seduce a (presumably) virtuous public with false promises so it can have its wicked way – was aimed at a female audience beyond the Inverness conference, I found the use of the word “mince” quite intriguing.

Nobody in England would use the word “mince” in this pejorative manner – while in Scotland it is common in colloquial parlance to say: “Your heid’s full of mince,” or “That’s just mince” as a way of providing a semi-humorous put-down without resorting to swearing.

I have commented before on how one would be ill-advised to take a torn pay packet home to Johann Lamont; she is Labour’s street-fighter par excellence and if having a stairheid rammy is the right tactic for duffing-up the SNP gang and sending them home with their tail between their legs, then Johann is your man.

Having the guile to take on Salmond, Sturgeon and the rest is not, though, enough. Labour needs an authentic voice of what might still be termed working-class central Scotland. If a politician can sound just like the people who might vote for you, then you improve your chances considerably.

To exploit Lamont’s full repertoire of couthy working-class jibes, we can probably expect more Scottish colloquialisms to be thrown into her speeches. I suspect “mince” was chosen over that other common culinary metaphor “tripe” as so few people eat tripe these days to know what it is, never mind if it’s a good or a bad thing. It was noticeable too that the “mince” attack was made at the SNP and not Alex Salmond himself, although that may yet come. That would then allow phrases like “awa an’ bile yer heid” or words like “dunderheid” – certainly not parliamentary language, but the presiding officer would not have a say in anything said outwith the confines of Holyrood.

High-falutin’ it is not, but here’s the difficulty for Salmond – he can’t readily respond in kind as it would be below the dignity of the First Minister, and secondly it seems to me that it is easier for a female politician to get away with this kind of talk than a man. That may mean Nicola Sturgeon is brought into the fray, uttering put-downs and punchlines straight out of Stanley Baxter’s Parliamo Glesga’ handbook. Some choice phrases might arise – it would certainly leave anyone from outside Scotland puzzled as to what people were saying.

Whether this would represent a deterioration in political discourse in Scotland is hard to judge: using the word “mince” is tame compared to some of the banter traded in the comment sections of newspapers – but the public at large might still find it all rather childish if people start getting carried away.

The purpose for Labour in using guid Scottish words that resonate is twofold: firstly to differentiate from Ed Miliband and the English party, and secondly to emphasise the authenticity of the party as the natural home for the Scottish working-class voter.

Given the propensity of Scots to claim they are working class when asked, even when they are not, the importance of sounding like part of a group that so heavily is used to define Scotland should not be underestimated.

To describe this need of any Scottish political party to have an everyday local accent, I recall an incident that happened one day when I took my two sons, aged six at the time, for a kickabout down at Leith. They had just come out of their Saturday morning judo class and we took a ball to a set of goalposts in a playground and they were soon playing with the local kids and having a laugh.

After their game was finished and I was taking them home in the car, they told me that they had been asked by the other boys if they were English – on account of the fact that they did not use the same vocabulary or sound like them.

Frankly, I was astonished. My boys certainly did not talk posh, but in the scale of things there were some words or some phrases they just didn’t use. Maybe I had been overzealous in making them pronounce their words without a glottal stop!

I dusted down my Broons and Oor Wullie annuals of old and had them reading them cover to cover before they went to sleep each night. It worked to some extent. Although they didn’t go around saying “jings”, “crivvens” or “help ma boab”, they were never again accused of being “English”.

An unscientific anecdote it may be, but if politicians wish to be taken seriously and thought of as sincere then having genuine credentials of being “one of us” is invaluable. It’s not as if Lamont is being synthetic. Quite the reverse – she has probably moderated her language and mellowed her accent to become more acceptable as a teacher and be listened to in her professional circles. But ironically, for Lamont to now cut it as the leader of Scottish Labour and to land telling blows on the Scottish Nationalists, it will be helpful for her to sound more Scottish and more humble than Salmond can.

Others in Labour will not necessarily follow, for Jackie Bailie and others who are English, it would be a nonsense – as would it for those of a middle-class upbringing; it just wouldn’t fit with their persona. But for Lamont, it can work.

For that reason I doubt we will have heard the last of words like “mince” being used to describe the SNP.