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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What's Gaelic for 'enough, already'?

For various reasons, I decided to delay watching the Scottish referendum debate, electing instead to catch up with it on media player.  It turned out to be pretty much everything I had expected and I’d be surprised if it changed anyone’s mind about how they are going to vote.  The most remarkable bit of the show occurred late on in the proceedings (at one hour twenty minutes into the programme, if you’re interested).  A young woman in the audience –in the context of a discussion about pensions, during which some folk had raised concerns about how independence might impact on them- put this question to the speakers:  

You’re talking about putting money towards pensions, but what’s being done for the Gaelic language?  As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.

I stared at the screen in disbelief.  Was it really possible that there were people walking the earth who thought that was there was a lack of funding for Gaelic? 

In the last few years, the Scottish Government has spent millions throughout the country implementing Gaelic language plans and introducing bilingual signs. I know I’m not alone in believing it absurd to have imposed these policies on the lowlands, where there has been no Gaelic heritage and where Lowland Scots has been the traditional form of speech. In fact, it’s worse than absurd; it’s an insidious form of cultural imperialism. I used to think that the Partick /Partaig sign at Partick train station was the most ridiculous and pretentious use of public money that I could think of.  Perhaps, I would joke, before that really useful Partick /Partaig sign was erected, thousands of confused folk were mixing up Partick with Habbies Howe or Ashby-de-la-Zouch. God, it must have been chaos back then!  But alas, this pointless signage is par for the course now that the SNP’s Kulturkampf is in full swing. 

According to the 2011 census, there were 58,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with the vast majority gathered in the Western Isles.  Our nation has just as many folk who nominated either Polish or one of the South Asian languages as the one they used at home, but those folk don’t get their own signage or their own TV channel.  Yes … about that TV channel.  A report in the Scottish Review a couple of years ago estimated that the annual running costs of the BBC’s Gaelic language station ‘Alba’ were around £17m.  That represented 29% of the total budget for BBC Scotland, yet it catered for only 1.1% of the Scottish population.  Some of those figures were disputed, but a percentage point here or there doesn’t alter the narrative; Gaelic culture is already massively subsidised.

The Scottish Government (i.e. the taxpayer) funds the Gaelic Media Service. So keen are they to promote Gaelic that funding to this organisation was increased from £12m in 2010 to £18m in 2012. By any standards, that’s a generous hike. A few years ago, the ‘Scots Language Working Party Report’ concluded that: 
"All media organisations, and all agencies in the cultural sector which receive Government funding, should be actively encouraged to develop specific Scots language policies.’"  
The message couldn’t have been clearer: If you want to make publicly-funded art in Scotland, learn some Gaelic.     

In addition to its regular Gaelic programmes, BBC Alba routinely covers football and rugby in what some might say is a cynical attempt to boost its viewing figures.  Fans have to endure the absurd spectacle of games being described in Gaelic, but with all of the pre and post-match interviews being conducted in English, because -guess what- none of the participants speak the lingo. The BBC boast about Alba’s ‘growing’ audience, but the truth is that if a new free-to-air station called Nazi Stormtrooper Animal Experimentation Gold started broadcasting live sport, it would also boost its viewing figures; those  ‘improved’ statistics, in that sense, are meaningless. 

Anyway … back to that nice girl in the audience at the referendum debate. As I stared at the screen in bewilderment, I realised that I was experiencing a ‘Colonel Kurtz’ moment.  Kurtz is a character in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which tells the story of an American Army Captain (Willard) who is sent on a secret mission into the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam war. His task is to assassinate a renegade colonel -Walt Kurtz, played brilliantly by Marlon Brando- who has completely lost the plot and set up his own kingdom in the jungle, lording it brutally over a local tribe.  Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is captured by Kurtz and subjected to a number of rambling monologues about war, heroism and the nature of morality. The mad colonel, explaining his conversion to the darkside, relates a story about the US Army’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population. He explains that his platoon had been sent on a mission to a local village to inoculate children against polio. The troops carried out their task but when they returned to the village a few days later, they found a bloody pile of tiny arms. The Vietcong had hacked off the limbs of every child who had been vaccinated by the hated Yankees. 
"And then I realized ... like I was shot.  Like I was shot with a diamond ... a diamond bullet right through my forehead.  I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius!  The will to do that!  Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

This realisation convinces Kurtz that his side are merely playing at war, while the Vietcong actually mean it. From that point, he starts to pursue his own agenda, free from the phoney moralistic constraints of the American chain of command. 

What’s being done for the Gaelic language?" said the young woman, firing that diamond bullet right into my skull. "As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.” 

I saw, in that instant, a perfect, complete, honest, crystalline statement of an absolute truth. I realised, with blinding clarity, that that there is literally no amount of money that will satisfy special interest groups. None. However much money you give them, however much ground you concede, they will always want more. They are so focused on their special interest that they are unable to look at the world in the way that most of the rest of us do. They are incapable of any degree of objectivity, because every aspect of their experience has to go through the filter of that special interest. 

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with having a Gaelic TV channel. I’m all for it, although I don’t see why it should have become the BBC’s role to help re-establish a culture through the medium of television.   
All I’m saying is that the next time you hear someone from a special interest group claiming that their special interest is under-funded, remember that nice young woman in the audience. In her world, ‘more’ is never going to be ‘enough’.  

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