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Scotland referendum: long dark nights of the soul ahead for the losers

It's been a rollercoaster – and with unprecedented levels of political engagement, the psychological impact will be huge.

Guardian article by Karen McVeigh, Sept 18th 2014

Waking up on Friday morning, for millions of Scots, will produce the kind of mixture of gut wrenching anxiety tinged with excitement normally felt among football fans before an important game. Then there will be a range of emotions from euphoria on one side to anger and bitter disappointment on the other.

Those who stayed up through the night for the result may feel it all the more.

David Williams, a chartered occupational psychologist specialising in change in communities and organisations, said the nation could be subject to a rollercoaster transition period, which could last for a year or longer due to the unprecedented levels of engagement reported in the Scottish referendum campaign.

Williams said: "Like fight or flight, there a well-established psychological process called transition which allows people to come to terms with a trauma or change. It is part of our collective evolution and survival capacity. It is interesting because it happens individually but also collectively too."

He added: "For those losing, there will be shock and anger and utter disbelief that will last a few days; then denial for a few months. It takes about five or six months to viscerally understand how deep these changes will be. This could lead to dark nights of the soul."

Williams, who previously advised MPs who were suffering a "crisis period" following Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997, said: "It will have huge repercussions in all three political parties as it is the biggest challenge to the political parties have had in a long time."

"They may think they have got away with it, depending on the way it goes. But it throws up questions of identity and holds up a mirror to vulnerabilities in the existing system."

"The good thing is it is a growth process. We don't grow as adults without it."

Simon Petrie, a clinical psychologist based in Stirling, said although emotions would no doubt run high in the next few days, what happens next is more unpredictable.

"It's been building for a long time," said Petrie. "It is different from anything I've ever known, in terms of engagement, and people are more on edge. They are going to be waking up in the morning with that gut-wrenching sense of anxiety. A little bit of hope, a little bit of dread."

"It's been a very emotional time for a lot of people, who have chucked their heart and soul into it. Where does all that go? It's interesting, you don't know where its going to lead. It could get a bit lively."

Some pubs were planning to open all night during the count, and there have been warnings that Friday night could be a flashpoint for trouble.

"It is inevitable, when people have their passions up, that it brings out a tribal element. I hope it doesn't. But at some level, people will be angry."

Petrie said that "regardless of the outcome, you'll want a sense of what's coming next. When people are raw and emotional, that will be one of the things that will help, particularly in the event of a yes, which throws up more questions."

After years of campaigning from both sides, the outcome of the referendum will provide at least some relief to voters.

Dr William Matthews, psychologist at Cambridge University, said "People generally have ambiguity aversion. They don't like voting where the probability of the outcomes are not well-defined. So whatever they feel about the outcome of tomorrow, they will feel some element of relief."

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