Does Scottish public life really have to be this coarse?


By Kenneth Roy

As I entered a Scottish hotel last weekend to deliver an after-dinner speech, I overheard a remark which would have instilled insecurity in any speaker. ‘We have the perfect balance tonight,’ someone said. ‘The intellectual and the comedian’.

Help. Was I expected to be either? I wondered with a chill of premonition what lay ahead. I had prepared a speech on the nature of injustice with not a gag in it. It was a bit late to start lightening the tone. Could I make injustice amusing somehow?

The intellectual, as I fervently hoped I must be, at least for these brief purposes, walked through a friendly throng of overwhelmingly male company to a table at the far end, where I counted the women in the room. There were only seven. But one would have been enough: whatever else was about to happen, we would surely be spared gynaecological jokes.

Presently the other speaker arrived, a well-known sportsman. He had been delayed by a radio broadcast on the subject of – what else? – football.

‘We’ve met before,’ he began in a friendly way. ‘At the institute dinner, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, although with no memory of the occasion.

‘Which institute?’ the chairman asked.

‘Oh, I dunno,’ I replied truthfully. ‘After a while, every institute dinner feels the same.’

I warmed to the sportsman. He was amiable, unassuming, almost diffident, and he talked frankly about the unhappy state of Scottish football. He told me, for example, that despite the many press reports predicting the liquidation of Rangers FC, it was unlikely that the club’s main creditor, HM Revenue and Customs, would press for the full amount. He said confidently that the taxman would settle for an affordable compromise and move on to fry bigger fish.

I spoke first. The speech on the nature of injustice was received in respectful silence followed by polite applause. But it was obvious from the outset that the speaker everyone was looking forward to hearing was the sportsman. I was rather looking forward to his speech myself.

Well, there were no dirty jokes. But, to my amazement, the speech was heavily peppered with the f-word. It seemed that no sporting anecdote – and the speech consisted of a flow of such anecdotes – could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion without it. Nothing had prepared me for this. In the pleasant hour I had spent with him over dinner, he had used this word not once.

I use it too, often under my breath as I edit this magazine or read some of the correspondence it provokes. But I prefer not to use it in speeches.

The fact that public service broadcasters are among the worst offenders may be symptomatic of a more general coarseness in Scottish public life, particularly in the male culture of urban Scotland.

Its liberal use here, by this nice, civilised, middle-aged man, was unsettling. Why did he feel the need? Of all the many stories he told, only one was enhanced by the inclusion of the word. Its discriminating use would have produced a shock wave, and probably an explosion of nervous laughter, but its routine employment became boring.

But then I looked around the room at a sea of contented faces and realised that I was worrying unnecessarily about the speech’s impact on this mixed company. The more he uttered the word, the more they seemed to approve. It finally occurred to me that coarseness is what is expected of entertainers after dinner, late on a Friday night in a Scottish hotel. My fellow speaker was merely playing to a convivial crowd with its own fixed view of the language of such rituals and perhaps of the language of Scotland as a whole.

Later, I looked up a variety of internet reviews of the after-dinner speeches of people associated with Scottish football and discovered that the one I had just heard was relatively mild. The same names kept cropping up – the blue joke specialists or the speakers who test the edges on sectarianism and sexism – and it was noticeable that they included familiar names at BBC Scotland. I wonder if the management is aware of the extreme out-of-hours reputation of these people and, if it is, why they are tolerated.

The fact that public service broadcasters are among the worst offenders may be symptomatic of a more general coarseness in Scottish public life, particularly in the male culture of urban Scotland. On one of the few occasions I forced myself to read the transcript of a Holyrood committee meeting, I was taken aback by the machismo of its chairman – I expect he would have called it banter. Happily this man is no longer in public life, but it is easy to imagine him making something of a name for himself, even a living of sorts, in front of a succession of sportsmen’s dinners.

The spectacle of the week – one to make the toughest angels weep – has been the spat between Scotland’s two main political parties over aggressive, allegedly threatening, remarks by a Scottish Labour MP to an SNP opponent. As we stagger in our emotionally stunted fashion to a referendum on self-determination – Westminster’s or Alex Salmond’s, it matters little – is this really the best we can manage? After a while, every institute dinner feels the same. But, with depressing circularity, so does every Scottish political row. We are still a long way from anything resembling civilisation. We could try a little tenderness.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review