How to recover from a Scots’ referendum

Commissioned by the BBC and published in a shorter version online as “A marriage counsellor on healing the referendum hurt” on September 20th 2014.

As civil conflicts go, this Scottish referendum campaign has not been in the major leagues. England’s Civil War killed an estimated 190,000 people from a total population of five million. Casualties in the American equivalent between 1861-5 were 620,000. So far, no physical life has been at risk in the current clash between North Britain’s ayes and noes. But it was no ordinary vote in search of a consensus. This result represents an existential divide.

At a General Election family members often belong to opposing parties and yet still eat together. In this referendum, people have separated along bitter, internecine lines. At times, with talk of “scabs” and “scum”, it’s put me in mind of the Miner’s Strike. Internet trolls have used racist language. The parents of one Glaswegian married to a Londoner are refusing to speak to them because they planned to vote “for the other side”. Young people have permanently “unfriended” each other on Facebook or tattooed their necks with their indelible allegiances. The issues at stake in this debate have been emotive enough to fracture generations and repel neighbours.

One earlier poll revealed that a significant number of Scots had felt “personally threatened” during the campaign. A late Panelbase survey said that 700,000 would think about leaving Scotland in the event of a Yes vote; while 200,000 would go if the Noes prevailed (presumably overseas?)

Where did it all go wrong? For a marriage therapist that’s not an uncommon question. Part of the answer says that when relationships fail and we need to part we exaggerate our differences in order to destroy the remaining ties of affection. Then we “present our demands” to gain power over the situation and secure the outcome.

In other words, some of the nastiness in this election campaign flowed from the fact that, down the centuries in war and peace, Scotland and England had created genuinely deep bonds of togetherness. Therefore separatists felt compelled to insist there were no past benefits to the union. And no voters began to demonise the SNP. It could be any old married couple when faced with family breakdown!

And there’s the rub and rue. In a contested divorce, one side gets what it wants but both parties end up hurting. To a therapist, it appears:

“David and Alex were at loggerheads and Alex wanted to end their relationship. His mind was made up. Harsh words had been spoken and friends took sides. But David was desperate to maintain their civil connection. He worried about the effect on the children. Alex was more confident believing that they would benefit from independence. A formal hearing in front of Mr Justice Electorate decided the result”.

And so we reach the nub that matters. The morning after.

Labour peer Lord Foulkes expressed his worry that if the No campaign won by a narrow margin independence supporters would “seek revenge against leaders of Better Together”. We know that in the aftermath of the Quebec Independence vote (which was lost by one half of one percentage point) the defeated leader, Jacques Parizeau, said: “the temptation to take revenge is going to be something!”

How can any warring couple heal their differences where neither side can physically walk away because of geography, nor avoid continuous contact because of family entanglements?

First rule: understand a diagram my old therapy mentor used to call: “the couple in the triangle”. It states there are always three elements present in any complex marital union – the two individuals PLUS their relationship. The latter continues regardless of any divorce.

Often when couples in counselling are hurling abuse at each other I’ve held up my hands and pointed to the floor where I’ve asked them to imagine their poor little relationship dying of fright and neglect in front of them. “It seems unwise to kill it completely. You have children. You need to negotiate. You cannot entirely obliterate the other side. Don’t we have a duty to find some sort of modus vivendi?”

Admittedly this would have been a sight to behold in the event that two polarised nations have to divide their matrimonial property, pensions and purses. That would entail the mother and father of all battles but the principle stands. In any domestic conflict, if one side entirely “wins” the relationship itself will get slaughtered.

Second rule is based on a cod American proverb: “Walk a mile in my moccasins before you judge me”. For people throughout Scotland, this weekend will be filled with grief come what may. Dreams must die – or at least be radically postponed. Bereavement is a necessary process for all humans who experience a loss. We cannot go “round” it only through it. It will involve a range of emotional stresses from fury to despair, denial to depression. Both sides should therefore prepare for a fresh emotional ordeal. This will involve possible further unpleasantness. But only if we show ultimate respect for the suffering loser will the situation heal. It’s not an impossible goal – think Martin McGuinness weeping at Ian Paisley’s funeral.

Final rule: people mean what they do not what they say. Forget all the hot air and blather from extreme politicians or the lunatic fringe. We will now be required to act collectively, as a united nation and sensible allies, for the next passage of history. Every single one of us could think about becoming better behaved for the common good.

As I try to explain to reconciling couples: “You cannot just sweep your differences under the carpet and restart. You cannot magically regain the trust. You have to begin at rock bottom taking it in small stages to discover reliable common ground and speak with tact about the legacy in dispute. Then demonstrate by your daily actions whether you care to bury the hatchet or you don’t.

The English have certainly made one joke too many about deep-fried mars bars, and the propensity of Scots to regard whiskey as an antibiotic. For their part, the Scots really ought to concede that London is not quite that callous capital from which Gestapo officers have been sent out to victimise Celts. We aren’t all THAT different as people, even if we opt for a bit more constitutional space. We need to be more considerate as neighbours if only for the sake of our children.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

You must be logged in to post a comment