If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Robin McAlpine

I’m just about to go on leave for two weeks, and I need it. It has been an exhausting year, I’ve not had any time off yet and I can feel myself worn out and demotivated. Fine, so are lots of people. Why am I wasting your time with this?

Because the scale of my weariness is out of proportion to the intensity of my workload. I have thought hard about why I’m feeling so drained because it is a conversation I’ve had with an awful lot of activists, and we seem to share the same ailment. My conclusion is that what is grinding people down is the sheer emotional toll of trying to remain optimistic in the face of events around us.

And my god is optimism hard to come by just now? This week the Scottish Government revealed yet another missed carbon emissions target – and it seems barely to have made the news. We had pretty grim economic news, a clearly dysfunctional domestic political scene, a permanently dysfunctional UK political scene, a petrifying geopolitical picture around us and, well, AI is scary.

The cost of living crisis is barely abating and now the mortgage time-bomb is hitting us as it always was always going to. The NHS is in a bad way and public services seem to be misfiring everywhere. So far this year it feels like Scotland seems to have failed at just about everything it has tried – except football (never thought I’d write that…).

But for a lot of people in my circles what seems to be particularly getting them down is the state of the cause of independence. For a very long time now they have been led to believe that serious, fast-moving action on independence was round the corner. They are now being confronted with the reality that there is no immediate prospect of change.

Many people had been hoping really, really hard that a change of leadership in the SNP would lead to a new approach. It hasn’t – this weekend’s conference really demonstrates how little has changed, how much we’re still stuck in the same loop, how big is the gap between the promises and anything that comes close to delivering on those promises.

Activism is hard. Almost without fail the reason we are activists is because we are fighting for a cause we believe in against opponents who have the power and resources. Basically if it is you that has the power and the resources, you don’t need activism, you just use your power and resources to get what you want.

So it is inevitable that you are always fighting an uphill battle as an activist and you are always beset by recurring failures and disappointments. That is its nature. But so long as you can still hope and you can still believe, you can keep going in the face of setbacks.

So how is our hope doing? Social failures are everywhere, climate change is killing people now and has barely started, the global economy is shaking and geopolitics have become frankly, petrifying. If you combine that with the failure of Westminster rule and the failure to get anywhere near independence (which many people were clinging to as an escape hatch) you get a grim picture.

Hope isn’t generating itself, and then if you stop and look at who is presenting you positive, hopeful options that you have any chance of believing in, you realise how far the balance is wrong. Just now, for many, you can barely see the hope for the fear.

So if you feel it getting you down, you aren’t alone. I’m struggling. While physical labour is tiring, you leave it behind; emotional labour is exhausting and you carry it with you everywhere.

How do we as individuals respond to this? This is a really hard question to answer. It is in my nature to get angry at injustice, failure, complacency and arrogance so I spend a lot of time angry just now. Again, I’m only sharing this with you because of how many other people have said ‘I feel really angry and I feel guilty about it’. You’re not alone.

If you care about peace, you are surrounded everywhere by warmakers . If you care about social fairness, everywhere you look are financiers and billionaires getting bailed out again and again then who then screw us over anyway.

If you care about the climate crisis, you are never more than hours away from an oil exec, a trade unionists or a politician starting a sentence with ‘I’m not a climate change denier but…’ before advocating for getting as much oil out the ground as fast as we possibly can because it makes them wealthy. (If you’ve ever said this then you are a climate change denier and if you have oil wealth then your wealth is already being earned at the expense of children in Africa and South Asia.)

If you care about independence there is also a big chance that you hoped something genuinely different would happen under a new SNP leadership, yet you are surrounded by continuity, in government, in independence strategy, in the management of the party. 

All of the above and so much more gives us all reason to be angry. Yet it is really important to be clear that anger can easily be deeply corrosive unless it is managed well. It can be hard – anger can be indulgent and unproductive, but what can you do when you feel it? Tell yourself to stop feeling it?

