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4 October 1999

The Scots must learn to whinge

New Statesman Scotland - The rest of Britain has Scotland down as a nation of arch complain

By George Rosie

What Scotland needs is more and better “whingers”. Complaining – or at least complaining to any effect -is an art form that seems to elude us. In the British league of complainers, the “whingeing Jocks” are bumping along the bottom. That is certainly the opinion of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the body that was set up to keep an eye on our banks, insurance companies, building societies and so on. In a recent report into how Britain’s financial sector handles complaints, the FSA found that the Scots were the least likely to give the money- shufflers a hard time. Only the supposedly terrier-like “tykes” of Yorkshire were as wimpish as the Scots.

Even though one in three of us appears to have a grudge against the financial sector, hardly any of us try to do anything about it. And when we do, we are too easily discouraged, too ready to give up the fight. When it comes to saying “boo” to the bank manager, the spirit of Robert Bruce and William Wallace seems to be stone dead. So feeble have we become that Christopher Farnish, the FSA’s boss of consumer relations, is now pleading with us to stand up for ourselves. “People in Scotland,” he says, “need to learn to complain more effectively. Don’t give up at the first attempt.”

Which is interesting, if only because the rest of Britain seems to regard the Scots as the country’s arch complainers. Inside the M25, it is an article of faith that, by their incessant whingeing, the Jocks have conned the rest of Britain (especially Londoners) into parting with huge subsidies. In fact, the FSA survey reveals that the folk of London and the South-east of England are by far and away the most persistent, determined and effective whingers in the land (although not all that good by European standards).

What is worrying about the FSA report is not that the finance- sector suits may be getting away with murder (although that is bad enough) but what it says about the state of Scotland and the psyche of the Scots. On the face of it, we should be brimming over with confidence, eager to let our new MSPs at Holyrood know what they should be doing and then making sure that they are doing it. Instead, we seem to be as timid and shut-mouthed as ever, hoping that others will make the argument for us. The many exceptions – Brown, Cook, Darling, Robertson and so on – only serve to prove the rule.

Just why the Scots are so reluctant – fearful even – of speaking up is something of a mystery. This failure of civic nerve has been ascribed to 300 years of neglect, disdain and domination by a much bigger culture, ie, England’s. Other pundits blame 440 years of overbearing Presbyterianism (an odd charge, given Presbyterianism’s enthusiasm for democracy and intellectual debate). But whatever its cause, the syndrome it is certainly not modern. When the Victorian essayist and newspaper editor Hugh Miller made his famous foray south of the border in 1854, he came to the conclusion that the ordinary folk of England were, in some crucial respects, superior to the Scots.

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Miller decided that while the Scot was a “naturally more inquisitive, more curious being than the common Englishman” with a penchant for piling up “much larger hoards of facts”, the Southron more than made up for this by sheer stubborn bloody-mindedness. In Miller’s view, the English possessed “much of that natural independence which the Scotchman wants; and village Hampdens – men quite ready to do battle on behalf of their civil rights with the lord of the manor as the Scot with a foreign enemy – are comparatively common characters”. It might be argued that the Highland clearances (against which Miller railed bitterly) were facilitated by a lack of civic nerve.

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Since then, nothing has improved. English and American academics teaching in Scottish universities have long remarked on the differences between home-grown students and their English counterparts. “The Scots kids will hand in beautifully written essays,” says one young English lecturer. “But when it comes to the tutorials, they just shut up. Never say a word. So the tutorial will be dominated by the kids from England. Then the Scots kids will complain about the ‘arrogance’ of the English. But the issue is not English arrogance. It’s Scots timidity.”

This odd reluctance of the Scots to speak up can be seen everywhere. There is hardly a rural community council, conservation body, amenity society or ad hoc pressure group in modern Scotland that is not led by English (or English-educated) activists. From the colour-washed villages of Dumfries and Galloway to the “craft-based” communities around Cape Wrath, it is the English who make most of the running. All the effective arguments are made in the accents of the south. The Highlands, in particular, have come to rely on the energy and civic nous of the “white settlers”.

But there will never be enough English to go around. Which is a pity. Because a timid, close-mouthed constituency is just what we do not need if we are to see the kind of confident, civic polity for which the Scottish Parliament is to provide a focus. Problems need to be confronted. Complaints need to be addressed. Grievances need to be aired. Those that are not and are nursed – unspoken – in the dark have a way of suppurating. Then they burst into irrational fevers or sap their host with their poison. There are dangers in having no talent for complaint.