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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 23/09/2006

Readers of last week’s Sunday papers in Scotland must have felt confused. Both the Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday carried a story telling us that Professor Tom Devine has updated his celebrated Scottish Nation by adding two chapters. The book will appear on St Andrews Day at the end of November and has been commissioned by the publishers to mark next year’s 300th anniversary of the Act of Union.

The headline in the Sunday Herald read: "Scottish intellectuals are ‘talking the country down’". The sub-heading read ‘leading historian attacks ‘pessimism’ fuelled by movers and shakers’. Those cited as being ‘attacked’ (yes, attacked) by the historian include Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4, who is well-known for his Saturday radio programme on football. A few months ago he argued that Scotland was in love with a culture of ‘miserabilism’ and hardly had the ink dried on the newspapers carrying the story and he was given a drubbing by Professor Devine. Another intellectual who was severely rebuked by Scotland’s leading historian was the Scottish Harvard based historian Niall Ferguson. His sin? He called Scotland ‘the Belarus of the west’.

Devine argues that the pessimistic commentary on Scotland has been brought into ‘even sharper focus’ by the publication of my book, The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence. He says that I argue there are ‘dark aspects of the Scottish psyche which inhibited transformational change, especially in the area of economic development.’ He disputes there is a ‘crisis of confidence’ or a ‘dependency culture’ and argues that Scotland is doing well economically and culturally.

At one point in the Sunday Herald article Devine is quoted as saying: "I want to encourage debate. I am not speaking as a supporter of devolution, but I wish to make the point that there is going to be an attempt by those not in support of the Scottish government to downplay its advances and emphasise the more negative aspects." At another point he says " it isn’t important" if those he dubs pessimistic about Scotland ‘are right or wrong" (so much for facts and empirical evidence, then). What matters is ‘the fact that Scotland is doing so well."

But while Sunday Herald readers are invited to see Scotland’s leading historian as carrying the flag of Scottish optimism, readers of Scotland on Sunday are treated to a completely different picture. Above a headline which warns "Deprivation and inequality ‘divide nation’" a subtitle reads: ‘Historian’s bleak picture of Scotland portrays thousands mired in poverty." No the historian in question is not Niall Ferguson but that great positive commentator on Scotland, Professor Tom Devine. In this piece, we hear about the historian’s ‘damning judgement’ and his belief that devolution has ‘so far failed to tackle the inequalities of the country’s poorest estates’. Apparently Devine writes about Scottish health inequalities being a ‘depressing picture’. He might not talk about Scotland being like ‘Belarus’ but he does admit that some poor areas of Glasgow have worse male life- expectancy than modern-day Lebanon, Bosnia or the Gaza Strip. He also says the circumstances are there for a ‘dependency culture to exist’. According to Scotland on Sunday, Devine ‘doubts’ whether inequality ‘can every be reversed’.

Confused? I know I am. The overall message seems to be only Professor Devine is allowed to say anything negative about modern Scotland or admit there may be problems. Anyone else doing it is going to be slapped into line by him and told about how brilliantly well we are doing.

The irony is that whatever may be said about my contribution to the debate on Scotland it is certainly not one-sided or pessimistic. Pessimism is not about saying there are problems. It is about believing that difficulties are intractable. I have never portrayed Scotland as having any problems which could not be ameliorated with political will, concerted effort, vision and commitment. Surely the Centre is testimony to this optimistic mindset.

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