Better mental health in an independent Scotland

I need to begin this piece by stating that I have never liked the idea of ‘mental health’. This phrase refers to an area of experience that is not necessarily ‘mental’ and not necessarily ‘health’. It refers to a wide set of problems in living that are about relationships, emotions and spirituality as much as (or more than) about ‘mental’ processes. These matters are not ‘health’ issues in the same way as heart disease or diabetes are biologically-definable disease entities.

Nevertheless, the actual experiences that are referred to, when we talk about ‘mental health’ are real enough, and are important. For many people, the capacity to contribute to society, and to enjoy life, are greatly diminished by having to deal with depression, anxiety, and self-limiting obsessive patterns of behaviour.

I do not want to exaggerate. I do not believe that we are not experiencing a ‘mental health crisis’. There are a lot of good services that are available, and in general a lot of care, sensitivity and understanding is shown to people who have ‘mental health’ difficulties.

At the same time, things are far from perfect. There are plenty of scary government statistics on the incidence of mental health problems in the Scottish population. These stats can be boiled down to three key facts. First, there are an awful lot of people taking anti-depressant medication. Second, any counselling, psychotherapy or psychology service that is free at the point of delivery, has a long waiting list. Third, this is not a matter of a small section of the population that can be ignored. Almost all of us experience mental health difficulties at some point in our lives. Almost all of us will know someone close to us, whose life is restricted due to mental health difficulties, right now.

I believe that independence would have a positive impact on mental health in Scotland. This belief is not based on an argument that there would be more investment in services, or that services would be better organised. These things might happen, and would be welcome, but are not the heart of the matter.

Independence would have a positive impact on mental health in Scotland because society would begin to move in some new directions. A summary of some of these directions, and their links with mental health, is provided below.

1. Equality is associated with better mental health. Countries where there is less inequality, as assessed by income distribution, have lower rates of depression and other mental health problems. This effect is separate from overall wealth. Poor countries with high rates of equality do better than rich countries with low rates of equality. There are probably many reasons for this pattern. One factor is that inequality introduces ‘invidious comparison’ between a person and other people who are viewed as more successful. In other words, people feel bad about themselves if they see themselves as complete ‘losers’ who have no possibility of achieving much in their lives.

2. Less unemployment means better mental health. There is a substantial amount of evidence, from around the world, that losing a job has a negative effect on mental health and gaining a job has a positive effect. The political consensus of an independent Scotland will inevitably favour employment over austerity.

3. Enjoyment of nature is associated with better mental health. It seems clear that, over a period of time, the political consensus in Scotland is to move in the direction of a shift in land ownership, away from large estates owned by aristocrats and investment companies, toward community control. This will make it easier for people in Scotland to build cabins, participate in new ways of using the land, and so on.

4. Reducing the incidence of negative events and policies that cause mental health problems. A high proportion of mental health difficulties arise from social policies. Unemployment has already been mentioned. Military action is another source of mental health problems, for many service personnel and their families. Mental health problems are also caused by a failure to address domestic violence and sexual abuse. Also by a bad diet. Also by diabetes or heart disease resulting from a bad diet, alcohol abuse and smoking. Also by violent crime. These are all areas in which the political consensus in Scotland (i.e., not just an SNP administration) would move things in the right direction. Just one example: how many people in Scotland have been psychologically affected, directly and indirectly, by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

5. Participation in art-making promotes positive mental health. This is another are in which there is substantial research evidence. Again, the consensus in Scotland is to value our cultural traditions and to enable wide involvement in art-making, through a variety of educational and voluntary sector initiatives.

These are just some of the ways in which independence will lead to improved mental health. I cannot think of any ways that independence could result in poorer mental health. Over and above the areas mentioned above, I believe that people generally feel that their lives are more meaningful and worthwhile if they are contributing to making a better world or greater cause, and have opportunities to make a difference within their own sphere of influence such as their local community.


