Theresa-May-strange-stanceJohn McLeod reflects on emotion in political writing and how we should respond to what Nicholas Boyle has described as a crisis in English identity and a ‘collective mental breakdown”.

Day-to-day coverage of politics is largely restricted to what is happening now. Reactions to a speech or to a report that has been published. Even more immediately, responses to a twitter post. A particularly effective move in this game is to have a good memory or archive, and to be able to point out that what someone is saying now, contradicts a policy position that they espoused a year ago, or whenever.  Skilled players of the game think several moves ahead, and lay traps for their opponents, or slowly build support for an idea. However, even in such scenarios we tend to operate within a relatively limited time horizon.

Since the Treaty of Union in 1707, Scotland has been part of Great Britain. It has been governed through the Parliament at Westminster. Scotland has paid taxes to this administration. Its MPs have been involved in running the country as a whole. The entity of Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom, has generated a rich shared history – empire, war, democracy, women’s rights, the labour movement, the health service and the welfare state.

There is another side to this story. Alongside unity there has been fragmentation and disunion. Fragmentation of empire – the breaking-away of America, India and then everywhere else. Then closer to the centre, the breaking-away of Ireland, the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016. Each of these events has been associated with strong emotional responses on all sides.

A recent article by Nicholas Boyle (1) offers some ideas that can help us to begin to understand some of the underlying meaning of these events, in the context of the history of the Britain as a whole. His analysis is based on the notion that the English have failed to mourn the loss of empire:

“…the English have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it. Over three centuries the needs of empire shaped England’s systems of government, national and local, its Church, its schools and universities, the traditions of its armed and police forces, its youth movements, its sports, its BBC, its literature, and its cuisine. The end of empire meant the end of all this. And because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss, it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism…”

The concept of ‘exceptionalism’ represents a crucial aspect of this analysis. Boyle suggests that at the peak of its Empire, those within the English ruling classes had no need to define or compare themselves to equals because, in their own minds they had no equals. The norms and values associated with being English were self-evidently good and right. The superiority of the English way of being was initially expressed in the treatment of members of supposedly less-advanced cultures subjugated in America, Africa and India. As the empire contracted, the same underlying attitude prevailed in relationships with those closer to home – the Irish, the Scots and the Europeans.

Boyle is an English academic, working in an English university (Cambridge), professor of German literature and philosophy and world authority on Goethe. His analysis of what he regards as a crisis in English national identity is informed by studies into the psychology of German national identity. His article, which is well worth reading in its own right and an important contribution to understanding the politics of the UK, is mainly focused on explaining what he regards as the irrational English response to the EU, in the form of the economically and culturally self-destructive effects of Brexit.

In my view, the ideas outline by Boyle have a lot to offer to those of us who believe that an independent Scotland is a necessary step toward creating the kind of society in which we would want our children to live. From George Osborne telling us that he would not give us permission to use our own currency, through to Angus Robertson being subjected to ridicule at Prime Minister’s Questions, we understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of exceptionalism. We all know, as well, that this particular type of exceptionalism is not restricted to those who attended English public schools, but is also apparent to a greater or lesser extent in those who have been assimilated into the establishment, or who aspire to such status. In relation to the EU, Boyle suggests that for many people in England, the trouble with Europe is that the English have little sense of equality and sense of responsibility toward others – they are not team players. This is another familiar aspect of contemporary British political life.

What does it mean to assert that a whole culture has failed to mourn the loss of empire? Clearly, what is being described here is different from the difficulty that an individual person might have in mourning the loss of a parent or grandparent. But what is being suggested is that it can be useful to draw a parallel between the two processes. I would suggest that one way to make sense of this is to start from a recognition that both cultural groups, and individuals, possess a sense of identity, a way of defining who they are. Any threat to the core of that identity is likely to trigger fear and anger. Fear in the sense of having nothing to hold on to, no story to tell, not knowing where to start to build another identity. Anger in the sense of fighting back, and maybe also a feeling of having been betrayed by old myths and heroes around which the previous identity was constructed.

