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The Tall Thistle Syndrome: The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon

FILE PHOTO: Pro Scottish Independence rally in Glasgow

Scottish author Ian Mitchell analyses the psychological underpinnings of Scottish nationalism.

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Will Britain survive the current fashion for nationalism? This is a key question, not only for Britain, but for most modern states, since few are genuine “nation-states” of the sort that hyper-nationalists claim, quite wrongly, is “normal”. Norway is a favourite example – but are the Saami people “independent”? No, even in peaceful, sensible, prosperous, charming, spectacular Norway, there is an aspect of state structure which involves the dominance of one group over another. In fact, there is nothing to be ashamed about in that, so long as there is no mistreatment or exploitation. All the major countries within Europe—France, Spain, Germany and Italy, for example—have histories which include amalgamation, conquest and territorial re-arrangement. All politics is a question of resolving group disputes without war. Let us keep it like that. The alternative is being demonstrated now in Ukraine.

The Saami people, unlike the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland do not seek the destruction of the Norwegian state as a way of solving their private problems with their country’s governing class. Many Scots suspect that the nationalists take their cue from the Irish nationalism of a century ago which used violence to secure independence of part of the country from the United Kingdom. That was not the Norwegian approach and it is not the approach favoured by the vast majority of Scots. But some like camouflaged, bureaucratic violence. What sort of people are they?

First, they tend to be the sort of person whose main political motive in life is to cause pain to the people they hate rather than to give pleasure to the people they like. Nationalists in Scotland complain endlessly—and often quite rightly—that the government in London favours its friends. They cite the corruption of giving favours of one sort or another to their electoral base. That critique is effective because there is an element of truth in it.

What they fail to mention is that Scottish corruption, which is on a proportionately equal scale, involves depriving people they dislike of the ordinary benefits of a peaceful life in a free country. The recent passage of the Hate Crime Act (about which I have made a short film) was an outstanding example of this. It sought to criminalise even private family conversations. The police can be called involved simply on the strength of an allegation from one of those present, even a child.

Generally speaking, “establishment” corruption amounts to the unjust and unauthorised distribution of benefits, whereas “clannish” corruption is the unjust and unauthorised distribution of harm. One springs from inappropriate generosity, and the other from suppressed violence.

Secondly, angry nationalists tend to have psychological difficulties which go beyond the desire to cause pain in those they hate. Many—including the Scottish government which is why this is relevant—behave in such a way as to suggest that they are convinced that everyone, from the British government down to the “folk who live on the hill” spend their time trying to disadvantage them. They imagine negative motives when often they are absent, except within themselves. In fact, the British government is too busy with bigger problems like the economy or the war in Ukraine, to bother with the personality problems of a few sour Anglophobes in Scotland. And the folks in the big houses at the top of the town have better things to do, like getting on with enjoying themselves.

So why do some people, when they find themselves in power, enjoy causing trouble to those they dislike? In many cases, the root explanation is a personal inferiority complex. The aggressive way in which the SNP reacts to criticism is evidence of that. Anyone who disagrees with the Party is criticised for “talking Scotland down”. For years, they would say that the reason for wanting independence was to disprove those who say that Scotland, in their words, is “too wee, too weak, and too poor” to be independent. Look, they say, we could be just like Norway!

That is the mindset of people who think they have to prove they are the equal of others, when in fact no-one is contradicting them. Their problems are in their own hands. All countries are different, but Scotland, like Ireland, has a substantial minority of people who really do think that they are being held back people who wish them ill. That, after all, is essentially Vladimir Putin’s complaint about “the West” – hence the war in Ukraine.

The root of Scottish nationalism is hatred, it is a purely negative emotion, without any rational basis in historical fact. The most important evidence for that is the common—and now almost unanimous—complaint amongst people who do not vote for the SNP that they have no plan for the future after independence. What are we being offered? The answer is the destruction of the United Kingdom and nothing significant beyond that. It is all demolition and no construction.

That mirrors the psychology of the leaders. Nicola Sturgeon is perhaps the most egregious example of this tendency. She herself has confessed this to one of the country’s leading political journalists, Mandy Rhodes, in a scholarly book entitled “Scottish National Party Leaders” (about which I have made another short film). Sturgeon said explicitly that hatred of Mrs Thatcher, “and everything she stands for”, has been “the motivation for my entire political career” (p. 358).

Since Mrs Thatcher has been out of power for over thirty years, and dead for fifteen, this is an imaginary threat. Sturgeon can do nothing about Mrs Thatcher, only about her own memory of powerlessness. Her hatred springs, therefore, not from a political root, but from a psychological one. The destruction of Britain is not so much intended to make Scotland better as to conceal the inner weaknesses of successful people who detest success in others. To adapt a famous Australian expression, this is an example of the “the tall thistle syndrome”.

But Scotland is waking up to the problem. We see that rule by haters is going to neither humane nor productive. It will be more like Mr Putin’s rule in Russia. Aggressive nationalism is not the mood of the majority of Scots. It is sad only that it has taken the experience of nationalist government to make that clear to most. But let’s be positive: at least we have avoided war.

Ian Mitchell is the author of:

Hating Tories: How Nicola Sturgeon Got into Government (1970-2007)


The Justice Factory (second edition): Can the Rule of Law Survive in Twenty-First Century Scotland?

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Briefings For Britain