HSBC chairman warns of danger of currency flight in an independent Scotland – a psychological analysis

On Friday 22nd August 2014, the Scottish Herald newspaper carried a report on a speech made by the chairman of the HSBC bank, Douglas Flint, in which he reinforced the Better Together criticisms of the Scottish Government post-independence currency proposals. The key idea in Flint’s statement, which was picked up not only by the Herald, but also by the BBC and other media outlets around the world, was that investor confidence would be undermined, leading to ‘capital flight’. The title of the Herald piece was “Uncertainty over currency in iScotland could lead to ‘capital flight’, says HSBC chairman”.

Subsequent media discussion of this item seems to have focused mainly on the economic argument. I would like to look at it from an alternative perspective, and offer a psychological analysis.

There are two aspects of this news item that are significant from a social psychological perspective: the use of language, and the way that the speaker is discursively ‘positioned’.  

The Herald article quotes the actual words used by Douglas Flint:

“…the transition from the existing currency union would be complex and fraught with danger….at the extreme, uncertainty over the Scotland’s currency arrangements could prompt capital flight from the country, leaving its financial system in a parlous state…”.

This kind of statement can be categorised as an ‘extreme case formulation’ – the speaker uses an extreme example of what ‘could’ occur as a means of supporting their case. To understand how this particular way of talking operates, it is necessary to imagine other ways in which the same idea might have been conveyed. For example, the speaker had the option of referring to an ‘expected’ or ‘most likely’ scenario alongside the ‘worst case’. The speaker might have offered a balance sheet of possible outcomes. The speaker had the option of referring to specific previous scenarios, for instance examples of post-independence currency outcomes in countries such as Slovakia. Imagining these other possible ways in which the topic might have been addressed makes it possible to see what is happening when an ‘extreme case’ formulation is being deployed: it has the effect of triggering fear and alarm in the reader/listener. In addition, the extreme scenario becomes associated, in the mind of the reader, with a specific situation (in this case, Scottish independence).

Looking more closely at the way that Douglas Flint formulated his argument (in terms of an extreme case) makes it possible to see his basic message in a new light. What is he saying to us? He is saying that post-independence currency arrangements will be complex and will need to be handled carefully. He is saying that if the financial markets are not satisfied with how this is handled, they will respond by refusing to buy government bonds, etc. We know all this already.

What is he not saying? He is not saying that his bank (one of the largest and most powerful financial institutions in the world) would wish to work closely with the Scottish government to ensure that the risk of capital flight was minimised. He is not saying that it is easy to imagine scenarios in which any of the major Western currencies could be hit by capital flight. War in Ukraine, deterioration of the situation in the middle east, a further Fukishima, tension between China and the USA, a shift in investor perceptions of the sustainability of the UK debt level, UK withdrawal from the EU – any of these events could bring about a run on the pound sterling, US dollar or the euro within the near future.

 A second social psychological aspect of the ‘HSBC chair currency warning’ item concerns the way in which the speaker – Douglas Flint – was ‘positioned’ in various media reports. The idea of ‘positioning’ refers to the way that a speaker is aligned with certain values and attributes rather than others. In these recent articles, Douglas Flint was positioned as a financial expert, and an experienced and respected banker. The message here is that his words carry special weight, can be believed, and need to be taken seriously, because of his authority and credibility. However, it is not hard to construct an alternative positioning of Mr Flint. He is a leading donor to the Better Together campaign. One might imagine that he is an attractive figure for the BT campaign to have on their side, because he is Scottish. On 4th August 2014, he was reported in the Financial Times (link below) and other media outlets are expressing disquiet over the new banking regulations that had been introduced by the UK government, and making a plea to George Osborne for a relaxation of the new rules. If these pieces of information had been available to readers, they might arrive at a different positioning of Douglas Flint: “HSBC boss looking for less bank regulation curries favour with UK political establishment by disseminating Scottish currency scare story”.

