We are all familiar with the story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. It resonates because it fits our lived experience. Pride often comes before a fall.
The former British foreign secretary, David Owen (who trained as a psychiatrist) has noted this as one of the abiding traits of politics.
He calls it “Hubris Syndrome”. Most politicians succumb (the late John Hume was the exception that proved the rule). Hubris happens when self-confidence combines with self-righteousness.
If you want to see the Hubris Syndrome at its fullest, follow the Twitter feed of Donald Trump. (If you want to keep your sanity, don’t.)
Boris Johnson has it, Priti Patel’s version is both acute and chronic, indeed most of the British government front bench has it (they teach it in Eton).
Arlene Foster definitely has it, and anyone who witnessed the twists and turns of Michelle O’Neill after the Storey funeral will know that she has it too.
One political leader so far immune has been Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon – the individual most likely to bring Scotland to independence and precipitate the final demise of the United Kingdom.
Many in Ireland are banking on her being the catalyst leading to the creation of a united Ireland too. But the news from Scotland is that the SNP is on the point of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Governing is tough, and Sturgeon’s up-front approach has served her well, particularly in the coronavirus crisis. Unlike Johnson’s, her messaging has been clear, and uncompromising. She has been seen to lead from the front.
But even there, outcomes have been dire – particularly for those in care homes whose needs were ignored. She will pay a high political price when the inquiry comes – which it will.
But the virus is but one challenge. Her party is split between those who want to press for independence now and those – including Sturgeon – who want to play a longer game.
The nastiness is spilling into the public arena, with issues such as sexuality, trans rights and antisemitism being used as proxies in the debate. At the weekend, an email from SNP MP Alyn Smith emerged in which he suggested the party’s national executive committee had become bloated by people promoting a rights agenda. Calling for them to be removed, he said: “… equalities are close to my heart but not as close as independence”.
This type of absolutist language does not play well with those Scots who are not natural SNP supporters, but who have been impressed by its record in power and have been prepared to vote for it.
Their faith in Sturgeon has also been shattered by the handling of this year’s ‘exam’ grades. Sturgeon, and her beleaguered education minister John Swinney, have said they are committed to closing the attainment gap between pupils.
Yet the moderation process, introduced in place of exams cancelled because of Covid-19, penalised students from poorer backgrounds disproportionately. The attainment gap has been effectively institutionalised by the state, and by a government that claims to be on the side of the weak not the wealthy.
One further challenge faces Sturgeon. The fallout expected following her predecessor Alex Salmond’s acquittal of sexual assault charges – was postponed by the virus.
She is now under investigation by the Scottish Parliament after her government admitted an internal investigation into Salmond was unlawful. And Salmond’s supporters are out for retribution too, believing him to be the victim of political assassination.
Such is the growing pressure on Sturgeon – who insists she wishes to serve another full term as First Minister following next year’s Holyrood elections – that she warned her party at the weekend that internal fighting would turn voters off.
It will, the only thing saving her is an ineffective and incapable opposition. But at some point, it will get its act together and the SNP dream of independence may be gone for a generation.
This column appeared in The Irish News on August 11 2020