My standard answer to this would be to encourage people to learn the difference between ‘hamoq’ and ‘hamas’. Hamoq is an Arabic word that means unfocussed, destructive anger while hamas is focussed, productive anger. Usually I would encourage people to take their hamoq and find a way to turn it into hamas (by this point I’ve been expelled from the Labour Party for using Arabic words).

So is this a moment when, collectively, we should take our reactive, shapeless, destructive anger and focus it into something sharp, something incisive, something useful? Can we turn our anger into a tool with which we can change the things that makes us angry, rejecting something which is just a scream of rage at it?

If I’m totally honest with you I can’t quite see what those tools are just now. It is hard to see what leverage any of us have at the moment, what we actually have the power to change. It isn’t public policy (while I’m away you’ll see a new Common Weal report on what has happened since the National Care Service bill was ‘paused’ so a ‘co-design’ process could be used, and it isn’t co-design).

That is what is burning me out the most. Often people contact me to say they just feel powerless, as if I don’t. We’re all powerless. It wouldn’t look like this if we had power. Scotland wouldn’t look like this if citizens had power. The world wouldn’t look like this if we all had power. The tools we could have manufactured from our anger this year don’t look sufficient for the task.

Everyone knows we face massive problems in Scotland (or everyone but the tiny number who are still tied into the fantasy that things are all going to plan and all we need to do is keep quiet for another few years). Very many people realise something has to change.

But if my correspondence and conversations are representative, people don’t know what it is. They, we, struggle to see what ‘the next thing’ looks like in Scotland. So when you don’t like ‘things as they are now’ and don’t know what ‘after this is over’ looks like, the sand starts to look like a nice place to store your head. 

So I take solace where I can. If everyone I talk to, civilian or activist, right or left, pro-indy or anti-indy, all think there is something serious wrong in Scotland and that something needs to be done about it, then surely in a democracy something has to give. Surely? Surely we can have this degree of constant failure and not see change?

We don’t lack the resources, the people or the determination. What we seem to lack is a plan to get behind – and those can be built with hard work. If there is a plan, perhaps we can start to believe again. We need to start to believe again.

I hope to come back refreshed and with my anger carefully sharpened. If you feel the same despondency and exhaustion I do, if you’re down, ready to walk away, had enough, I feel your pain, I really do. But try to stick it out. If the people who are sore at heart now leave the nation to those who are currently self-satisfied, it’ll get worse.

But it can get better. It can. We just need to will it and make it happen. Get a break this summer. Get your energy back. If we are going to make things better it will take all of us, all with the emotional resources to start fighting harder.

10 thoughts on “If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone”

  1. Ian Davidson

    I am not a footie fan and never really recovered from watching the disastrous 1978 World Cup! However, Scotland’s recent performance shows that competence breeds measured confidence, then the cycle of failure turns positive! Much of economics and politics is psychology? We shall see! Have a good summer break, sometimes inspiration comes in the gaps between words? Accepting the uncertainty of the future lessens the fatigue?

  2. An excellent piece..THANK YOU. I have lived through Tory and Labour governments. Thatcher and her supporters were cruel, ruthless people. I was distressed that my two children were exposed to such a government. Thatcher did change the social nature of Britain. I think my generation being brought up after the Second World War were certainly under resourced ( 50 children in my class) but there was a sense of hope that the people would prevail.

    I fully understand your feelings which you express so well. The folk I talk to are so scunnered with promises made and mandates declared. The SNP maybe has one last chance to be honest and present a believable strategy for independence. If they do not Labour by default takes control as a punishment.

    I know Labour …they are bullies and punish folk wholesale. They are all smoke and mirrors with few members . They have worked with the orange order for years in order to appear to have activists. Folk are so angry that even knowing all this they are prepared to at least attempt change to the SNP .

    Maybe this could be a form of directed anger you speak of in your article . Nothing changes if nothing changes.

  3. Campbell Anderson

    Thanks Robin,

    You ( and your team) need and deserve a well earned break.

    Enjoy your holiday and come back refreshed with your hamas finely focussed.