What does all this mean, in terms of the referendum debate? I think that it is important to look beyond this particular episode, to try to draw some wider lessons. For me, the main lesson is a lack of respect for the truth. I am sure that Douglas Flint has a lot of interesting and valuable things to say about how the banking system might respond to various decisions taken by the Finance Minister of a newly independent Scotland. However, the stuff that has been in the papers and TV over the past few days does not get anywhere close to doing justice to his knowledge and experience. I don’t think that this is necessarily because he has an axe to grind, such as mounting a campaign for relaxed bank regulation. Everyone has an axe to grind. Everybody lies. In an ideal world, or a better world, the media would be more active and resourceful in interrogating someone like Douglas Flint, and revealing both the detail of his case, and his motivation. Where this leads me, in terms of a wider lesson, is that for the most part the media have lost their respect for truth. If I can see through the ‘capital flight’ story, then I am sure that all of the political journalists employed by Scottish newspapers and the BBC can see through it as well. But they did not report the story in a manner that reflects a respect for truth. For me, this is a very big issue. Once we lose our respect for truth, where does that leave us? Each time that truth is sacrificed in one arena, it makes it that much easier for people in other areas of life to do the same.

 I want to live in a society in which there is respect for truth.



Scotland’s Grand Designs project

Being able to use your own personal experience in a constructive way, is one of the main skills of being a counsellor or psychotherapist. To make an emotional connection with someone who comes to see me for help with a problem, I need to be able to get in touch with my own personal experience of the problem they are describing. At the same time, I need to avoid making assumptions. I need to be aware that their way of responding to the problem, their experience and feelings, will inevitably be different from my own. Being a good therapist, I believe, involves possessing an intense curiosity and willingness to learn, in respect of how other people feel and do things differently to oneself. From the point of view of the person receiving counselling, this comes across as a capacity for intense listening. But behind the scenes, their therapist to listening to himself or herself alongside listening to the client.


When I have been listening to people who say that they intend to vote “no” in the referendum, I have been struck by how often they say they are bored with the campaign, it has gone on too long, politicians can’t be trusted and the whole thing is just a joke or an obsession of a small minority of SNP activists.


I have been exploring some of the ways that this position connects with my own experience.


I grew up in a family where no-one was politically active. Politics in Dundee in the 1960s, as far as I can recall, meant the Labour Party, who had a firm control over important local matters such as housing and planning, and the trade unions. On the other hand, being a teenager in the 1960s, or at least one who read and was interested about what was going on in the wider world, meant exposure to a wide range of left wing and alternative ideas. When I started at Edinburgh University in 1969, this interest went to another level. During much of my first year, parts of the university were occupied. Like others across Europe, we were agitating for social change, democracy and rights. There were all kinds of open meetings where people talked about ideas. Later, many of us were on the streets protesting against the Vietnam war.


I don’t know what happened to all of that. At Edinburgh, one of the student leaders was Gordon Brown. What happened to him – from inspiring and charismatic radical student activist to friend of rich and powerful bankers – can perhaps be taken as a typical, if extreme, example.


Looking back, my own political energy became channelled into getting a degree, getting a career, bringing up children, paying a mortgage. Politics was something that politicians did. Although I have always discussed political aspects of counselling and psychotherapy in the books I have written, this was not really based on actual involvement in political action. I used my writing to promote an approach to therapy known as “narrative therapy”, which is one of the few models of counselling that takes social and political issues seriously.


I think that I was afraid that if I became actively involved in politics, it would take over my life. Politicians on the TV seemed to be people who wore a uniform (men in suits and ties) and spoke in code. They never seemed to be able to say what they felt, show a genuine interest in the views of those who disagreed with them, or engage in real dialogue. They seemed to believe that they were right, and that it was their job to persuade everyone else to agree with them. I definitely did not want to be a person like that. People I met who were active in organisational politics, for example in the universities where I worked, were more diverse but also seemed to exhibit that quality of manipulating people and situations for their own ends.


