Last week's release of examination results for Scottish pupils provided an opportunity for John Swinney to congratulate the successful candidates and to pay tribute to their teachers and parents. In an article in the Herald, he used the occasion to present a positive view of the state of the education system, in contrast to the many negative reports that have featured in recent months. He defended Curriculum for Excellence as 'the right reform for Scottish education,' and restated the government's commitment to 'close the attainment gap and raise standards.'
All this was unsurprising. Politicians are skilled at choosing an opportune moment to get their message across. Examination passes represent a 'good news' story and a chance to claim that policies are working. What was interesting about the article, however, was not its content but the manner in which it was written.
Perhaps Mr Swinney wrote (or dictated) it quickly. Even so, it is likely to have been subject to a check by an official. Civil servants are expected to protect the reputations of their ministers. Was Mr Swinney given any advice about the language and style of his piece? On any detached assessment, it was a very shoddy piece of writing. It is doubtful whether it would have been considered publishable if anyone else had submitted it.
The article is less than 600 words long but it is full of clumsy repetitions. Throughout, the language is upbeat and boastful, with words such as 'excellence', 'strength', 'integrity' and 'success' featuring prominently. The phrases 'young people' and 'our young people' are used a total of eight times. 'Our' carries messages of possessiveness and sentimentality. It is perhaps intended to forestall any criticism of examination standards, at the same time invoking nationalistic sentiments.
An ability to write decent prose is probably not at the top of the list of essential requirements for a government minister, but it is reasonable to expect something better from the person responsible for education, especially at a time when literacy standards are under scrutiny. Mr Swinney would be well advised to have someone competent to look at his articles before they are released. This should not be a paid-up SNP 'adviser' who would be inclined to tell him what he wants to hear. Nor should it be a graduate in the dark arts of public relations, for whom knowledge and truth are malleable concepts. It should be someone with a broad general education, well-read and sensitive to the nuances of language: in fact, someone with the skills Mr Swinney claims he wants to promote.
Many older people are likely to sympathise with a comment by one of the characters, Louisa, in Mick Herron's spy novel 'Slow Horses'. She is a low-grade intelligence officer who has to spend her days trawling through social networking sites on the internet, looking out for people who might be of interest to the security services. Sometimes she assumes a fictitious identity in the hope of encouraging exchanges with potential terrorists. It is a dispiriting way to pass the time. Louisa observes: 'To pass for real in the world of the web she'd had to forget everything she'd ever known about grammar, wit, spelling, manners and literary criticism.' Linguistic precision and courtesy would run the risk of exposing her as a fake. Coarseness and fluency in street language are essential entry requirements in the community of subversives.
We are familiar with stories of online abuse, not only of people in the public eye, but of ordinary folk who may have attracted the attention of those who take pleasure in subjecting others to various forms of nastiness. Often their posts are expressed in semi-literate tirades, containing threats and obscenities. The bile and anger behind the comments can be detected not only in the content but also in the disregard of any concern for correct spelling, punctuation and sentence construction. The scale of the problem suggests that borderline derangement is quite widespread in society.
It is not necessary to look for evidence of this trend only at the wackier end of social networking. Scanning readers' online responses to newspaper reports provides many examples, though the most offensive posts are usually quickly deleted. The anonymity of the internet, where it is easy for people to use pseudonyms, offers a partial explanation of the trend: the normal constraints of ordinary social behaviour do not operate. But there are other possible causes. It has been suggested, for example, that some depressed people are news junkies. Dissatisfied with their own lives, they take their frustration out on others whose success, or notoriety, feeds their anger. The emotions of envy, jealousy, spite and revenge can find an outlet in the shadowy world of internet trolling. In this environment, it is hardly surprising that 'literary criticism' is regarded as an effete luxury.
In the course of an interview, the Scottish writer Louise Welsh stated: 'If anyone tells you that Scotland is a...socialist country...well, we're not.' The remark was prompted by a question about changing attitudes to sexuality in Scotland, but it has wider resonance. In Scotland, we are very susceptible to various forms of self-deception and disinclined to question myths that serve to make us feel good about ourselves. There are also those who are adept at exploiting accounts that help to consolidate their own positions by promoting comforting fictions that appeal to the general population.
The invocation of a loose interpretation of 'socialism' has often been employed by (but has not been confined to) the political left. Over the years, an improbable mixture of Knox, Burns, Marx and Red Clydeside has been mobilised in support of a reassuring version of Scottish democracy and its claimed civic virtues, most notably a belief in egalitarianism. In recent years, this has been reinforced by the work of leading writers who have sought to portray and celebrate the 'authenticity' of working-class voices. There has been a strong vein of sentimentality in some of these depictions, whether set in gritty urban environments or in bleak rural landscapes.
It is worth asking who have been the main beneficiaries of the prevailing 'socialist' mindset. There are still vast areas of entrenched privilege in Scotland – among the aristocracy and gentry, the political elite, the upper levels of the civil service and the legal profession, the financial and business sector, and in a wide range of public and private institutions. It suits them very well to appear to subscribe to a view that Scottish society embodies principles of equality and justice, provided these principles do not actually impinge to any extent on their secure lives. Among others who have done well from this narrative have been Labour party councillors and officials, senior trade unionists and a broad spectrum of upwardly mobile professionals. This last group routinely uses the language of fairness and opportunity in explaining and justifying its role, at the same time seeking to advance its own status and benefits.
When the SNP began to oust Labour as the majority party in Scotland, it sought to present itself as a left-of-centre movement. This was never very convincing and has become progressively less so. Increased centralisation and authoritarianism have undermined its credentials as a party that is genuinely responsive to the aspirations of ordinary people. Students of history will be familiar with the ease with which 'nationalist' movements can move from being 'radical' and 'liberating' to being oppressive and totalitarian.
Now the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson are trying to claim that they are the real advocates for ordinary working people. Much has been made of the modest background of some of their new MSPs and MPs. Conveniently airbrushed from the account is the continuing power and influence of traditional Tory networks. They see advantages in paying lip service to some of the features of the 'socialist' myth, though they would never use that term itself.
Louise Welsh's comment suggests that we are inclined to pander to a complacent version of national identity, in which we see ourselves as the salt of the earth, with higher ethical principles than our southern neighbours and a strong commitment to social, not just economic, values. Isn't it time we got real? Scotland has provided fertile ground for global capitalists and, in some cases, money launderers. It is a deeply divided society in terms of health, education, power and wealth. It is just as subject to media manipulation and consumerist culture as other parts of the UK. We urgently need a reality check on our self-image.