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.