Mourning is painful for anyone. For those whose identity was bound up in Empire, the way it ended in the post-war years, made this process even harder. As documented in the recent best-seller The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, as well as in many other sources, the emergence and subsequent history of the British Empire was based on lies, brutality and exploitation. Maybe, on their own, such a set of cultural memories that might have been relatively straightforward to work through. But the end-game, the war against fascism, was a high point, a story of glorious sacrifice. It seems to have been hard for the British establishment to allow itself, when looking back, to let go of images of World War II.

What does this mean for Scotland? Maybe all Boyle’s ideas to is remind us that we are witnessing the unfolding of a tragic psychological and cultural drama in the English, and in Scottish unionists. But maybe it can offer us more, something more directly relevant to our work. Notions such as exceptionalism and failure to mourn can be seen as comprising shadows on the landscape of social and political life. Ideas and initiatives that are in the foreground, under the spotlight, are always accompanied by other meanings that are unsaid, that exist in the shadows. Those who are not willing to accept their shadow side, remain haunted and followed by whatever it is that they have avoided: the only way out is through.

Personally, I do not believe that people in Scotland exhibit the kind of born to rule exceptionalism that Boyle attributes to the English establishment. It was never Scotland’s empire, and that is not where our shadow falls. Instead, despite evidence of massive contributions to science, literature, philosophy and the arts, Scottish identity seems to be constructed around the need to hang together as a response to the inevitability of loss and defeat. Our shadow, or at least a crucial aspect of it, consists of a kind of cultural depression and hopelessness, a sense that we will never amount to much. This made us susceptible to the constant bombardment of Project Fear that we were too wee, too poor and too stupid: these were some of the key messages in the cultural shadow that many of us carry around with us. An appreciation of the shadow side of political discourse makes it possible to have a better understanding of where these messages are coming from, why they work, and how they can be defused.

Our shadow has its roots in the defeat and subjugation of Scotland from the 18th century onwards, leading to the loss of such basic elements of identity such as language, place and history. However, there has also been an increasing willingness to look into these dark places and learn from what can be found there. Bookshops, such as still exist, carry quite large sections on Scottish culture and identity. Even as the old Scotland was being pacified in the 18th century, the beginnings of a new narrative were emerging in the writings of David Hume, Adam Smith and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment – a set of cultural events that made possible an internationally successful higher education sector with exceptionally high levels of participation. At the present time, we are fortunate to enjoy cultural leadership from those such as Paul Kavanagh, Robin McAlpine, Alastair McIntosh, Lesley Riddoch, Nicola Sturgeon and Andy Wightman. These are people who are constructing an alternative story of what Scotland has been and what it can become. This process is paralleled by smaller-scale initiatives by many thousands of individuals, for example as documented in the Blossom books and countless blogs.  All of this has immense meaning and traction for the people of Scotland as a whole. One of the basic facts about contemporary Scotland that is not given sufficient attention, is that over 50% of the electorate support pro-independence parties, despite the opposition of the national broadcaster and all but one of the daily newspapers. The fact speaks to the emotional resonance of the way that the Scottish narrative is being re-told in everyday conversations between people, both face to face and on social media.

Some further observations, on emotion. Nicholas Boyle describes the current crisis in English identity as a ‘collective mental breakdown’ and a ‘psychosis’. These are extreme terms, that are perhaps not entirely helpful. What he is referring to is a situation in which a person or group has great difficulty in talking about events and experiences that are painful and threatening. In such a scenario, the person loses internal psychological control, is not thinking ‘straight’. What they say is highly emotional and exaggerated, and not well supported by actual evidence. In the personal sphere, for example when a family member has a breakdown, all this is hard enough. In the political sphere, it is made even harder by the fact that the main outlets that are open to us, such as newspapers and TV, demand rational, emotionally-distanced forms of communication. By contrast, in at least some face-to-face situations people can get angry or sad, listen to each other, find points of connection, build bridges, and move on.

