If Boris (the Chancer) Johnson were ever to become prime minister, the implications for the Scottish political scene would be substantial. Many Scots across the political spectrum see him as representing a set of values and attitudes that they deplore: arrogant privilege; a veneer of bonhomie and insincere charm; a deep sense of entitlement deriving from wealth; public school/Oxbridge cronyism; a London metropolitan perspective that shows little understanding of the rest of the country.
With the Chancer in charge, there would be winners and losers in Scotland. Perhaps the biggest loser would be Ruth Davidson, who has been attempting, with some success, to rebrand the party north of the border, appealing to parts of the electorate that would not normally vote Conservative. Her no-nonsense style, which has managed to ruffle the feathers of nationalists, would be badly undermined by the election of a UK Tory leader firmly in the patrician mode, complete with quirky touches and a rackety past.
Once Scottish Labour gets through its current bout of internal blood-letting, it could gain some benefit from the ascendancy of the Chancer. Traditional supporters, who had perhaps flirted for a time with the SNP, would be reminded that the old class war was still alive and that, when under pressure, the Tories reverted to type. The 1960s rhetoric, which has served Labour so badly in recent years, could suddenly be in fashion again.
But the biggest winners would be the SNP. They would have a field day, claiming that the elevation of Johnson showed that, despite the achievements of devolution, Scotland was still treated as a unionist outpost, a minor appendage to the interests of the south-east of England. Only independence, they would argue, offered the opportunity to assert national identity and reject a discredited UK political class. A second referendum would return to the top of their agenda.
If Theresa May is to be replaced before or after some kind of Brexit deal, the Conservatives should think carefully about their choice of successor. They would do well to revisit the Chancer's car-crash radio interview with Eddie Mair in 2013, in which his integrity was called into question and he was described as 'a nasty piece of work.' It reveals a great deal about our political culture that someone who inspires neither respect nor trust is being seriously considered as a possible future prime minister.
In 1959 the scientist and novelist C P Snow (1905-80) gave a lecture entitled 'The Two Cultures' which provoked a lively debate about the state of intellectual life in western society. Snow's thesis was that there was a deep divide between the sciences and the humanities and that this was acting as a hindrance to tackling some of the world's major problems. He challenged the arrogance of literary intellectuals who were often contemptuous about the cultural understanding of scientists. He asked how many of the former could explain the second law of thermodynamics. This, he argued, was the scientific equivalent of knowing something about the plays of Shakespeare. He also suggested that the traditional education of British elites, with its over-emphasis on the humanities, meant that they were ill-equipped to address the challenges of the modern world.
Snow's analysis was fiercely attacked by the influential literary critic, F R Leavis (1895-1978), who described Snow as 'a public relations man' for the scientific establishment, but his critique was seriously weakened by its highly personalised nature. Others addressed the topic in more measured tones and argued for ways to reduce the divide and find a mediating course between the two cultures.
The American writer Siri Hustvedt has recently used the Snow/Leavis debate as a way of raising important questions about the state of contemporary intellectual culture. Has the growth of inter-disciplinary approaches to knowledge helped to build bridges between different modes of understanding? How has the impact of feminism, popular culture and technology affected intellectual currency? Has the uncertain political climate – e.g. the instability of the Trump administration in the United States – encouraged a form of anti-intellectualism that explains the rise of shallow populism, uninformed by the insights of either the humanities or the sciences?
There is another possibility. It can be argued that all intellectual traditions have been swallowed up by the pervasiveness of corporate culture, an economically-driven world view which places organisational loyalty above commitment to the truth, and which produces conformist clones unable to think for themselves. The effects can be seen not only in business but also in the public and voluntary sectors, where the language of policy documents increasingly takes the form of what the novelist Iain Pears has called 'bizarre corporate pidgin.' Once the language of intelligent discourse has been destroyed, our capacity to have any sensible discussion about the state of contemporary culture is effectively undermined.
It is the season for party conferences. I have never had the dubious pleasure of attending one of these events. If I were to do so, I suspect I would give up the will to live before the end of the first day. The prospect of having to listen to an endless succession of tedious speeches, with the audience expected to applaud at predictable soundbites and laugh at ponderous jokes, would be more than the human spirit could bear.
Then there is the unsavoury cast of characters one would encounter. I suppose party members might look forward to seeing leading politicians in the flesh but I am quite content to view them from a distance on a television screen, with the option of switching off at any time. Seeing Michael Gove or John McDonnell at close quarters might not be good for the digestion.
Speeches by cabinet ministers and their shadow counterparts are carefully stage-managed, with little prospect of anything interesting emerging, especially as they are usually thin on content and stuffed with the vacuous language of public relations. A little fun can occasionally be derived from the contributions of party activists who may have bees in their bonnet and be inclined to go 'off message.'
UKIP conferences can be relied upon to produce a series of politically incorrect utterances. By contrast, the cult followers of the SNP display all the marks of brainwashing, rarely departing from the approved doctrine of faith laid down by the leadership.
Like the Edinburgh festival, party conferences have 'fringe' events. One commentator, Paul Breen, has said that fringe events 'are often where the best stuff's happening. They serve as points of meeting, places of learning, and a barometer of party mood, beneath the official radar.' I fear he over-states the attraction of the side-shows. Most take the form of lobbying by interest or pressure groups seeking to advance particular causes. The occasional guest appearance of 'big beasts' from the past merely serves to remind us of the continuity of political decline in Britain. By contrast, a solitary paddle along Brighton beach would seem greatly appealing.