I became an informed voter. I read the quality newspapers and followed the news. I talked about politics with whoever I came across who seemed interested. I became increasingly disaffected. Increasingly, the world I wanted for my children (and everyone’s children) was not the world I was living in. Over the period of my adult life, Britain has become more unequal, more polluted, more materialistic and more militarised.


The election of New Labour in 1997 was a time of hope. Things could really get better. Things certainly appeared to be getting better, in the form of increased investment in welfare, education and health. But it is now possible to see that, at a fundamental level, nothing had changed. The money that was being spent was either just the effect of an inevitable upturn in the economic cycle, or was illusory money. In fact, things were getting worse because behind the scenes, trust in the political system was being eroded. I had grown up with the comforting idea that the UK political system was benign, if somewhat inefficient and class-ridden. Events over the last 10 years have convinced me that it is corrupt and ruthless, and in fact has always been like that. This has represented a challenge to my core identity – it was always the “foreigners” who were corrupt and ruthless, and us Brits who stood up for truth and fair dealing. The unfolding of the referendum debate has, of course, provided plentiful further evidence of the corrupt and dishonest nature of the UK establishment.


What does all this mean now, in relation to how I make sense of people who say they will vote no? I believe that there are parallels between my own experience, and their position. We are all part of a society in which politics has been reduced to the act of voting every few years. We are all part of a society where most sensible people just want to get on with their lives and do not particularly wish to get involved in a political system that seems to exist in some kind of parallel reality that bears little relationship to their everyday lives.


The referendum represents a direct challenge to this kind of politics. It is clear to anyone who thinks about it at all, that an independent Scotland means taking more personal responsibility for political decisions and processes. No longer would the most important decisions, be made at a distance, by a bunch of crooks in Westminster. These decisions would be made by people who you would bump into at Tescos, and who you know you could talk to in person if you wanted to. The Scottish newspapers and TV would be different. The old certainties, in terms of established political parties, would change. All of us will be asked to think about what should be in the constitution, and have our say.


The present political system may be crap, but at least it is crap that we are familiar with. We understand how it works and what we can expect. What is on offer, through a yes vote, can be viewed as something along the lines of a national ‘Grand Designs’ project. Something brilliant will emerge at the end of it, but we all know the story-line – a lot of anxiety and suffering along the way, and it always costs more than you budgeted for. I completely get it, that for many people, this is not an attractive proposition. But I do get it – for me it is so exciting and so important , it is something that needs to be done. I completely believe that it can be achieved and that it will be worth the effort. I know that it will involve a lot of learning. Just as the couples on Grand Designs end up learning about planning consent rules and the ins and outs of energy efficiency, people in Scotland will need to learn about how to create a way of running society that does not lead to the establishment of a Scottish zombie political system that is no more than a mirror image of the Westminster zombie political system. It seems to me that this will be good for all of us, in ways that at this stage we cannot even imagine.


I realise that I have been fortunate in my life to have been touched, in my student years, by the vision of a better society. I regret that I have not done more, over my life, to make this happen, and instead have relied on others to undertake this work. The referendum has reminded me of what I stand for. I appreciate that, for other people, the referendum has a different meaning. I hope that we can listen to ourselves and listen to each other. When we are able to do this with an open heart, we always find points of connection. We are all part of what Michael Marra so beautifully described as the “one big thing”.






