Revealed: the Scots are really wimps

Scotland's symbol is the lion rampant, the king of beasts on his hind legs, roaring at the world. The caricature of the Scottish male is in-your-face, "see you Jimmy" aggression. And is not the greatest living Scotsman, Sir Sean Connery, still a sex symbol in his seventies, the epitome of macho cocksureness?

Forget all that. Under his kilt, the Scot is concealing a wimpish lack of self-confidence. The lion rampant is a pussy cat, more akin to the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz: "If I only had the nerve . . ."

This may surprise many Scots, not only the swaggering Tartan Army that follows the Scottish football side, but also the business leaders who head some of Britain's biggest companies. National self-doubt is the diagnosis of the new First Minister, Henry McLeish, whose oft-repeated aim in his first three months has been the creation of a "confident, competitive and compassionate Scotland".

He believes that, although they have never lacked capability or inventiveness, Scots are too reticent and fail to sell their achievements and potential. As leader of a nation that depends heavily on foreign investment, with 1,200 foreign-owned facilities, and with particular exposure to any ill winds from across the Atlantic, McLeish believes in encouraging home-bred entrepreneurs and creating Scottish-based businesses. It is an essential part of his "agenda for Scotland".

One of McLeish's first non-government appointments was the singer-cum- businessman Jim Kerr, whom he chose as "ambassador for Scotland with the key task of boosting the confidence of young Scots to take on the world".

Kerr, who still tours with his Glasgow-based band Simple Minds, runs his own restaurant and communications empire and is involved in several e-business start-ups. He contrasts his unambitious upbringing in the sprawling Toryglen housing scheme on Glasgow's south side with his success in the music industry, and says: "Scots youngsters must be imbued with the self-belief to allow them to prosper in the modern world, whether they devote their career to music or microchips. It is time Scots got together to tell people we are a can-do, confident nation."

McLeish said: "Jim is a role model for young Scots and embodies the kind of Scotland we are striving to create. He has had to be competitive in one of the most competitive industries in the world, and he would not have got where he is if he did not have confidence in his own abilities.

"I hope that, as he travels the world, he will put the case for the confident new country we are building."

In the next few weeks, McLeish will announce more appointments of internationally known show-business personalities and business figures. He is also working on a pamphlet with his friend and unofficial adviser, Professor Gerry Rice, a Scottish specialist in global economic development with the World Bank.

In a little-noticed St Andrew's Day joint article with Rice in the Herald, the First Minister began his relentless emphasis on the word "confidence"; since then, there has not been an interview or speech in which he has not used it. A typical soundbite goes: "Scotland has long been a country of great thinkers and inventors. The confidence that these men and women showed and the world-class ideas that they produced are needed now more than ever. We need to be looking for and encouraging the new Adam Smiths and John Logie Bairds."

Practising what he preaches, McLeish (who was previously seen as an unspectacular safe pair of hands) has shown startling self-confidence and daring in his first weeks in office. His shake-up of the aims and policies of the Scottish Executive has been far-reaching. The cosy relationship between Edinburgh and London fostered by his predecessor, Donald Dewar, has been downgraded.

Week by week, the differences have deepened in government practice on both sides of the border. As well as their determination to go their own way on the long-term care of the elderly, McLeish and his ministers are offering teachers a 21.5 per cent average increase over the next three years, giving Scottish teachers a better deal than their English colleagues.

Even McLeish's supporters, however, wait with trepidation to see which parts of the Scottish budget will suffer. McLeish will not be going to the Treasury for extra funds - a request that would, in any case, be rebuffed. He has surprised everyone by declaring that devolution is now in its fourth and (to him) final phase. This means the bold assertion of Scotland's powers of self-government within the UK context, with "tough decisions and hard choices" being made in Edinburgh.

In another signal, the name of the Scottish Executive is to be changed (suggestions welcome) to reflect McLeish's assertion: "We are no longer the Scotland department. We are the Scottish government." If it is true that Scots are backward in coming forward, the new First Minister is the exception.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again