Andrew Wilson: Empowerment provides life chances

Sir Harry Burns believes we need to overcome negativity by giving people a sense that if they took 'control they could make life better for themselves. Picture: TSPL
Sir Harry Burns believes we need to overcome negativity by giving people a sense that if they took 'control they could make life better for themselves. Picture: TSPL
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AS THE the finishing line approaches, I feel my mind focused less on the tape than its aftermath.

My spirits remain resolute and optimistic about the capacity of our country to make the right choice and nudge our collective chest over a winning position. But I ponder most on what we do with it. Actually what we do with either outcome.

I have long believed that 18 September is not D-Day but Day One. It is the start of a new and profoundly positive chapter in our story. A giant step along our “journey without end”. I feel good, very good, about my country right now.

Maybe it’s the sea air as I take a break in the ever more delightful town of St Andrews. In different settings the world can seem transformed: my evenings in the garden are punctuated by gulls whose gallus cries offend the senses in a city but lift the spirits in the home they are born to, by the waves.

Gazing out to sea always calms me and lends a sense of the boundless possibilities of the world. I imagine the sheer ingenuity and guile of the generations of travellers who left the coast of Scotland to seek the better life. I studied in this town as a 17-year-old child of Lanarkshire. I could only dream then of the opportunity we all have in our hands in a few weeks’ time. We don’t have to set sail to demonstrate ingenuity and guile any more.

But the question I keep pondering is “what do we do with what is next”? Day one, not D-day. How do we bottle the almost unbelievable sense of engagement and creation that is alive in our country today?

Sir Harry Burns, the former Chief Medical Officer of the country, is a profoundly significant man. He dev­oted his life to the service of others and cared, every single day, for the betterment of lives. Integrity oozes from his eyes. He is one of those
people that makes you want to be a better person.

He speaks with the gentle lilt of a man who has literally nothing to prove to anyone. It was my privilege to take part in a radio show with him last week. Barrhead, Pacific Quay, then on to New York City. That was his Sunday.

I mention all of this because only once in every while does someone step into your life and make the complex and the voluminous simple and condensed. Harry did that. His focus was our choices on health and well-being. He addressed the Scottish sense of “why bother?”

The words he uttered were truly profound: “there is a fatalism, there is a sense that it is not me that controls my future, my future is controlled elsewhere and we talk about a sense of control and an internal locus of control. Control over your life rests with you, not with some finger out there that points at you and says, right, it’s your turn. We need to overcome this negativity by giving people a sense of aspiration, a sense of the future, a sense that if they took
control they could make life better for themselves”.

I was simply blown away. Right there, in the simple words of a deep man is the challenge to all sides in the referendum and to all those that would lead us in what lies beyond.

We face a binary choice on 18 September, but how we behave once it is made is a much more complex question.

The opportunity for all now is clear. Take control. Our life chances are made by our life choices.

Sir Harry’s whole world view echoes another moment and world. Long before the icy lie of communist dictatorship fell, the work of Solidarity in Poland and Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia resonated with the same need for ordinary people to take control and destroy lies by living in their own small truths.

The daily thoughts, words and act­ions we take begin to build the wider world. Even the least powerful people can become empowered if they live in their own truth. That’s the idea.

Let’s be clear. We live in a wholly different country and era. Scotland is free, open and with far more opportunity in front of us. We are a developed, modern economy and society, a democracy with our own choice to make. The stakes are wholly different.

But philosophically, the challenge is identical and ought to be embraced by all sides. If people in far more straightened times and countries could seize control of their own life chances, then it must be far easier for us whether we are talking health or central government.

The tide has turned against the era of centralised, establishment control. The day of the empowered truthful citizen lie ahead.

Whatever happens next, the colossal opportunity is clear. Begin “Living in truth” as Vaclav Havel wrote all those years ago. And don’t wait for life to be done to us.

The era of hoping for the benign (or malign) “great and good” to look after us is done. Now it is up to us.

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW