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Crisis of Confidence

Key messages
Here are ten of the most important messages from The Scots' Crisis of Confidence. They are stated briefly here and are supported with a variety of types of evidence in the book.

1. Self-confidence increasingly matters in the modern world. The fact that the Scots collectively and individually lack confidence has enormous implications for economic growth, enterprise, physical and mental health, creativity, personal relationships and parenting skills. It also has a deleterious affect on Scotland?s political culture and contributes to a widespread 'cannae do' attitude.

2. Scotland's relationship with England (i.e. being the junior partner in an incorporating union) has no doubt contributed to the confidence gap but it is not the main cause. Self-confidence is kept in check in Scotland by the way the Scots themselves see the world. This means that political independence or fiscal autonomy may help build Scottish confidence but it is not on its own the answer to Scotland's confidence problem.

3. Over the years the Scots have fretted about the vulnerability of Scottishness and Scottish identity. Hundreds of books have been written in the continual quest to understand what Scottishness means. But the problem of Scottishness needs to be stood on its head - Scotland is not suffering from too little Scottish culture and a weak Scottish identity but from the fact that Scottish culture is far too limiting and prescriptive. Being Scottish comes with a fairly narrow set of attitudes about how a 'true Scot' should behave and what he or she should think and this stunts individuality, creativity and enterprise. Many Scots fear challenging these prevailing ideas in case they are criticised, denounced or ostracised. 

4. So what are the inhibiting beliefs, attitudes and general mindset which lead to conformity? Many arise from Scotland's Calvinist past and have been reinforced in modern times by Labour movement values. They are so much part of the culture they affect everyone living here (including Catholics and atheists) and include some of the following:

  • A strong tendency to see the world in strict either/or terms, particularly worthless/damned; good/bad; right/wrong.
  • A tendency to treat a person's mistakes or miscalculations as the result of deliberate bad faith rather than an error. This means that if anyone makes a mistake or does something judged to be wrong then they are personally accountable for it and no excuses or extenuating circumstances are permitted in defence. It also means that people's motives for action are often viewed as suspect. This is a viewpoint which leads to cynicism and blame and is one of the reasons why Scots feel overly fearful of making mistakes.
  • An overriding tendency to believe that criticism (and blame) are helpful and lead to improvement. This means that appreciation tends to get squeezed out and the importance of motivation downplayed or forgotten about altogether.
  • A prevailing belief that it is wrong to think highly of yourself and that you should just see yourself as the same as others. Americans share this strong belief in equality but in their culture it leads to the view that if we are all born equal then everyone is special whereas in Scotland the notion that we are all equal leads to the idea that no-one is special.
  • A strong injunction to 'know your place' and not get above your station. This exhortation comes from Scotland's egalitarian values but paradoxically, in a society where people do not set out in life equal all it does is reinforce class (and gender) inequality.
  • A sense of everyone's fate being bound up with others. This clearly can have positive aspects but in a critical judgmental climate it can heighten people's fear of doing anything different for fear of being criticised or cast out. It also leads to an inadequate sense of privacy and boundaries. In England there is a prevailing notion of what people choose to do in their own life is their business (an Englishman's home is his castle) but in Scotland it is common for people to believe that they may have to account to others for their actions (e.g. where they live, how they spend money, educate their children etc.) or even for what they think. This, and the previous points, all contribute to the common Scots' fear of drawing attention to yourself.
  • A strong Utopian tendency in Scottish public life where people commonly believe that we must all build the New Jerusalem - a perfectly fair, just society where money does not matter. This tendency to Utopian dreams leads to panacea politics (e.g. a Scottish Parliament will solve Scotland?s problems) and completely unrealistic expectations. When they are not fulfilled extreme negativity sets in (what hopeless, terrible people we are). Another contrast with America is that whereas the American dream is a dream for individuals to create their own life, the Scottish dream is a dream of collective redemption for Scotland.

5. Paradoxically, alongside this pressure to conform and not stand out in Scotland there is another pressure - to prove your worth. And coupled with the strong sense of mission and purpose and a highly developed worth ethic, it has led to some very fine Scottish achievements. However, over the years many of these have only been realised by Scots once they have gone abroad and freed themselves from the constraints of Scottish culture. Many of these achievements have also been in areas which the Scottish value system has deemed acceptable - e.g. education, health, missionary work, law etc. Obviously there will always be individual Scots with such drive, ambition and flair that they will not obey the pressure to conform and will do their own thing. But sadly in today's Scotland, such Scots are in the distinct minority. 

6. Another paradox is that Scotland is a country which should be vibrant, outward looking and inventive. Unlike the English who have always had the reputation for being a deeply conservative and inward looking people who venerate tradition and what they know from experience, the Scots were once internationally renowned as energetic, speculative and inventive people. If we could lift the dead-hand of some of Scotland's restrictive values, some of this old vibrancy may bounce back. 

7. The Scots are so proud of their egalitarian values that they deny the reality of modern-day Scotland. Scotland is a society which is deeply divided by class and wealth. Any outsider will tell you that Scottish society is very hierarchical and there is a distinct pecking order. Racism and bigotry are also ugly features of modern Scotland. If Scotland is to become more dynamic it must begin to face up to these problems. It must also start genuinely valuing diversity and seeing difference as something to be welcomed rather than something to be curtailed. Again one of the underlying problems here is that there is too tight and restrictive a notion of what it means to be Scottish. 

8. Scottish culture is extremely masculine in character. Even the emotional, tender side of Scottish culture is the preserve of Robert Burns and the Burns cult - not women. Over the centuries Scottish women's contribution to society at large has not only been neglected, but also their lives have been particularly restricted and shaped by tight notions of 'respectability'. Since women account for over fifty per cent of the population this pressure on women to conform has led to a great restriction on Scottish potential. 

9. If Scotland is to tackle some of the cultural barriers to the development of real self-confidence then it will need to change some crucial aspects of children's experience at school (particularly secondary school). But we shall not even get to first base in beginning to devise the type of changes needed unless we start to improve the terms of our debates and how we interact with one another. For example, to improve the prevailing atmosphere in Scotland we must stop seeing the world in stark black and white (good and bad) terms; we must stop demonising people who think differently from us; and we must learn the art of appreciation and stop criticising and blaming so much. We must also develop a more pragmatic approach to problems and resist the temptation to reason continually from first principles. 

10. Scotland was once a vibrant entrepreneurial economy. However, the masses' experience of urbanisation and work in the 19th century was so awful that even business leaders lost faith in the system's ability to deliver a reasonable standard of living for the majority and they turned to the state to provide solutions. Scotland's dependency culture was thus born. Despite this previous experience, Scotland needs to become much more positive about enterprise rather than project the country as a good site for inward investment.

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