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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 17/05/2011 | 5 Comments

It is over a week since Scotland's momentous election result and I've been  deliberately keeping quiet to let the dust settle. Even though the novelty and shock have abated,  it's impossible to deny that we are now in a new land. Of course, it is easy to overestimate the percentage of the population who actually voted SNP or talk erroneously of the collapse of the Labour vote but, nontheless, politically so much has changed.  Like it or loathe it Scottish politics and public life in the next five years will be dominated by constitutional change and by the views and policies of the Scottish National Party.

There's little doubt that the party which most understands the type of issues the Centre has been communicating since its inception in 2005 is the SNP. Indeed in 2008 I gave a speech on positive psychology and the importance of optimism and at the end of the session two SNP councillors confided that the research I had outlined in my talk had won them the 2007 election. I don't know all the details but I have been informed that all candidates and senior SNP people undertook training which majored on the role of optimism and hope in election campaigns.  It completely altered the party's strategy. Prior to 2007 their case for independence focussed on how poorly Scotland was faring under the Union: economic growth  was lower than the rest of the UK's and the country's population falling. This was a pretty gloomy picture and not a vote winning formula as independence was risky if Scotland was performing so badly. 

The SNP's 2007 election campaign changed all this. Instead of exaggerating Scotland's problems the party talked up the country and their hopes for the future.  Labour headed off in the opposite direction – now they exaggerated Scotland's dependence on England and how disastrous voting for the SNP would be for the country.  In short, Labour ran a classically negative campaign.  The change in strategy worked for the SNP: not only did they get one more seat than Labour but they also created a professional and credible image for themselves as a party of government.

In the 2011 election there was a re-run of these different strategies. Labour majored on the threat of cuts and the need to protect public services and jobs. Their slogan 'Scotland deserves better,' while superficially positive, was in reality an unattractive mix of dependency and entitlement.  The SNP continued with their optimistic vision for Scotland and their, albeit strangely worded, slogan 'Be part of better' at least offered voters a role in the creation of something positive.  In essence, Labour's campaign was about fear and the SNP's about hope. Labour's strategy worked with its die-hard supporters (their vote hardly budged) but failed miserably in attracting floating voters and those disaffecting from the Liberal Democrats: they went in sackloads to the SNP.

The SNP's positive messages were also evident on election night. Alex Salmond's speech in the grounds of  Prestonfield House was exquisitely crafted and delivered. He spoke of the need for Scotland ' to travel in hope and aim high.'  The word 'better', a key part of the SNP's election campaign, was constantly repeated along with other positive phrases such as a 'heart to forgive' or words such as 'trust' and 'faith'. He ended by talking about 'Team Scotland' having won the election.  Even his opponents would agree that  it was an inspiring speech which eschewed triumphalism and struck the right note.

If you browse the Centre's website you'll see that we have a great deal of information to help understand why this is such a winning formula. Hope is a great motivator and many people want to uphold ideals or serve goals bigger than themselves. I believe this has a particular appeal in Scotland. One of my main arguments in The Scots' Crisis of Confidence is that, unlike the American dream which is about individuals fulfilling their personal aspirations, the Scottish dream is of  'collective redemption'. Interestingly it is a dream which appears to hold little appeal to our southern neighbours.  In her book Watching the English the anthropologist Kate Fox argues that if England had a slogan it would be 'come off it'. Quite simply they are not fond of big ideas –the culture is too individualistic, pragmatic and down to earth for that and this approach militates against people being attracted to a large, inspiring vision. Of course, some people in Scotland are similarly turned off, yet talking big about the future for the country  - a joint future – is much more likely to appeal to the Scots than the English.

As a positive, up-beat message helped the SNP win the past two elections, the Scottish Government must be tempted to continue in a similar vein. There is little doubt of the value of optimism as it is energises and can encourage persistence in the face of challenges.  But optimism can be unrealistic and blind. It can lead people to be so impervious to potential danger that they are foolhardy and cavalier. When used by leaders it can silence critics and stop anyone saying anything which doesn't fit with their optimistic vision. According to the critic Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Smile or Die this is exactly what happened in American banks and was one of the reasons for the economic crash. She argues that pointing out the dangers of the bank's chosen investment strategies lost employees their jobs as they were seen as negative and 'off message'.  It is often said by those who worked with ex RBS chief, Fred Goodwin, that he didn't want people to bring him problems, only solutions.  But what happens if the problem is so entrenched that there isn't an immediate, positive solution? Sadly we know the answer - the bank needs to be bailed out by taxpayers and we all pay for their foolhardy and overly optimistic enterprises.

Having spent several years involved in the positive psychology movement I have detected similarly worrying trends there. Once you make optimism, appreciation, gratitude and positive emotion your goal then saying anything which is critical appears to strike the wrong note and folk shy away from any negative stance.  Indeed I believe that one of the main problems with this movement is its uncritical hero worship of Professor Martin Seligman.

Scotland, like the rest of the world, faces huge challenges with the economy, inequality, social exclusion, and the impending threats caused by our overuse of resources and lack of care for the environment. Yes we need to believe that we can solve problems but we also need the rigour of analysis, and people feeling allowed to say 'hold on a minute' or express critical views without being upbraided for being negative or pessimistic.

