Uncertainty and stress

The “fear and misery” being caused to EU migrants is not totally unfamiliar. During the first Scottish independence referendum campaign, a substantial part of the British establishment’s grindingly negative propaganda effort focused on the matter of “uncertainty”. The people of Scotland – or as unionists would have it, “the SNP”, – were being irresponsible in exercising their democratic right of self-determination and thus causing uncertainty of a sort which adversely affects that holiest of holies, The Markets.

Some of us pointed out that uncertainty is essential to the functioning of The Markets. Without uncertainty there can be no speculation. If all outcomes are predictable there can be no possibility of profiting from betting on them. Sustained instability is the driving force of capitalism. Along with manufactured inequity and contrived imbalance it is what provides the tension which propels the capitalist economic system. We sought to highlight the gross hypocrisy of people bleating about the uncertainty that is a prerequisite of the economically destructive and socially corrosive system they champion.

Some of us pointed out that uncertainty is, in any case, a natural and unavoidable part of our lives. There is no certainty. There is most assuredly no certainty in complex human societies. Complaining about uncertainty is every bit as pointless as moaning about the weather. All we can do is deal with it. As human beings, we are particularly well-equipped to cope with uncertainty. Every one of us is provided by nature with a massive pattern-detection and problem-solving machine which evolved specifically for the purpose of dealing with the uncertainties thrown up by our environment. And we have developed ways of pooling this huge intellectual resource as well as means of enhancing it. Without uncertainty, human intellect would be almost entirely redundant.

Some of us pointed out that what was being condemned as the scary uncertainty of independence was actually no more than the challenge of democratic choice. One of the most striking of the inconsistencies and contradictions which characterised the British state’s anti-independence propaganda effort was its portrayal of the consequences of a Yes vote as simultaneously both totally uncertain and absolutely certain to be dire and catastrophic for Scotland – and/or Western civilisation; and/or the planet, depending on the inanity setting of the rhetoric. But what was being presented as terrifying uncertainty about Scotland’s future was, in reality, merely the chance to select from a range of options for Scotland’s future. A range of options which extended well beyond what is available as part of the British state.

Some of us pointed out that it was actually the British establishment that was generating the worst of the uncertainty associated with the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status by, among other things, threats of retaliatory economic sanctions and an obdurate refusal to seek some sort of clarity on the implications for Scotland’s status in regard to the European Union should we choose to end the political union with England. Instead, we were told that our relationship with Europe could only be guaranteed by voting No. Otherwise, there was only profound uncertainty. And, curiously, the certainty of Scotland being expelled and excluded from the EU. Because, it seems, independence would automatically make Scotland a global pariah state.

But it wasn’t only economic uncertainty that unionists sought to promote as part of their aptly named Project Fear. It was brought to a personal level by widespread talk of independence making “foreigners” of family members. always with the implication that to be made “foreign” was to be reduced to some lesser form of humanity. There are distinct similarities between the way the anti-independence campaign tried to make people feel uncertain about their identity and the way many EU citizens are being made to feel uncertain about their status and rights as a consequence of Brexit.

There is little point in dwelling on the hypocrisy of those who sought and facilitated the EU referendum having condemned Scotland’s plebiscite on the grounds of it causing uncertainty. Such double-standards are a defining feature of the British state’s relationship with Scotland, and this was not a particularly remarkable example of the phenomenon. Apparently, there was no uncertainty involved in voting on whether the UK should cancel it’s membership of the EU. Or there was uncertainty, but it was “a price worth paying”. Or it was a different and benign kind of uncertainty.

In one sense these self-serving arguments are correct. The uncertainty unleashed by the whole Brexit fiasco is very different from the supposed uncertainty of Scotland’s first independence referendum. But it is far from benign. We now know that the latter had little or no deleterious impact on Scotland’s economy. To take just one example, as much as unionists predicted that the independence campaign would trigger a collapse in inward investment – and as hard as they tried to deter overseas investors so as to make their prediction come true – figures released after the vote showed that inward investment actually increased during the independence referendum campaign. The economic impact of Scotland’s referendum was negligible, at worst.

