CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says there is a lot of bluffing going on in Scottish politics
YES, we’re in the middle of an election, but does it seem to you that Scottish politics is dominated by ‘confidence tricks’ even more than usual? And, importantly, whose confidence is up and whose is down as a result – and why?
Basically, I think that unionists have been hyping their confidence to a degree that seems suspicious and independence supporters have been demonstrating a slight wobble in confidence that seems unrelated to what’s actually happening.
So what’s going on?
Unionists have been hyping their confidence to a degree that seems suspicious and independence supporters have been demonstrating a slight wobble in confidence that seems unrelated to what’s actually happening.
First of all, I want to be clear what I mean by ‘confidence trick’. I use the term to explain how central to human decision making the importance of the projection of confidence is, not to cast aspersion about the honesty of my opponents.
Many of you will instinctively know that a confidence trick is a trick played on gullible people by a con artist who identifies their weaknesses and preys on them. But that is an important misunderstanding. That would be a gullibility trick and the perpetrator would be called a gull artist.
The point about the confidence trick is that everyone is susceptible. None of us are immune to the social impact of the projection of confidence (as the whole field of behavioural economics demonstrates). Humans are hardwired to respond differently to the social signals of confidence and certainty than to signals of doubt and fear.
This makes little rational sense – pause for a minute and ask yourself whether you really want decisions to be made by people who are not self-reflective enough to have doubt and uncertainty. Less confidence and more honest doubt would be a good thing for politics.
But in reality, we are subconsciously attracted to people who demonstrate characteristics we rationally know often to be counterproductive, harmful and even the symptoms of sociopathology (i.e., this is how psychopaths behave).
If politicians don’t have real confidence, they fake it. Strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable.
So if politicians don’t have real confidence, they fake it. Strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable.
The trick is to work out what confidence is real and what confidence is fake. Sometimes it’s quite easy – Trump goes through all the tics of a con artist with a degree of obviousness I find remarkable.
But the Scottish Tories? Who could deny that they are on a legitimate, genuine high? That their success has them oozing confidence?
Eh, me. There are two reasons I’m fairly sure the Tories are overplaying their hand just now. The first is how they’re doing it.
One of the features of a con artists is that they are adept at supplying you with lots of information and detail which feels like it is helping you to get towards a destination but which in fact is taking you further away from the destination.
There are two reasons I’m fairly sure the Tories are overplaying their hand just now. The first is how they’re doing it.
And the more your attention returns to the destination, the more information and detail you’ll be provided. Real confidence takes the shortest route; the confidence trick is always about blind alleys.
So here’s my question: if Ruth Davidson is so confident that the mood in Scotland has turned decisively against independence as she suggests, why isn’t she calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff?
Let’s be honest – if there is a No vote in a second independence referendum, the Scottish independence movement is almost certainly over for a generation, at least. The SNP would have no reason to hold together and might well not survive as a single party.
The quickest way for a confident unionist to end this for good would be to encourage a second referendum. That’s the short route.
Likewise, if Ruth is so keen to heal Scotland’s wounds and bring it together, the quickest way to do that would be to stop touring the country promoting images of conflict and division with every sentence.
Here’s my question: if Ruth Davidson is so confident that the mood in Scotland has turned decisively against independence as she suggests, why isn’t she calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff?
Pretending the local elections were a referendum on a referendum is so palpably silly that a confident person wouldn’t say it out loud. Someone who wanted to build a pretence of confidence, A Team style, out of whatever bits and bobs were to hand might.
The way the Tories have constructed their ‘hated second referendum’ narrative out of opinion polls that don’t really support that stance just increases my suspicion. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
The second reason to doubt the apparently boundless confidence of Scotland’s Tories is, well, facts.
The near future does not scream out ‘good times ahead for Scottish Toryism’. A large majority Tory government is not going to be in tune with Scottish attitudes. Hell, it is already embarrassing Ruth Davidson with its rape clause stuff. Westminster isn’t about to become more moderate.
In Scotland, I remain convinced that there is a pretty low Tory ceiling, and I’m pretty sure they’re close to it. They only got to where they are by cannibalising their former partners in the Labour Party. Who do they eat next? The Lib Dems are barely a light snack.
If Ruth is so keen to heal Scotland’s wounds and bring it together, the quickest way to do that would be to stop touring the country promoting images of conflict and division with every sentence.
Many Scots had forgotten the reality of Tories. We’ll have an awful lot more mental tweets from Tory councillors to remind us. The Tories brought back Orange politics to Scotland; few will celebrate.
The economy is basically going nowhere and neither pay nor sense of job security are getting much better. Personal debt is rising and is worrying observers looking for the next economic crisis. Austerity continues to gnaw away at public services and public infrastructure. Trump is not going to be an attractive best friend.
But probably above all, Brexit can only go one of two ways. If its soft, it’ll be unpopular because it won’t reduce immigration and Britain will still be stuck with a mountain of Brussels regulation through a trade deal. The Daily Mail will be fuming and Ukip will rise again.
If its hard, the short term impact will be at least painful and probably worse than that. I’m no panglossian Remainer, but don’t kid yourselves on that a Brexit not on terms agreed by Brussels will be smooth. And Brussels appears to want terms that in themselves will cause substantial pain.
Looking forward, if you are honest about the terrain Britain is going to have to navigate in the near future and you have convinced yourself that it’s all going to go swimmingly then that’s a sign not of confidence, but of delusion.
The near future does not scream out ‘good times ahead for Scottish Toryism’. A large majority Tory government is not going to be in tune with Scottish attitudes.
Plus, the Tories can like it or not like it but Scottish Labour was an absolutely crucial human shield for them in the constitutional debate. When they next reach for that shield, it’s going to look quite a lot like Swiss cheese.
I don’t want to be too churlish here. I’ve always said that there are more Tory votes in Scotland than recent times have suggested. I live in rural Scotland, not far from the Borders. It really was a case of the only way is up.
And these have been genuine successes for the Tories in Scotland. We can mock just how puffed up Tories have got by winning 11 per cent of first preference votes in a ward here and there, but politics is about army size and this is an undoubted leap forward for them.
Plus the independence movement really is lacking leadership and direction at the moment. People are getting a bit stir crazy and that sense of twitchy frustration is fertile ground for the confidence trickster.
It can all be turned around quickly. Of course, there is no massive appetite for an immediate second indyref – god knows I don’t want one. We need to prepare and make a case. We need to win people over. That takes a bit of time.
The independence movement really is lacking leadership and direction at the moment. People are getting a bit stir crazy and that sense of twitchy frustration is fertile ground for the confidence trickster.
And it’s that time which I think the Tories are most worried about. Hence the appearance of that other great feature of the con artist – they want to force your decision into their timescale, not yours.
It’s a time-limited offer. This gold-laden ship sails in three hours. If we don’t get the prisoner out of his cell by his execution you’ll never get all that money. There’s a queue of people waiting for this opportunity and if you don’t get in fast you’ll miss out. You must reject another indyref now, right now, immediately, or it’s civil war and nothing less.
This is a Tory moment. I don’t want to take that away from them. Like any underdog, they’re allowed to enjoy a moment in the sun. But let’s not get carried away.
Look forward from here. Assess what’s happened and what’s to come. Then come back and tell me that the case for the UK is likely to get stronger while the case for Scottish independence is going to get weaker. I doubt you can.
I wish the projection of confidence wasn’t so central to human decision making (as I’ll discuss tonight at a Festival of Spirituality event in Edinburgh). But it is. So damn it, indy supporter, get your confidence back up and stop absorbing all the bluff.
Unless we screw it up, the next 10 years are ours.
Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes
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