This is no idle theory for me as I spent years prior to setting up the Centre working with teams. Those which routinely had the most difficulties in delivering real change were the ones where the team was exclusively composed of bright, upbeat optimists or where the few pessimistic, critical thinkers were effectively shut up or marginalised by being branded 'negative'.  What these teams had to learn is that effective change needs the energy and drive of those who are positive and keen on change but it also needs the insight of those who are critical and analytical.  Good leadership is able to harness these criticism and insights to deliver effective change rather than stopping the negative views arising in the first place.
Like many things in life this is about balance. Scotland will benefit from becoming more optimistic about the future, more energised and with more sense of can-do. The Scottish Government has a considerable leadership role to play here. But in my view it will lose its way if, in the quest for positivity, it marginalises critics who could help warn of dangers or examine forcefully, and in-depth, some of the considerable challenges we face as a nation.

Comment By Comment
Joined: 11/03/2011

Comment Posted: 21/05/2011 11:25
I have voted for the SNP for the last 3 decades mainly because I believe that there is no chance of having a decent, fair society on a UK level (see my comments re inequality below) whereas we might, just might, be able to get political consensus on a Scottish level (whether 'independence' or something more federal). However, politics in Scotland remains tribal and hence any expressed support for the SNP inevitably alienates other folks in terms of what the Centre's trying to do?
I agree with the comments on the dangers of 'excessive positivity'; having a confident approach should allow for informed criticism rather than being used as a basis for suppressing it. That's why I would hope that notwithstanding the SNP majority etc, that the Parliament as a whole will play a much more pro-active and less tribal role in formulating social and economic policy; i.e. support 'good' policies and oppose 'bad/ill-conceived' policies on their merits rather than on the basis of opposition for oppositions's sake! Dealing with sectarianism (rushed legislation may turn out to be poor legislation) and alcohol abuse are two social priority areas where I would hope that the Parliament can adopt a positive and non-partisan approach as Scotland deserve's nothing less.
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Joined: 26/05/2011

Comment Posted: 26/05/2011 15:51
Very interesting reflections, Carol. I agree with the compelling case you make for presenting a positive vision in any change process or campaign. And the opening paragraphs make for compulsory reading for Labour campaign strategists. Thanks!

Where I take some issue with your analysis is the assertion that there is something uniquely Scottish about being inspired by hope and a positive vision; or at least being more predisposed towards it. You wrote: Hope is a great motivator and many people want to uphold ideals or serve goals bigger than themselves. I believe this has a particular appeal in Scotland.

I would be interested to see evidence, rather than anecdote or pop-anthropology, for the notion that the English are not motivated by a hope-laden big-picture: Quite simply they are not fond of big ideas the culture is too individualistic, pragmatic and down to earth for that and this approach militates against people being attracted to a large, inspiring vision.

In my experience the power of the positive, aspirational and inspiring is universal. Look at the global and enduring attraction of the brighter images of the future painted by each of Ghandi, Luther King and JFK. Do you really have evidence to show that the English are less affected by such rhetoric, or less attached to the beliefs that underpin their orations?

I do like this http://youtu.be/u6XAPnuFjJc piece from the RSA showing how, in matters of work at least, it is a big purpose that motivates us, alongside autonomy and mastery.

Turning finally to balance, your final theme, I agree completely on its vital importance. Somewhat ironically given my previously espoused suspicion of uniquely Scottish traits, I think this is one where we should be better, albeit I dont have the evidence in front of me right now. We used to have barrow-loads of healthy scepticism, a mis-trust of plummy accents, and no respect based on what school you went to. A mans a man and a that. Literally. So it should come easier to us to eschew the unsubstantiated and unqualified.

But I am not so sure, nowadays. Your Fred Goodwin example is a very good one, where critical examination of evidence was posted missing. And, sad to say, I could add to your collection of examples, collected across the UK and beyond in the course of my work. Is this a regressive feature? Dont know. Nor am I sure about the reasons for what I perceive as a diminution in healthy scepticism, and adoption of untested orthodoxies in many fields. But I think we have, oddly, become less tolerant of different opinions existing in our midst.

Tolerance and embracing diversity must mean more than simply having a few more black faces or women in an organisation, and then feeling good about it. It must extend to diversity of opinions and perspectives. That a board member is welcomed for expressing what could initially be seen as a heretical view. That a nurse on a ward can speak up about certain clinical practices being dangerous. I think that while civic UK is improving a bit in this regard, I see not enough evidence of progress in our government and public institutions. Without a genuine manifestation that diversity of opinion is healthy, valuable indeed essential - there is little prospect of balance entering the debate about whither our nation.
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Joined: 26/05/2011

Comment Posted: 04/06/2011 12:07
To Carol/ web administrator: I have just re-read my comment above and see that the apostrophes and inverted commas/ quotation marks are missing. I think this must be something in your software, because they were certainly there when I posted my comment.
The absence of this punctuation changes the meaning. It is not clear when I am quoting from your piece, and when I am making points by myself.
Might be worth a look.
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