How to live in a Scotland of the Heart and Mind


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, July 7th 2012

Politics is about feeling, emotions and instinct.

But most politicians and political debate try to deny it; more often than not stressing the importance of rationalism, logic and reason.

Yet this is not what drives most of life. This is the age of rage, of moral indignation at bankers, politicians and media. Or SPL fans fury at the arrogance of Rangers FC and alternatively Rangers FC fans sense of denial.

The same is true of much of the Scottish debate. There are regular calls for raising the quality of debate, not understanding that feelings, fear, emotions and instinct will shape and decide many of the arguments.

The idea of Scottish independence results in strong feelings in both supporters and opponents. The former believe it offers the prospect of a fresh start, mobilising Scottish opinion, and gaining responsibility domestically and internationally. The latter feel a sense of loss, sadness and even incomprehension at why some people believe this so passionately.

The pro-union argument equally raises powerful feelings. Pro-union opinion stresses that Scotland gains by being in a larger union, reducing risk and having more influence globally. Opponents stress the negatives of the UK, its flawed, stained history, imperialism and numerous shames, and believe Scotland should stand apart from such a past and present.

An interesting insight on this comes from Drew Westen’s ‘The Political Brain’, a study of every American Presidential election from 1960. He argued that when reason and emotion clash, the former usually wins.

Elections and political contests are decided he believed by emotions, an environment and politics shaped by values, imagers, analogies, moral sentiment and oratory. Logic only plays a small walk on part.

Westen found a distinct and striking pattern in American Presidential elections. Democrats traditionally have prioritised policy, logic and facts; think Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000, pre-‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

Republicans told stories, were folksy and connected with voters with anecdotes. Think of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  The Democrats who did not fall into this dynamic: John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992 won and reshaped the agenda.

We even have a whole expert world of psychology and neuroscience which studies this. A New York University/UCLA study found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty whereas conservatives tended to be more structured and persistent. A UK study by Geraint Rees of the Wellcome Trust even went as far as to claim that left-wing and right-wing brains were different in which part of the brain they thought from.

A recent Strathclyde University study by Laura Cram looked at the emotions which arose relating to the Saltire, St. George’s Cross and Union Jack. Her sample she stresses was not scientific, but self-selecting, and so she emphasises her findings are provisional.

‘National identity’, says Cram, is related to ‘gut instinct’, but also has a direct link to how we view and think of the economy. She found that people became anxious about the state of the economy when shown a Saltire or St. George’s Cross. When they were shown the Union Jack respondents south of the border felt more English rather than British.

The next few years will see a surfeit of facts, figures, claims and counterclaims, but underneath it all are the power of emotions, our hearts and minds. Drew Westen has argued that the dominant way of thinking about politics is what he called ‘the dispassionate vision of the mind’. This represents a trickle-up theory of politics: of voters carefully evaluating and processing policy positions before coming to make up their minds.

This idea of the human mind he states has no real relationship to how we think and make decisions which is much more centred on emotions and instinct than cognitive thinking.

What is more apposite is what Westen calls a ‘passionate vision of the mind’, centred on vision, values, stories and emotional connection. He argued that campaigns and candidates which ‘tell compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in’ will nearly always win.

This vision of politics is painted by powerful imagery and metaphors being compared to ‘vast rivers’ which have an almost elemental power and existence, servicing numerous tributaries which flow far and wide.

This is how we have to understand the psychologies of the Scottish debate. Understand the potent emotions unleashed and how they shape most of what we think and feel. If the fate of Rangers FC and the case for and against it can elicit such feelings, we have to be able to reflect that the cause of Scotland’s future might just produce a little bit of passion and heat.

The next two years will be shaped by hope, optimism, fear and anxiety, by the full gambit of human emotions and responses, and none of these are wrong. Whether pro or anti-independence, none of these are the product of false consciousness.

Where are the pictures of our compelling stories about the future of Scotland? So far neither the ‘Yes Scotland’ or ‘Better Together’ campaigns have decided to articulate such a vision. Instead, both have gone for the modern day technocratic, managerialist approach of trying to appear reasonable and sane, while discounting a more passionate approach.

Somehow we have to aid into the debate the Scots imagination of the heart and mind to describe the different Scotllands of the future of independence and the union. To tell us a story which connects with all our different emotions: to feel and understand our hopes, doubts and fears.

Is this possible in the Scotland of today? After forty years of contemporary constitutional debate we should be able finally to raise the political and emotional appeal of our politics.

Who can begin to speak this language and outlook I think will shape the contours and outcome of the independence debate. Really the pro-independence forces ought to have the easier task, but we have seen so far that they have gone down the route of the Democratic Party in the States, being safety-conscious, avoiding risk, and not articulating or connecting to gut instincts. And no one should underestimate that the pro-union camp might be able to claim this ground.

Lets say yes to a more emotionally literate political debate, one shaped by vision, story and passion. And accept that fear, hope, doubt and uncertainty will all play a part in voters minds and hearts.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –