It turns out that Professor John Wells of the Spelling Society is phlegmatic about his oratorical mishandling at the well-oiled hands of David Cameron.

“Gosh, I’ve been denounced by David Cameron!” he declares in a post entitled “Fame at last”. John, Liberal Democrats and chocolate orange eaters everywhere* salute you.

It was an odd decision, that segment of Cameron’s speech. So easily exposed as painfully daft. What were they thinking:

Listen to this.
It’s the President of the Spelling Society.
He said, and I quote, “people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer.”
He’s the President of the Spelling Society.
I say that he’s wrong.

The Spelling Society, as Joe has already pointed out, is a hundred-year-old organisation dedicated to promoting and publicising the need for the reform of spelling conventions. So you might expect President of said organisation to, er, favour changes to the current system. That’s what “reform” usually means, you see. (In this case, the particular change he was favouring was the acceptance of “thru” as an alternative for “through”, “lite” for “light” and “u” for “you”, but of course this was glossed over in Cameron’s speech.)

However, it’s the tone Cameron uses here, rather than the dodgy content, that’s interesting. He’s setting himself up as a sort of Clarkson-for-the-non-masses here. “I say he’s wrong, well, because, I do! Why should a mere phonetics expert be righter than ME? I have common sense! Just like all of you!” (Common sense, of course, is a common Tory shorthand for being pig-ignorant of the finer details of something and having no intention of seeking out further information just in case it spoils the nice big simple picture.)

Of course, disagreeing with the Spelling Society’s aims is one thing. Doubtless good arguments exist for the retention of the existing creaky old spelling system. I am, myself, concerned about Prof Wells’ targeting of the apostrophe. But to attack the Society, and misrepresent them, as a matter of principle in a grandstanding speech? Laying into an expert in a particular field on no basis other than your own rhetorical say-so is political anti-intellectualism, such as we saw in the Cities Unlimited case. In this instance, more cruelly still, it’s political anti-intellectualism masquerading as a concern for high educational standards.

So the internal Tory struggle between the yin of barking-old-fart and the yang of I’m-a-liberal-really-SO-LONG-AS-YOU-AGREE-WITH-ME-ahem-ahem-sorry continues to horrify and entertain, all the more when it is personified in the words of the leader. I suppose if you essentially believe that you can only go forward by going backwards (“progressive ends through conservative means”, as the spectacularly bonkers tagline has it – an old-style grammar school teacher would lay on a cane for that one) then it must be extremely disconcerting if people who actually know something about your subject tell you the precise opposite. Fingers in ears and bray is just about your only option.

* Now, there’s a Venn diagram worth compiling. And we have another survey coming up on LDV…