The referendum may be a rehearsal

The opinion polls tend to ask the big question (how will you vote in the referendum?) along with a number of supplementary questions. I noticed that one of the recent polls asked a supplementary about when, if there was a ‘no’ majority, the next referendum might be held. Although a fair number of people answered along the lines of ‘not in my lifetime’, or ‘not ever’, it seemed to me that the majority were of the view that a re-run would happen fairly soon.   This lead me to wonder whether the referendum next month might not turn out, in the long run, to have been a rehearsal for a clear-cut, decisive poll at a later date. There are perhaps at least three reasons for this:


  1. The process of the present referendum has been deeply flawed, in terms of the inadequacy and bias shown by the mainstream media. I think that many people were surprised by this, and expected a more creative and even-handed approach. However, there has not been enough time, during the period of the referendum, to build a sufficiently influential network of alternative sources of information, particularly in respect of non-internet users
  2. The Yes campaign is widely perceived as a product of the SNP and the Scottish government, because that was its original source. It has evolved, however, into a much broader grassroots movement. Second time round, it could make a huge difference to define it as a grassroots movement from the outset.
  3. The Better Together campaign has been characterized by threats and false information. Conversely, one of the strongest arguments for the Yes campaign, has been the position that things will get worse following a No vote. It is hard to persuade people of the validity of either of these propositions at the present time, because people inevitably and understandably want to believe what they read in the papers, see on the TV news, and are told by trusted Labour politicans. But, if these propositions are correct, the evidence will become apparent fairly quickly following a No vote.


My own preference is for a Yes majority on 18th September, so that we can get on with the urgent business of building a better society, with as little delay as possible. What I am suggesting here is that there are some advantages, in principle, associated with a scenario in which the current referendum turns out to be a rehearsal. The main advantage is that a re-run would make it possible to create a much stronger consensus for change, along with institutions that allowed as wide as possible a range of the population to influence the change process. The risk, of course, is that the UK political elite/establishment might tighten the screws, in ways that could make it much harder to re-run the referendum at a future date.

How to be Danish

I would thoroughly recommend a short book, How to be Danish, by Patrick Kingsley.


This book is entertaining and easy to read, and includes interviews with key figures in Danish society, personal experience and analysis of published studies. The aim is to offer an understanding of what is distinctive about Danish culture and society, and how Denmark came to be the way it is.


From a Scottish perspective, what is particularly interesting is the way that Denmark has worked out its own solutions to the specific issues and challenges that have confronted it over the past 200 years, in such areas as farming, education, energy, transport, cuisine, design, social care and immigration. The point is not that these ideas and strategies would necessarily be applicable to Scotland. What is more relevant is to reflect on how a small country has come to terms with loss of empire, invasion, and economic recession, and has been able, from about the middle of the 19th century, to capitalise on its own strengths, resources, and people.


Reading about developments in Denmark makes it very clear the extent to which Scotland has not been able to do these things, or has been able to do them only to a very restricted extent. It is instructive to compare this book to Blossom, by Lesley Riddoch. Blossom vividly describes many suggestions for creative renewal in Scotland that have been thwarted, or only exist as possibilities. In Denmark, many more of these initiatives have been able to come to fruition.



Heads and hearts

One of the recurring themes in the referendum debate has been the notion of head vs. heart. Are you voting with your head, or with your heart? My interpretation of how this idea has generally been used, is that rational, well-informed unionists are regarded as voting with their heads, on the basis of economic good sense and military security. By contrast, pro-independence voters are guided by their hearts, in the form of sentimental images of Braveheart, Culloden, the sound of the bagpipes, and so on.


To me, there is a lot wrong with this line of argument. For a start, there are surely powerful Unionist-oriented heart-dimensions to experiences such as fighting wars together, or having loved family members in other parts of the UK. Conversely, there are powerful and persuasive rational, evidence-based arguments around the economic prosperity and security achieved by other small nations such as Norway and New Zealand. The point here is that there are heart factors and head factors on both sides of the debate.


A further problem with the way that the head-heart distinction has been deployed, is the implication that head arguments are more important than heart arguments. However, this is not how we live our lives. Most of the time, it is a matter of combining the two. How do you decide what career to follow, or who to marry? If head factors were so important, we would all be supporters of the German football team, and the Tartan Army would not exist.


The final problem with the head-heart distinction, I believe, is that it functions as a means of hiding what is really important. My suggestion is: for “heart”, read “emotion” and for “head” read “critical thinking based on evidence”.


