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Change Work September 2014

Taking the high road

No-one in the UK can have missed the fact that we've just come surprisingly close to breaking up the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the end, the referendum in Scotland demonstrated a significant majority in favour of remaining within the UK but during the latter stages of the campaign it looked like it might well go the other way.  We could have been looking forward to the prospect of an independent Scottish state.

One of the reasons suggested for the surge in support for a Scottish breakaway is a general disillusionment with politics and the government in Westminster.  This found a ready focus in the independence cause but is felt in all parts of Britain where we see new political parties emerging and support for the old ones evaporating.

What is it that's going on under the surface?

Many people feel helpless, unable to influence government policy or to resist the changes in society that alarm them.  This has now boiled up to the extent that many Scots are prepared to risk a lot just to break free.  This looks very similar to a revolution, and one Scottish voter was reported as saying that we're lucky to have a peaceful way of doing it!

Not only are we unable to influence things, we don't trust "them" to act in our interests anymore; this despite the fact that politicians seem to be much more sensitive to public opinion than they ever were, and fall over themselves to appear in the media.  When they're interviewed on TV they can expect to be grilled and pushed to make some sensational admission.

This contrasts markedly with the over-deferential approach of the past. Compare a modern interview with this exchange from (I think) the early 1950s.  The old newsreel showed a government minister getting off a plane after some diplomatic mission.  He was approached by a BBC reporter with a microphone:

REPORTER:
Sir, do you have anything to say to our listeners?

MINISTER:
No.

REPORTER:
Thank you very much.

And that was perfectly acceptable at the time.  It was assumed that those in charge knew best and could be trusted to decide how much information needed sharing.  Now the keyword is "scrutiny" and everything in the public realm is subject to it.  But are we reassured by this?  No, we simply assume that those in power will respond by trying to hide as much as they can.

Can trust ever be restored?  Experience shows that it's a very long process, whether in the context of societies or of personal relationships.  And sometimes it seems better to accept that it's all over and to move on to something new.

In general, we respond to political events in the same way that we respond to changes at work or in our relationships.  We start by ignoring them, then we get anxious and either take action or decide that we can't do anything.  If the latter then we're trapped and, if the situation isn't resolved, we experience stress because facing demands that we can't meet is a classic stressor.

Stress can lead to withdrawal and breakdown or to an unpredictable, possibly violent, reaction. In the case of the Scottish independence issue it seems that, for many, the destruction of the Union was the violent action necessary to assert control.  The majority stopped short of this, and it remains to be seen whether they have given in and accepted their powerlessness or whether they have other ideas.

You have to feel that you have sufficient control over your life.  You can live with being directed by others (or by events) to a certain extent as long as there's enough left for you to feel in charge of for yourself. But if the balance shifts too far, there comes a point where you start to feel helpless - and then stressed.

If that's the problem, what's the solution?

Leaving the restructuring of political systems for another time(!), at the individual level I've found that the best way to deal with feelings of oppression is to start looking for ways of helping your oppressor to behave better.  Now I know that this sounds like a waste of time, but I can guarantee that it feels better to think of yourself as a positive influencer than as a victim.  Even if it has no effect on anyone else, taking the initiative is the key step.

What are some of the things you can do?