Why, not how

Continuing my series of ‘here’s one I made previously’ posts from 2013/14, this one considered the importance of acknowledging that support for independence is far from a wholly rational matter.

(First published 31 January 2014)

Much of the work I do involves trying to move people beyond the normal organisational pre-occupations with process. Whether I’m helping them develop a voice for their organisation, tell its story, or explore where it might be going, the challenge is to get them to set aside the How of what they do and try instead to consider the Why.

The closer we get to that true sense of purpose, the more people’s feelings come into play and the more we start to gnaw away at the myth of objectivity that tends to associate itself with process. Organisations like certainty. They like to think that their Hows are predicated on the exercise of pristine reasoning and logic. But the reality is that we are emotional creatures and people can no more stop bringing their feelings to work than they can their minds. Unacknowledged, those emotions compete with reason and that’s where decision-making gets messy. Properly recognised, they’re powerful engines of change and progress and creativity.

I can’t help noticing the parallels with the independence ‘debate’ – which is entirely dominated at the moment by the discussion of process. Would we keep the pound, would we join Europe, would we have border controls, how much North Sea oil would we own, and so on? These are questions to which no one, on either side, has hard answers at present. They’re the mechanical issues, the Hows, of separation. Should we wake up on 19 September to find the vote has gone in favour of independence, they will simply have to be dealt with. It’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t be, and equally inconceivable that there wouldn’t be horses for courses: Scotland would gain on some issues and lose on others.

“People bring … feelings about identity and belonging, about loss and gain, about fairness and equality, about possibility and creativity, about culture and wellbeing, about prosperity and sustainability …”

Nevertheless, the battle-lines remain drawn on the basis of process, as if the Scottish electorate are all super-rational, perfectly objective beings, and that all everyone’s waiting for is someone to come up with conclusive proof that we will or won’t be allowed to keep the pound, for example, for the whole matter to be neatly sewn up.

It’s convenient, certainly for the Better Together campaign, to keep the debate going on this superficial level, because it means that there’s no danger of anyone digging, publicly at any rate, into the much deeper issue of what people actually feel about it. And make no mistake (as politicians love to say), people bring to the issue very deep feelings indeed: feelings about identity and belonging, about loss and gain, about fairness and equality, about possibility and creativity, about culture and wellbeing, about prosperity and sustainability, about the kind of society they want to live in – all of which seem at present to be sidelined by an obsessive focus on economic and fiscal considerations. Yet how many of us who have married, and perhaps divorced, each time facing a huge change in our lives, have made those choices on the basis of income potential or tax status?

The How focus is convenient for the media too, because a declaration of Why tends to be an unarguable truth which doesn’t bring much to the cockpit of debate, whereas speculation about the mechanics of separation can continue happily and argumentatively ad nauseam. I watched the BBC debate from Greenock last week and raised a silent cheer when at last a young woman spoke up briefly about culture and society and possibility, before the chair closed her down and moved the discussion back to the talking heads with their interminable batting back and forth of unanswerable economic and constitutional propositions.

All of which leaves me longing to see the focus shift from How to Why. It might result in less of the so-called debate, but surely everyone would find it more enlightening to learn why some people, as I do, feel so strongly, so viscerally in favour of independence while others are so powerfully opposed to it. It would certainly call for a greater degree of honesty than we have so far seen if we had to answer questions like: what’s the sense of purpose that drives you if you’re in favour, and the anxiety that motivates you if you’re not?

It’s these things, I believe, that will determine how most people will vote in the end of the day. I don’t see how it can be otherwise since an entirely rational, objective decision is impossible in any circumstances, and doubly so in the absence of a set of certainties that no future event can ever offer. It may be stating the obvious to say that a No vote will represent a preference for the status quo, while a Yes vote will of necessity be an act of faith, however well informed the voter may feel. But if we can be honest about where we find our intentions, rather than clinging to the figleaf of process and the myth of objectivity, we might at least end up understanding each other a little better, whatever the result on 18 September.

Update 11 February 2021: Today there’s much to add to the list of feelings in play, notably fury at the reality of Brexit, disgust at the contempt with which Scotland has been treated in Westminster throughout the negotiations, outrage at the UK government’s continued denial of a second referendum (a 21st successive poll today gives the lead to Yes), admiration for Nicola Surgeon’s effective, tireless and empathetic handling of the pandemic, and so on. But there’s also unease about her vulnerability to the Salmond inquiry, anxiety at the cracks that have appeared over issues such as gender recognition, Joanna Cherry’s ‘sacking’ and an apparently disconnected SNP leadership, along with fear of what the Westminster dirty tricks department will do to target ‘soft’ voters—all of which make the case for upending my earlier argument and introducing a coldly rational note in the face of this single certainty: a big SNP win in May is the only chance we have of proceeding down the independence path and avoiding years to come in the seventh circle of a punitive, crony-ridden, xenophobic Tory hell. At this eleventh hour we absolutely have to set aside differences, let our hearts fuel the engine, but our heads take the wheel.

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