It makes sense that people should have strong feelings about an issue such as Scottish independence. Too often, these emotions are expressed in extremely destructive ways, that seek to diminish or humiliate a target other. Anyone who doubts this should just take a few moments to look at the comments threads that accompany any Scotsman article published by Lesley Riddoch. There has been a sustained effort on the indy side to eliminate abusive (i.e., out of control anger, expressed as contempt and disgust) responses to unionist blog and twitter posts. Despite this welcome initiative, it seems to me that what is not yet sufficiently well understood, is the necessity of emotion in political debate. Suppressing emotion has the effect of perpetuating the shadow, and leads to the use of implicit emotional triggers (so-called ‘dog whistle’ statements). No-one could doubt that the individuals mentioned earlier, such as Paul Kavanagh, feel passionately about the issues that they are addressing, and express emotion in what they write and say.

While drawing on psychological concepts to make sense of a collective failure to grieve, Nicholas Boyle does not take the obvious next step, and take account of the psychological strategies that enable grieving to take place. While everyone has their own loss, and deals with it in their own way, what is helpful for many people is to find a safe relationship, either with an individual or a group, where they can say what they need to say. After a while, the person becomes more able to describe their feelings in an accurate and differentiated way, and to understand what these emotions in relation to their life experience and their sense of who they are. They are then in a position, when communicating with others, to draw on thoughts and feelings together rather than being locked into only one or the other mode of expression.

Compared to Better Together Mark II, the independence movement now has a potentially much broader emotional palette on which to draw. The main emotional theme within unionism has been fear, with an occasional sprinkling of rage at the nationalist threat to the entitlement to rule. These are extremely powerful emotional influencers, that can be readily communicated through media scare stories. Although the yes movement did not use anger and fear to any great extent in indyref1, the events of the last couple of years (lies, betrayal, increasing threats to financial security) have brought these emotional responses right into the frame. An under-used emotion has been loss, for instance in the form of positive mourning around the McCrone report or the many young people who have chosen to leave Scotland to find work elsewhere. This may have a lot of potential, because loss is culturally central to Scottish identity. The distinctive emotional resource of the independence movement builds on feelings of excitement, joy, connectedness with others, and hope. It was surprising that indyref1 did not generate a universally-recognisable song, poem, theatre play or TV documentary that conveyed such emotions. On the other hand, there were many events that energized people in these ways, often as a result of direct participation in the accomplishment of a demanding task. It seems likely that superficial Blairite ‘feel-good’ promotional films would have much traction with Scottish audiences.

In conclusion, the main purpose of this article has to draw attention to the immensely valuable recent contribution of Nicholas Boyle. In drawing out some of the implications for his ideas for the independence movement in Scotland, I hope that I have not misrepresented his ideas, or deterred readers from accessing his original work. What he has written greatly assists us to make sense of what has been happening in our negotiations with the British establishment. It also helps us to have a better appreciation of the emotional dimension of social and political change. I believe that what Boyle is telling us is that the current mad phase in Westminster politics (not only the Tories, but Labour and the others as well) can be traced back to an unwillingness to work through the emotional shadow of loss of Empire. One of the lessons we can draw from this, is that it is important to create ways of doing politics that allow appropriate expression of emotion. Partly this is about having leaders who function as effective examples (i.e., being passionate in a genuine way, rather than robots).  Partly it is about using the whole spectrum of emotional possibilities. Partly it is about bringing feelings into people’s everyday lives and settings – more Spirit of Independence fire truck rallies and church hall meetings where people can talk to each other.

Notes

1.      Nicholas Boyle. The problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team. The New European, 17th January 2017. www.theneweuropean.co.uk
2.      Peter Frankopan. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. (Bloomsbury, 2016)
3.      Lesley Riddoch. Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish. (Luath Press, 2013); Wee White Blossom: What Post-Referendum Scotland Needs to Flourish (Luath Press, 2015).

John McLeod has a background in counselling, psychotherapy and psychology.

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