Sturgeon skating square

Did Ice Queen Murrell learn from Sun King Louis?

Hamish Gobson’s diary: the view from across the Uisge

          8 June 2023

I HAVE SPENT much of the last week engrossed in thoughts provoked by a book recently published by Princeton University Press about the psychology of the leaders of ancien régime France.

          The book is called France Before 1789: the Unravelling of an Absolutist Regime, and the author is Jon Elster. Elster is an elderly Norwegian philosopher and political theorist who is a professor at Columbia University in New York, one of the nine colleges of education founded in that country before the Declaration of Independence. I mention that, because this book about France is soon to be sequelled by one which undertakes a comparable analysis of the pre-Independence regime in the southern part of British North America at about the same time. A third will compare the two revolutions which followed.

          I have not yet seen the American book, but this one is interesting enough in itself. The nature of the interest is encapsulated in the subtitle. The words “unravelling” and “absolutist” caught my eye. Might there be, I wondered, any parallels with the unravelling of Mrs Murrell’s regime in Scotland, with its absolutist pretentions and its generally out of date, let-them-eat-cake feel?

          I was not disappointed.

          There are two main parallels, one directly psychological and the other indirectly so. The first is the brittle lack of self-confidence that was such an obvious feature of Mrs L-driver Murrell, even in the high-rolling days when she played Nicola Sturgeon to packed houses up and down the Central Belt. The same, Professor Elster tells us, applied to Louis XIV, who stole even more from France than the SNP has from Scotland. The second theme, financial incontinence, is related to that, but space forbids any further mention of it here. Let us therefore concentrate on the consciousness of personal inadequacy in people who are ostensibly very powerful.

          It may seem perverse to discuss Holyrood and Versailles in the same breath but when Elster writes about Le Roi Soleil four hundred years ago he might almost have been referring to The Stunted Stoater four months ago:

           “When an average individual was imbued with an inordinate desire for glory, he could not succeed by the route of competence. Instead, he used his equally inordinate power to remove or resist competence in others. The paradoxical result was that the means he chose defeated their end.” (all quotes pp. 146-9)

          Elster has a cool, clear style which is blessedly free of modern academic pretentionism. This lends additional force to his point that Louis was a man of average intelligence who was well aware that governing, even in—perhaps especially in—pre-Revolutionary France, required and sometimes got men of outstanding gifts and talent. These men made him look stupid, conventional and culturally shallow. They were so much more sophisticated than he knew himself to be.

          It is true that, even in his hot-headed youth, Louis XIV never went so far as to dance to Duran Duran at Frosty’s disco at Irvine ice rink. But still, he seems to have been shot through with feelings of cultural inadequacy which must be similar to those which provoke a certain sort of teenager to flaunt their pointy botties in public while skating backwards to the sound of amplified synth-pop. Elster does not mince his words:

 “Louis XIV had what amounted to an inferiority complex.”

          He quotes the Comte de Saint-Simon—admittedly an unfriendly critic, but still a respected political commentator of the Napoleonic period. He wrote that Louis “feared sense, talent, elevated sentiments even in his generals and ministers.” A similar complex would explain why Mrs Murrell used to appoint such crucifying duds to her cabinets – she was worried about competition for her fragile eminence. Could Jeanne Freeman be a threat on the political ice, she must have wondered? Did Shona Robison have more posters in her bedroom of Simon Le Bon than she? Might anyone important remember skinhead Johnny’s second name, you know: the elderly snore who does the books?

          Saint-Simon said that Louis was even “tired of the superior sense and merit” of his former ministers. They posed no threat, but still they had to be humiliated, in public if possible. One thinks here of Alex “Big Breakfast” Salmond, whom Mrs Murrell definitely thought of—with some justification, I would say—as being “superior” to her in the conventional political arts. She clearly hoped Lady Dorrian would smack his unpointy botty for her.

          Finally, Elster quotes the French thinker in a way which reminded me irresistibly of Hamsta Yousaf, the guy who is turning the SNP wheel in the Holyrood cage at the moment. Saint-Simon described an ambitious courtier, Mlle. de Chausserai, who got what she wanted from Louis,

“by pretending to be idiotic, ignorant and indifferent about everything, and giving him the pleasant feeling of being entirely superior to her.”

          Elster emphasises one key fact: “The King chose incompetent agents because of their incompetence.” (emphasis in original). This is not speculation. Apparently Louis himself once tweeted his suspicions about independent spirits in government: “I thought it not in my interest to choose men with more eminent dignity, because, needing to establish my own reputation in all domains, it was important that the public knew, by the [lower] rank of those who served me, that I did not intend to share my authority with them, and that they themselves, knowing who they were, should not conceive greater hopes than the ones I chose to give them.”

          It is hardly necessary to extend the comparison further. No need to mention the “immoderate and limitless desire for glory”, or the “amour-propre [that] reached monstrous proportions”, which afflicted Louis’ successors, Louis XV and XVI. One observer wrote about the former saying he preferred “to entrust the troops to mediocre men, who are incapable of troubling them, but are passive, docile towards all wills and all systems.” Do I hear faint echoes of the graveyard choir in Victoria Quay or St Andrew’s Hoose?

          Between them, Elster’s three Louis provide a better description of Scottish government today than we ever get from the likes of Sir John Curtice and Iain Macwhirlpool. But what of the future, now that Mrs Murrell is a political corpse?

          I, for one, am not encouraged by the sight of Hamsta Yousaf’s knees. A South African rugby-playing friend of mine visited Great Todday recently to study my collection of Dreghorn seaweed. Dallying one afternoon in The Puffer, we noticed a replay of King Charles’s Coronation on the public bar television. Nice, slender little Hamsta Minista danced by on the way into the Abbey, with Mrs Yousaf posing demurely on his arm. The Colossus of Continuity was wearing a short kilt of unknown provenance. Seeing what this garment revealed, the old Japie shouted out to the whole bar, “Man, I tell you, if I had legs like that, I’d walk on my hands, eh!”

          Perhaps we are lucky Highland Hamsta did no such thing. It could have been quite revealing in other ways. He’d probably have ended up sucking his own sporran.


Hamish Gobson lives on the Hebridean isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór) and features in Nicola Sturgeon: the Years of Ascent (1970-2007) – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2022) – available on Amazon and also reviewed here by Tom Gallagher.

Also written by Ian Mitchell is The Justice Factory (second edition): Can the Rule of Law Survive in Twenty-First Century Scotland? which considers the future of liberal democracy, taking Scotland as an example.

If you appreciated this article please share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here. Help support ThinkScotland publishing these articles by making a donation here.

Photo of the gate of Versailles by UlyssePixel from Adobe Stock; photo of Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay skating courtesy of Getty Images Europ


Weekly Trending

Scroll to Top