  4. I feel for you Robin, and also share your frustration at the lack of progress towards Scottish Independence.
    I have been a member of the S.N.P. for almost 60 years, but also support Common Weal, Business for Scotland and other Indy Groups. I hope you come back refreshed from your well deserved holiday. My wife and I are heading for the A.U.O.B. march in Stirling, as a wee bonus, hopefully to cheer you up, I am sending an extra £10.00 this month to Common Weal.
    I wish it could be so much more.
    At my age, I doubt if I will see Independence, but I am comforted by the fact that the young voters coming through appear to be in the majority for Independence. Remember we are standing on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us. Sincere thanks to all the team at Common Weal, we just have to hang in there. Yours for Scotland.

  5. Norman Cunningham

    Expelled from the Liebore Party? Badge of honour! Surely you have to be a member in the first place. You definitely need a break. Hope you and your family have a great time Robin.

  6. “When a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance when they have accumulated the power to enforce change. When they have amassed such strength, the writing of a program becomes almost an administrative detail. It is immaterial who presents the program. What is material is the presence of an ability to make events happen… The call to prepare programs distracts us excessively from our basic and primary tasks… We are, in fact, being counselled to put the cart before the horse… Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organise our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us.”

    Martin Luther King (1967)

  7. florian albert

    Reading this as a ‘civilian’, rather than an ‘activist’, I draw different conclusions about where Scotland is politically today. I am far less demotivated. I think that is because, for many years, I have had a more accurate appreciation of where and what Scotland is than Robin McAlpine.
    Since Hamilton in 1967, independence has been, overwhelmingly, an SNP project. There are many who resent this but it is impossible to deny this truth. (This means that many non-SNP activists have worked hard over the years for little impact.)
    It has been clear for most of Nicola Sturgeon’s reign – the the early months of covid were the exception – that no worthwhile progress was being made. If Robin McAlpine failed to grasp this he is sorely lacking in political judgement.
    Since Nicola quit in February, this absence of progress has been on full view. Even more significant, the idea that Scotland was a more successful political unit than the UK has been shown to be false. The SNP shows every sign of a collapse similar to that of SLAB in 2007 and 2011, for identical reasons. The campaign for independence is likely to be on hold until a new generation replaces the tired one on display in Dundee today.
    There is discontent with the status quo in Scotland but two caveats need to be noted; there is a reluctance to make a sacrifice for a better Scotland and there is a deep scepticism about the capacity of the present political class to deliver
    positive change.

  8. Robin,
    Thanks again for your honesty. I totally recognise what you are describing, both in myself and the activists around me.
    I would add to your comments, and those of others, that it would appear impossible to spend time with the “general public” and not be astonished and frustrated by how folk are just battling on with their lives, unwilling and/or unable to see the bigger picture that is creating their own particular difficulties.
    On a personal psychological / emotional / spiritual level I think that lasting resilience comes from a detachment from outcomes. We have to be motivated to do what is right for the sake of it without investing happiness and satisfaction in specific results. As hinted at above, MLK operated in the almost certain knowledge that he would not personally see “the promised land” that he dreamed of.

    1. florian albert

      Alan Reid,
      Your response to Robin McAlpine’s article suggests a shared problem; as activists you both appear disconnected from the ‘general public’/ citizens.
      If, as looks very likely, the SNP loses much of its support in upcoming elections, there is almost no chance that the Scottish Left will be the beneficiaries. Activists on the left are not getting through to vast numbers of disenchanted voters. This failure of the left is not unique to Scotland. Across Europe, voters are moving significantly to the right.
      There does not appear to be much recognition of this – beyond ritualistic denunciation of ‘fascists’ – let alone a political programme to combat it.

  9. This is spot on. Heartsore is the perfect expression. The mixture of sadness and anger on independence is draining and many people I know are just switching off.

    In my social circle our fields of work are war crimes prosecutions, peace negotiations, climate change and criminal defence – so you can imagine how morale has collapsed over the past decade. Everyone continues but more and more seeking motivation from other sources than work and campaigning til the wheel (hopefully) turns again.

    I hope you and colleagues at CW can reboot over summer.

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