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Angus MacNeil and the Narcissism of Small Differences

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Eddie Barnes

Eddie Barnes is Campaign Director of Our Scottish Future

A few days after announcing he was leaving the SNP and becoming an independent, the Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil spills more in today’s Herald newspaper.

There is not a lot of love between him and former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. “The deference that you were expected to show Nicola whenever she spoke was a big part of the problem,” he tells interviewer Kevin McKenna.

This comes a few days after Mr MacNeil declared that the SNP had become “utterly clueless” about gaining independence and had stopped bothering to pursue it properly. “It’s not the Tories who are the main blocks to this. We accuse them of being anti-democratic but they’re not. Rather it’s our own inertia that’s become the main problem,” he tells Mr McKenna today.

Mr MacNeil’s Jay Bulworth moment is hugely enjoyable viewing for most of us. It’s also worthy of a little light psychoanalysis.

“The narcissism of small differences”, the phrase famously coined by Sigmund Freud, argues that the more people or communities share things in common, the more likely they are engage in feuds and disputes over extremely minor things. “Of two neighbouring towns each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt”, Freud wrote. All of us, thought Freud, have an innate need to feel distinct so when we come across someone almost entirely alike, it threatens our sense of uniqueness. Hence, instead of acknowledging our similarities, we take the narcissistic path, seeking out any tiny differences that show we are still special.

Back to Mr MacNeil and his beef with his former boss. Long-time followers of the SNP will recall that, for some years now, Mr MacNeil has been demanding a more robust approach towards independence. Back in 2020, he wanted the SNP to adopt a new position. Instead of pursuing independence via a referendum (which the UK government was opposing) he argued it should just declare that a pro-independence majority at the Scottish Parliament should suffice. His “Plan B” motion declared that such a result should be “a mandate from the people of Scotland to commence independence negotiations with the UK Government”.

At the time Ms Sturgeon described such an idea as a “unionist trap”. But then – lo! – last summer, Ms Sturgeon reversed her ferret. Next year’s general election would indeed be a “de facto referendum”; if the SNP won a majority of seats or votes (I can’t remember which now) that would be taken as a mandate for separation; negotiations with the UK Government would follow.

Nicola Sturgeon with Angus MacNeil

Mr MacNeil had won! This position was to be rubber-stamped at a special party conference in March. Except that, as we all now know, before that happened Ms Sturgeon suddenly did a Jacinda and walked off stage left. Now another conference will be held in October when, it appears, her successor Humza Yousaf is likely to adopt the MacNeil doctrine too. After all, he told a meeting of the SNP in Dundee a few weeks ago that if the SNP was to gain a majority of seats (or maybe votes, I can’t remember which) then it would have a “mandate” for independence. “A vote for the SNP is a vote for Scotland to become independent,” he said. 

You’d think Mr MacNeil would be cock-a-hoop. But no! He has quit, citing his former party’s “total failure” to, erm, hang on….propose exactly what he was calling for a few years ago. Eh? Have I missed something here? Mr MacNeil could right now be lauding himself as the wise prophet of fundamentalism; for where he led, both Ms Sturgeon (before she quit) and Mr Yousaf (I think) have finally followed. Except he’s now walked too.

Where’s Freud when you need him? Perhaps old Sigmund would have been able to explain it all. Perhaps he may have speculated that what Mr MacNeil can’t handle is that his doctrine was nicked by the detested Nicola and the aimless Humza and, having seen it nicked, he’s now decided to storm off in a huff as a way of affirming the uniqueness of his fundamentalist identity. Narcissism, moi?

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe this is just what happens to all political parties which have grown tired; particularly those political parties who lack anything resembling a strategy and which, in the SNP’s case, are now realising that all its available options – from a real referendum to a defacto referendum to whatever Mr Yousaf comes up with in a few months time – are all entirely pointless for so long as the Scottish population continues to display very little appetite for an immediate re-run of the referendum we already had.

Let’s leave the cod psychology and return to politics. Where Mr MacNeil is now assuredly correct (as pointed out amusingly this week by Alex Massie) is that the SNP hasn’t pursued independence seriously. Instead it relied too heavily on boosterism; on a belief that if desirable things we said often enough, they would magically happen. It relied too heavily on events, expecting events to continue to go in its favour. But then they stopped doing so. Then Nicola quit. And the camper van story came along. And lacking even the comfort of a strong leader in whom to believe, the party is now turning in on itself.

Unless and until the SNP holds a proper reckoning about independence, its loss in 2014, and its failure to front up about the costs of separation, this will only continue.

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