In particular, it has been extremely difficult for participants in the independence referendum to express their emotions in a direct way. There are many no voters who come across as angry, enraged, furious. There are yes voters who feel joy and delight. Somewhere in the emotional mix are feelings of loss (of our unity as a nation). Definitely, there is fear on both sides. In descriptions of, for example, Alex Salmond or Ian Duncan Smith, there may be expressions of disgust and contempt. Many of these emotions are strongly held, but can only be expressed through sarcasm and put-downs, or controlled through avoidance. This is why televised events such as debates and Question Time are such tense affairs – these emotions are near the surface, but it is not safe to express them.


I do not believe that these difficulties in expressing emotions are intrinsic to the referendum. We live in an increasingly rational, technological culture, that demands a high level of emotional self-control. But what this means is that it is then hard to know how to respond in situations where emotions are aroused. On the other hand, there are some ways that emotions can be allowed into the conversation. Television and newspapers are low-emotion media. Both movies and radio make it more possible for sincerity and feeling to be expressed. Face-to-face communication, for example public meetings, can be facilitated in ways that allow genuine emotions to be shared. It is perhaps significant that some of the most influential pro-independence items on social media have consisted of videos of people talking at public meetings.


The SNP leadership – Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney – are faced with a difficult balancing act in relation to opening up the emotional dimension of the independence debate. They have laid down the essential groundwork for the possibility of independence, by being calm, rational decision-makers and managers while in government. On the whole, though, their words tend not to ‘move’ people. The speakers and writers who have been able to move audiences and readers, during the referendum period, have been (among others) Philippa Whitford, Robin McAlpine and Paul Kavanagh. But, so far, they have largely operated in the domain of social media, and have not crossed over into the mainstream.



The TV debate wasn’t Scottish enough

I read something in the jemmajournal blog that made me think:


“From what I saw, last night’s STV #thedebate was not a flattering self-portrait for Scotland. It was not representative of the type of debate I want to see about Scotland’s future. The format was tired – two middle-aged men in suits shouting put downs across a middle-aged, male interlocutor in a suit.”


More on this can be found in the 8th August 2014 post at:


What was it that was wrong with the format of the debate? The event seemed to be constructed from several elements. It drew on the structure and tradition of Prime Minister’s questions in the Westminster Parliament, which is based on adversarial point-scoring, soundbites, and a general unwillingness to listen to the other person. There also seemed to be some bits of it that seemed like reality TV – commentators watching in another room and making completely obvious remarks about what had just happened (just in case we were unable to make sense of it on our own, without the help of experts). There was then reduction of the wisdom and knowledge of ordinary people, by reducing them to question-readers. This was all wrapped up in a atmosphere of high anxiety and emotional tension – no-one seemed to be relaxed enough to do justice to their vision. A lot of it was rehearsed, rather than being in the moment. And it seemed to be based on an assumption that viewers and audience would be unable to follow a thread of analysis and argument that extended for more than a couple of minutes. (This, in the country with the highest proportion of university graduates in Europe…)


What is wrong here, is that this way of holding a conversation about important matters, is not consistent with Scottish cultural traditions. We can all see that it just did not work. The tragedy is that we do not seem to know how else we can organize this kind of event. I do not know how public discourse was organized before the union with England, or even whether than knowledge would be relevant to us now. The fact is that we have lost our rituals. We have lost our shared understanding of how to have these public conversations.


I believe that the Scottish Parliament debating chamber, and its procedures, were explicitly designed to make it possible to avoid the sad, tired spectacle of Westminster Prime Minister’s questions (“two middle-aged men in suits shouting put downs”). Clearly, it has not worked. We have not been able to move on.


So often, journalists and broadcasters tell us that, in private, our political leaders are relaxed, expansive, open, humorous, knowledgeable, impressive and inspiring. We have a right to see a lot more of that.