The same cannot be said of the EU referendum. The outcome, and the British political establishment’s subsequent collapse into total disarray, has severely disrupted the economies of the UK and much of the rest of the world. This alone demonstrates that we are here dealing with a form of uncertainty that is markedly different from any that might have been associated with the first independence referendum. This uncertainty is real. It is not misidentified opportunity or misrepresented choice. It is the realm of the genuinely unknown and unpredictable.

It is not uncertainty per se which is unhealthy, but uncertainty along with lack of control. Individuals, groups and organisations can generally cope with a significant degree of insecurity. But insecurity plus powerlessness leads to stress. And it is stress which tends to bring about the breakdown of health in every sphere – physical, social, political and economic.

In addition to the obvious uncertainties of the current situation, there is a powerful sense of a near-complete lack of control. A feeling that nobody is in charge. That events are proceeding under their own momentum, absent any responsible direction or influence.

Who do people turn to for information and assurances about how they will be affected by Brexit? There’s nobody! If you are a UK citizen living in one of the continuing EU member states, or if you are a citizen of one of those continuing EU member states resident in the UK, you have been placed in an intolerable limbo where nobody knows what the future holds for you. You are left listening to the vacuous pronouncements of politicians who have neither authority nor credibility over a background noise of unabashed xenophobic bitterness. The manner in which the Leave campaign was conducted has given licence to the base prejudices of Little Englanders in the same way that, two years ago, Project Fear unleashed the most hateful elements of British nationalism.

The refusal of the UK government to guarantee EU citizens the right to remain is only the superficial cause of their “fear and misery”. The real cause for concern is that there is no UK Government in the accepted sense; that there is no way a UK Government could offer any meaningful guarantees, even if there was a UK Government; and that no realistically foreseeable UK Government would have the political will to offer such guarantees in any case.

Now THAT is uncertainty!

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5 thoughts on “Uncertainty and stress

  1. Sandy

    The dishonesty and hypocrisy of the Westminster government and its supporters is a disgrace. I still can’t understand why anyone would consider voting No and giving them another chance.

    I believe that it is, in part, the holy mantra of Westminster sovereignty and the ‘no government can tie a future government’s hands’ idea that prevents them making any commitment to EU residents and their status. They don’t just provide a feeling of powerlessness but add that they can do to you what they want, almost on a whim.

  2. Terry Entoure

    Thanks for writing this.

    I’m a Scot living in Europe. It is encouraging, to me at least, that the German response so far has been to entice UK nationals with prospects of citizenship and to give positive signals that UK nationals are welcome to relocate their start-ups and businesses. I do wonder, though, how long this will last if Theresa May really uses EU nationals in the UK as a bargaining chip. Could there be a game of tit-for-tat? For anyone caught up in this mess this is squeaky bum time. Just so much uncertainty.

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      Your concerns are totally understandable. But, looking on the bright side, it could well be that this situations alters the dynamic of discussions around the who the issue of migration in Europe. The xenophobes and Little Englanders certainly aren’t having it all their own way at the moment. And those with something positive to say about freedom of movement have been emboldened by, among other things, the Scottish Government’s unequivocally supportive stance.

      1. John Docherty

        Yes Peter but one only has to look back through history to see the fear effect that strong right wing tendencies lead to. There is nothing more fearful than fear itself and the ploy has certainly worked in both the first independence referendum and again in the EU referendum. Farage, Gove and Boris were well aware of how the spectre of immigration moves the uneducated and moronic mind and see what happened. We have to be positive, respond to racism wherever it occurs and be prepared for the hysteria that will follow the next indyref…mark my words it will come again and the people of Scotland will need strong hearts and mindss.

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