Be angry, don't despair. Photo: Flickr/Pabak Sarkar
Show Hide image

Don't give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy

Don't let the bastards get you down – choose action over despondency when coming to terms with the general election result.

Hours after the Conservatives were re-elected, the government looked at cutting access to work schemes for the disabled. You'd think they'd at least have the decency to bring some flowers before shafting the vulnerable, but no. Not these guys. Not today. Today is not yesterday. Today, David Cameron does not just have the political will to slash welfare and widen the wealth gap: he has a mandate.

I have spent much of the past 48 hours lying in bed staring at the ceiling, reading despairing, four-letter posts on social media and trying to work out how on earth this happened, as if anyone with half a brain doesn't know. The political elites closed ranks and capitulated to a politics of fear, first in Scotland, and then across the nation.

The muddled, equivocating voice of what was once the party of the left could not compete with the merciless message of austerity telling us we got what’s coming to us. We know what that is. More cuts to public services. More inequality. More lies. More of the old Cameron doctrine with no pratting about pretending we’re all in it together. The same great taste, now with zero liberals.

A lot of people are very depressed today, and with good reason. I think it’s important to talk about that depression. Talking helps. I read that in a pamphlet somewhere.

Depression is a physical and emotional illness with a profound sociopolitical component. It’s also a total bastard. Depression tells you that you're lazy and worthless. That the bad things that may happen to you and your family are all your fault, and if you feel like dying, you'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Sound familiar?

There's a reason depression and its precarious cousin, anxiety, are the dominant political modes of late capitalism. This is how you're supposed to feel. This is how you do feel, if you accept their logic. You don't need a nasty little voice in your head telling you you're useless and deserve nothing. You've got Iain Duncan Smith. For five more years.

The Tories prey on the politics of despair, and I think we've let them do it. It’s not our fault. Depression is still a source of shame, especially in a country like this. When everything feels awful and out of control, it's paradoxically easier to blame yourself and your neighbours than it is to direct anger outwards.

When things are getting worse very quickly, when society is getting meaner and more expensive, when your work is precarious, your housing is precarious, and precariousness itself has become an anxious daily reality, it's somehow comforting to think that you and your community could have changed it all by making different choices. That it's your fault for being lazy and sick. It may not feel good, but it feels safe – safer than facing the idea that so many decisions about your life are being made without your input, by people whose interests are so alien to your own they may as well be on a slab in a base in New Mexico.

The psychiatrist M Scott Peck is one of many experts to observe that depression is just anger, defanged and turned in on itself. That's as true on a social level as it is on a political one. An angry population is hard to govern. A depressed population is easy. The new Tory government would really prefer it if our collective political position was “prone”.

It is no accident that, of all the public services that have been cut to the gristle by what we must now think of as the first five years of Tory austerity, the already-underfunded mental health system suffered most. The crisis in mental health in Britain is profoundly political.

The politics of the modern right are the politics of depression, and right now they are winning. What remains of the British left is flat on its back, staring at the ceiling in a mess of unwashed sheets, and shouting at it to get up is not going to help right now.

I’m not about to tell you to just buck up. I’m not advocating enforced blissed-outedness like a sort of fascist Gwyneth Paltrow. Some of my best friends are hippies, and I like yoga and meditation and suspicious smoothies as much as the next bourgeois lefty throwback, but downward-facing-dog is not a radical position, and that’s not what this is about.

I’m talking about treating ourselves and others, if we can stomach it, with some basic charity right now. I’m talking about being careful not to slip into catastrophic thinking, which is difficult, because there actually has been a catastrophe.

Depression is not inappropriate at this time. But the moment when you give in to it utterly is the moment they've won. They win when people start saying things like “that's just the way the world is”.

The opposite of depression is not happiness. It’s not even hope. The opposite of depression is action. It's dragging your bone-weary carcass into the shower and doing what needs to be done so you can deal with the day. It's reaching out to friends even when you have no idea what to say. It's making a to-do list, even if nine out of ten numbered points are “drink, because fuck this”.

The opposition of depression is action. Action is the only thing that gets us to a better world, and big actions start with very little ones. We don’t have to overthrow the government today. We can take a few days to drink cold tea and listen to Billy Bragg’s saddest albums. Depression wins when getting better seems so overwhelming as to be impossible. Recovery begins one tiny, tiny step at a time.

I understand that it's comparatively easy for me to say this. I have a job. I'm studying abroad right now at an elite American university. There is a huge difference between being depressed because your country is going to hell and your communities are fragmenting and being depressed because your own life, in addition, is about to implode under the weight of George Osborne’s red briefcase. Those of us with the good fortune to be in the former category have the option of staring blankly at the wall, because at least we still have a wall. More than anyone else, those people have a responsibility to get up and do something as soon as the hangovers wear off.

This is not a moment for people who happen to have made it through the past five years with moderate financial stability and our consciences intact to accept the narrative that we are assigned politics by class. That the best way to read our ethics, our understanding of the worth and purpose of humanity, is off the back of a bloody bank statement. This is not a moment to throw up our hands, open a packet of biscuits and say – fuck it, I got mine.

Because that’s a disgusting thing to do.

I am not particularly interested in how or whether the Labour party is going to choose to sort its sorry self out and provide a real, electable alternative to the politics of fear and hopelessness. I hope it does, but right now I'm more concerned about what's going to happen to people on the ground. Right now, the important thing is to take care of ourselves and one another, and to be as kind as possible. Because there’s a big fight ahead, and kindness is more important now than ever.

Kindness is mandatory. Anger is necessary. Despair is a terrible idea. Despair is how they win. They won’t win forever.

And we don't ever have to talk about Nick Clegg again now. So there's that.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496