Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.
(David Mundell – photo from BBC website)
As Secretary of State for Scotland at a time when we have our own devolved government, David Mundell is a worthy inheritor of the title Toom Tabard, originally given to John Balliol, whose claim to the throne of Scotland was dependent on his being vassal to Edward I of England. ‘Toom Tabard’ means ‘empty coat’ and signifies one who has the trappings of power without the substance.
Mr Mundell, never a man to shy away from a cliche when it presents itself, today delivered this curious pronouncement:
“The people of Scotland sent Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP a very, very clear message in last week’s general election – with the cataclysmic performance of the SNP compared to the 2015 general election. They want that threat of an independence referendum taken off the table.
“Nicola Sturgeon should not be in denial about that. She should wake up, smell the coffee and be absolutely clear with the people of Scotland, as now members of her own party are indicating, and take that threat off the table.”
As others have pointed out, an election result that leaves you with more seats than all your opponents combined (nearly half as many again – 35 to 24) is the sort of cataclysm any party would gladly suffer. In the five elections prior to 2015, the SNP won 3 seats in 1992, 6 seats in 1997 and 5 in 2001 (all from a total of 72 contested) then 6 seats in both 2005 and 2010, when the number contested was 59. If Mr Mundell is looking for a realistic baseline to measure from, then the low single figures of that 18 year span are surely more indicative than the astonishing 56 out of 59 seats the SNP won in 2015. The only cataclysm in recent elections in Scotland has been the collapse of the pro-Union vote.
(In the interests of historical accuracy, it should be remembered that the ‘union’ referred to in the titles ‘Scottish Unionist’ and ‘Scottish Conservative and Unionist’ is the Irish union of 1800, not the Scottish Union of 1707: it was Irish Home Rule that the Unionists opposed – so it is better to call the Scottish anti-independence parties – Tory, Labour and Liberal – pro-Union rather than Unionist)
It is against that background that we should consider Mr Mundell’s bizarre notion that an independence referendum constitutes a ‘threat’ – to what, and to whom?
The Conservative election campaign in Scotland was, to say the least, peculiar. It was led by Ruth Davidson and consisted entirely of the repeated assertion that the SNP were only interested in a second Independence Referendum, which they were ‘always banging on about’, to the extent that they were ‘neglecting the day-job’ of running Scotland. The campaign’s actual policy content was zero.
The oddnesss of this is worth dwelling on: Ruth Davidson, technically, had no involvement in the General Election, since she is not a Westminster MP but leads her party in the devolved parliament in Holyrood. Likewise, the ‘day job’ of running Scotland falls to the devolved government and has nothing to do with Westminster; finally, the question of a second independence referendum was not an issue in the General Election: it had already been voted on by the Scottish Parliament on 28 March, with MSPs voting by 69 to 59 in favour of seeking permission for a referendum before the UK leaves the EU.
To reiterate: the Conservative campaign was exclusively concerned with a matter that was not at issue in the election and had in any case already been settled by the legitimate authority. This suggests that if there is an obsession with the independence referendum, it is on the part of the Conservatives rather than the SNP (who, incidentally, made no mention of a second referendum in their campaign).
And the obsession is not with winning a second referendum, but with preventing it from taking place. The logic of this is worth examining. The position of the Conservatives (and indeed the other pro-union parties, who largely parroted the Conservative campaign) is that it would be better for us all if the question of independence was off the agenda for at least a generation. That, of course, is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint, whether one agrees with it or not.
Now, if a second independence referendum repeated or indeed enhanced the result of the first in 2014 (55% No, 45% Yes) it is clear that the matter would be settled for a generation: none of the present pro-independence politicians would feel there was much credibility in going to the country a third time having lost twice.
The inference to be drawn from that is that if the Conservatives and their pro-union allies were confident that a second referendum would deliver the same result as the first, or better (from their point of view), then they would be keen to have one, since it would deliver exactly what they want: the removal of independence from the political agenda for the foreseeable future, with accompanying discomfiture of the SNP.
But, as we have seen, they are not keen: in fact, they are pathologically opposed to having a second referendum, to the extent, as we have seen, of making it the sole focus of their General election campaign, even though it was not an issue. What inference can be drawn from that?
Logically, there is only one: that they fear the Scottish people have changed their minds since 2014 and that a second referendum will reverse the decision of the first. On the evidence, that fear is well-grounded.
In the 2014 referendum, Scots were assured that if they wished to remain part of the EU, they should vote No, as (it was claimed) a Yes vote would jeopardise Scotland’s membership: they would have to reapply, with no guarantee of being admitted. In the 2016 EU referendum Scotland voted by a substantial majority (62%) to remain (as did Northern Ireland, by a smaller margin – 55%) but the UK vote overall was to leave (though only 17 million out of an electorate of 46 million voted to do so – 16 million wished to remain and 13 million did not vote).
Furthermore, as the results of the 2015 and 2017 elections, measured against the baseline of the five previous elections, suggest, there has been a sea-change in Scottish politics: the great majority now favour a party whose principal aim is Scottish independence.
In other words, since 2014 there have been two substantive changes: the UK government is committed to a course which the Scottish people have emphatically rejected; and from having minimal support, the pro-independence party has risen spectacularly to a position of dominance which, even at its reduced 2017 figures, any of the pro-union parties would give their eye-teeth for, and probably sell their own grandmothers into the bargain.
Add to this that a minority Conservative government is now seeking alliance with the DUP, who are simultaneously asserting that they will pursue ‘the interest of the people of Northern Ireland’ (who voted to remain in the EU) yet will support Brexit on the grounds that, as a Unionist party, they must follow what the UK as a whole voted for, and you have a situation which is confused, to say the least.
The paradoxical Mr Mundell views the SNP’s continued electoral dominance as a cataclysmic failure, and grounds for their abandoning a second independence referendum (which has already been democratically decided on), yet seems unable to draw any similar conclusions from his own party’s having called an election expressly to strengthen their hand in Brexit negotiations only to lose their majority. In fact, we are being told that it is the country’s best interests not to have another election soon.
This is projection, in the psychological sense, as defined at the top of this article. When Mr Mundell says that the Scottish people do not want another referendum and the Tory press tell us that the country has no stomach for another election, what they really mean is that the conservative party has no stomach for either because they fear to lose both.
Of course, there is no guarantee that they would. A second independence referendum might repeat the result of the first; a further general election might give the conservatives the majority they seek: neither is a result I would welcome, but as a democrat I feel strongly that it is a matter for the people to decide.
I do not view democratic processes as a threat. I am suspicious of politicians who do.
5 thoughts on “The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox”
“Empty coat” reminds me of our saying, “all hat and no cattle.”
Though not perhaps ‘fur coat and no knickers’…
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