While at university in Fife, back in the Middle Ages, I encountered the philosophical musings of the Danish Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard.

All in all, not the cheeriest cove. His outlook on life appeared to chime with that of his fellow Dane, Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. You know, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Kierkegaard’s bestsellers include Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread. I expect, by now, you are discerning a pattern.

As I recall, there is a song which enjoins us to “brush up our Shakespeare”. Not sure if the Prime Minister ever follows that advice, but I reckon he has been catching up on his Kierkegaard.

There is an election pending which Team Sunak might be expected to view with a degree of Danish dread.

In response, the PM appears to feel that the citizens could use a dose of fear and trembling. In a speech this week, he set out a list of the forces assembled to threaten our security and sew division.

The range opened with states such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. An “axis of authoritarian powers”.

The Herald: Sir Keir StarmerSir Keir Starmer (Image: free)

Mr Sunak then turned to the threat domestic. From anti-semitic and anti-Muslim actions to “gender activists hijacking children’s sex education”.

Not content with these categories, Mr Sunak added one more. Scottish nationalists “trying to tear our United Kingdom apart”.

Cue SNP fury. Questioning Mr Sunak in the Commons, Stephen Flynn, the SNP Westminster leader, called the comments “puerile”. He urged him to rise to the standards befitting his office.

In a faintly diffident fashion, the PM sought to deny that he had, in effect, compared Mr Flynn’s endeavours to those of Vladimir Putin. Mr Sunak then rallied to attack the SNP over their record in government.

Now, it is indeed true that the SNP’s aim is to repeal the 1707 Act of Union – while retaining the 1603 regal linkage. Such is scarcely a secret.

Questioned on the wireless, Douglas Ross, who leads the Scottish Tories, made that very point. He said the SNP wanted to “tear up the United Kingdom” – and thus posed a “threat” to the realm.

Tories and other supporters of the Union are plainly entitled to warn voters as to the intent of the SNP: one, to repeat, they scarcely disguise. Such is common fare in Scottish partisan politics.

But Mr Sunak went further. He did not simply dissent from the SNP’s arguments. He chose instead to feature the SNP in what was effectively a list of hate figures.

This conjunction was facile. The tactics and approach of Scottish Nationalists are markedly different from the other organisations listed by Mr Sunak.

Scottish Nationalists tend to use the formula offered by John Swinney on assuming office – again. That independence is “normal” for a nation like Scotland and that they will seek to persuade people as to that point.

Read more: Brian Taylor: What place for independence in Swinney’s plans?

Read more:  Brian Taylor: Congratulations Mr Swinney - your troubles are just starting

It is open to people in Scotland to accept that formula – or to turn it down, as they did in 2014. Again, that is in marked contrast to the other targets listed by Mr Sunak who, he said, were abusing liberal democracy.

So what might lie behind the PM’s remarks? Reach again for that dusty copy of Kierkegaard on your bookshelf. This is the politics of fear.

Now, in one sense, I understand the PM’s approach. People are fretful. Anxious. I have never witnessed such a persistent period of disquiet and dread.

It is the cost of living, a stagnant economy dating back to the banking crash of 2008. It is global conflict: Ukraine, Gaza.

It is also, especially in England but not absent in Scotland, fear of the other, of the outsider. That is why the discourse over the small boats is so salient.

The PM is saying – he can do no other – that his actions on the economy, immigration and defence are working, are beginning to ease the pain. That people should consequently fear and reject the Labour and SNP alternatives.

That is the underpinning to his extremism remarks. But it also explains another intriguing comment from the PM.

After his party lost ground in the English local elections, Mr Sunak was moved to forecast a hung Parliament at Westminster after the pending UK General Election, most likely in the autumn.

Why? Why posit a Labour advance, even one that falls short of overall victory? Once again, the politics of fear. Mr Sunak wants us to believe that Sir Keir Starmer would be beholden to another party or parties. That his actions in office would inevitably be compromised.

To be clear, this is an understandable tactic, if driven somewhat by desperation. And it is an approach which has been used previously.

Remember the Conservative poster in 2015 of Alex Salmond, with Ed Miliband in his pocket. Basically, the message was: vote Miliband, get Salmond.

Today? Different leaders, same strategy. Suggest to folk, especially in England, that Labour would have to rely upon the SNP – or the Liberal Democrats.

Labour’s response? Anticipate the issue by disavowing any prospect of a deal with the SNP (the Lib Dems might be a different question, depending upon Parliamentary arithmetic.)

To be clear, building upon popular apprehension is by no means a novel concept in politics.

In 1983, Labour’s Neil Kinnock famously warned voters not to be ordinary, young, ill, or old – in the event of a Thatcher victory. Which duly occurred.

The Herald:

However, there was a stylised, thoughtful weariness to the Kinnock oratory. By then, he knew he was losing.

Perhaps Rishi Sunak is reflecting the same emotion, albeit with less elegance.

By contrast to the over-reaching Sunak rhetoric, Keir Starmer goes for under-statement. His six-point pledge card sets out early, limited steps. Nothing too ambitious.

Which, understandably, drew criticism – including from the SNP who said he failed to mention Scotland.

Sir Keir’s response at the launch was that promises must be deliverable. Otherwise, you “beat the hope out of people”.

John Swinney has adopted a comparable tactic. No bombast, no boasting. Seek consensus.

The politics of fear can work. It can, arguably, be legitimate if deployed against a genuine, measurable threat.

But perhaps, in these troubled times, the people might prefer the language of reassurance.