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Teasing out nationalist rhetoric

14 February 2014

ALEX SALMOND attacked the Prime Minister's speech against Scottish independence last Friday by describing it as "a sermon from Mount Olympus". This was off the cuff to the BBC, but the five words are stuffed with damning assumptions.

In spite of the high regard in which the sermon is held in Scottish church culture, it here stands for authoritarian rhetoric handed down from on high. Mr Salmond is also reminding us that the Prime Minister is a posh Eton-educated Tory. His sermon is from public-school matins, not the Kirk.

The "mountain" puts Mr Cameron alone, in an undemocratic pulpit that towers above contradiction. But it could also echo Moses and Sinai, a reference that could play ambiguously.

When I first heard the radio report, I was expecting Mr Salmond to say Sinai, and therefore to be satirising Mr Cameron for arrogance. But the confusion here would have been between whether Mr Cameron was being attacked for trying to be God, or Moses. To be Moses would have been unfortunate, as Moses was the messenger of the divine will; and what could that be, in the matter of the future of the United Kingdom?

Yet there might have been some mileage to be made from mocking Mr Cameron for trying to be God, thundering away from heaven. Mr Salmond, however, avoided the confusion altogether by placing the sermon on Mount Olympus.

This made no sense of course: the Greek gods of Mount Olympus did not deliver sermons; they had better things to do on their eternal pleasure dome than to communicate with mere mortals. (When they wanted to do that, they came down the mountain and stirred up trouble, often of a sexual nature.)

The transfer of the sermon to Mount Olympus was a clever move because it mocked Mr Cameron's decision to make the speech at the Olympic velodrome, deliberately evoking memories of the 2012 Olympics; medals for British competitors (including Scots), the Danny Boyle celebration of the NHS in our green and pleasant land, and the Queen's parachuting in.

This is the kind of thing that must enrage Mr Salmond and keep him awake at night. So the hollow bowl of the velodrome was elevated into a mountain (see Isaiah 40.4), on which the image of Mr Cameron's pontificating was briefly flashed.

This was effective rhetoric, and a more refined attack than Mr Salmond's initial jibe of Mr Cameron as "a big feartie". But the five words did nothing for the classics or the Bible, which were both once revered in Scottish and British culture - a case of short-term gains leading to longer-term losses.

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