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”.