I want to unlearn being Scottish

by | 28 Mar 2022

At the weekend I spent a little time with people not yet ground down with the Scottish expectation of failure - and I want more of it

I try not to write or do much politics at the weekend for sanity – and I never write after drinking. But I nearly broke both those rules at the weekend. Why? Because I felt kind of optimistic and kind of angry all at the same time.

It’s because I was at the Scotland-England Women’s Six Nations rugby match on Saturday, and because I got there in a bus organised by the girls’ rugby sides at my local club. I have written already on the joy that women’s rugby has brought to our household and to me specifically.

So I was looking forward to the day, but wasn’t prepared for how it left me feeling. It was a lovely sunny day and the girls on the bus were all excited. There was a lively show going on when we got there and there was a real party atmosphere (the girls were delighted from the start when they were interviewed on camera for Tic Tok to the finish where I think they got a selfie with just about every player who made it onto the pitch).

What’s all this got to do with a website about Scottish politics? Because something hit me in their attitude – it was like no-one had taught them how to be Scottish. I had mentioned to a couple of them that given England’s dominance in the women’s game it was unlikely we stood much of a chance. They were having none of it – anyone can win on the day they told me.

And yes, England did dominate (though nothing like as much as the score implied), but the girls weren’t despondent or down-heartened. ‘Next time, we’ll get them next time then’ was the attitude.

Yes I had a couple of beers, yes it was a lovely day out, yes the sun was shining – but it didn’t explain my mood when I got home. Why was I kind of elated? Why was I kind of angry? I realised quickly that it was because I exist far too much in Scottish politics and so being among people who actually believed something was possible rather than impossible was a startling revelation.

I had this sense that had we entrusted the building of a ferry to the Under 16 girls they might just about have pulled it off. I suspect the Under 14 (if absolutely forced – they’re under 14…) wouldn’t be afraid to take on the reform of the Council Tax.

I exist far too much in Scottish politics and so being among people who actually believed something was possible rather than impossible was a startling revelation

There were two things on my mind as I was thinking this. One was a conversation with a business I had two weeks ago. In the vindictive world of Scottish governance I will have to disguise its identity carefully but this business involves people who really know what they are doing from serious high-level experience.

It has identified a really important function modern Scotland is going to need a lot more of and that is what the business has been created to do. It has been round all the usual agencies who expect ‘partnerships with universities’ which in turn expect eye-watering sums to get access to publicly-funded academics. And then one of the main agencies came out and said it:

“You’re too small. We have a multinational company that can do the same thing so we’re going to support them.”

Let’s be clear; this meeting was about public support to scale up to the capacity needed to be ‘not too small’ for the task ahead. But because it is a domestic Scottish business the apparatchiks who run Scotland just assume that it will lose. The assumption of Scottish failure seems built in.

Another story was on my mind – the story of stars at the Oscars being ‘given plots of Scottish land‘ as a novelty prize. I’ve written on this trend before, because when you want a nation to humiliate itself for larks there is only one go-to – Scotland, a country which clearly has massive self-esteem issues. We’re one stop shy of putting on See You Jimmy hats and dancing ‘funny Highland flings’ for loose change.

We have an entire class of person who runs Scotland and seems to run it on the basis that we’re bound to fail so best not to try. Sure that is our political leaders, but getting one more look at Scotland’s quango class is enough to get me riled. I worked closely with a number of big quangos and their Boards and they were never short of a quip about how it was best not to get above ourselves.

There is so much that is behind this, from decades of dreadful-going-on-mediocre sporting performances to major failures in Scotland’s economy (going from one of the world’s great banking centres to not being any kind of banking centre in barely three or four years). It is the legacy of deindustrialisation, the forelock-tugging of our land ownership patterns, Jack McConnell’s ‘best wee country doing less but a bit better’.

It is so deeply imprinted on Scotland’s politics now that it is barely noticed – there was devolution and there was an indyref but apart from that there has barely been a political act by a party or potential party of government of any courage. There have been some worthy policies but the biggest policy initiative since devolution still remains free care for the elderly and that just wasn’t that radical an idea.

We are led by people who seem to assume we don’t want them to lead us anywhere. They honestly seem to think that what we want is to hear warm words so long as there is no follow-through on those words. But the people who lead us nowhere do very nicely out of it, an empire of failure rewarding itself generously.

By early evening Saturday I was feeling distinctly sick of it, really sick of it. I swear that if someone had asked me (and it was a thing I could do) I’d have handed the reigns of government over to the girls from the bus. I swear that I can’t think how it could be any worse. I honestly think they’d spend the first cabinet meeting discussing what they could do, not what they can’t do.

Two nil up with five minutes to go and no-one will say anything about it out of fear that we will jinx it and manage a three-two loss just by not paying proper penance to the Gods of Scottish Patheticness

I was also annoyed at myself for being surprised by all of this. Perhaps I have been around the dismal mindset of Scottish politics too much for too long. I fear I may be absorbing it. When the news pops up a little before I start writing this that the Scottish Government isn’t even thinking about mibby reforming the Council Tax like they promised they would I shrug and say ‘obviously – is this news?’.

I have learned to be Scottish at the feet of the masters – two nil up with five minutes to go and no-one will say anything about it out of fear that we will jinx it and manage a three-two loss just by not paying proper penance to the Gods of Scottish Patheticness.

I’m sick of it. I want to unlearn being Scottish. I don’t just want to keep fighting for a better Scotland (something I wake up with the intention of doing at least five days a week), I want to believe it might be possible. I want to believe in a Scotland that isn’t scared of its own shadow.

Every so often I get these moments, an optimistic enthusiasm which comes when I am able to convert my anger and frustration into the kind of burning determination to see Scotland do something worth a damn (here’s another one of those moments, after family holiday to Sweden which offered a shaming perspective on Scotland).

I want to unlearn being Scottish. I want to escape the woeful inadequacy of the dross which is guiding our nation nowhere. I can’t find a politician to believe in. I look at the sclerotic nature of Scotland’s institutions and weep. I am tired, really, really tired, of being The Little Engine That Couldn’t.

I want to see Scotland with eyes unpolluted by having seen the politics I’ve seen. I want to believe in the nation I love. I want the enthusiasm of hope again. For a few hours in the company of a team of girls not yet ground down by this Scotland, I felt it.

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