Why Scotland needs to end its tolerance of mediocrity

Scotland’s political culture distrusts success and ambition, and has no acceptance of risk.

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“Now John Robertson, who normally takes them, is handing the ball to me…”

For Scots in their mid-40s and over there can be no greater football anthem than BA Robertson’s “We Have A Dream”, written for the national team’s journey to the 1982 World Cup.

Sung-spoken-shouted by John Gordon Sinclair of Gregory’s Girl fame, it is a perfect piece of hysterical tartan pathos – “and then I hear ma old lady screamin’ blue murder – she’s saying, ‘that’s no the baw yer kickin’ ya eejit, it’s me!’”

Scotland is a nation built on the understanding that hope will almost always, in the end, be met with disaster, so you’d better be prepared to laugh. We travel hopefully, with the very real chance that we will never actually arrive, or that if we do, bad things will follow. From the 17th-century Darien Scheme to Monday’s gubbing by the Czech Republic, it has been a lesson learned painfully, iteratively, in innumerable, ingenious, self-inflicted ways. By 1998, Scotland’s last appearance at an international tournament before this one, the Del Amitri-penned theme merely requested of our footballers that they “don’t come home too soon”.

“And I don’t care what people say,
We can laugh it all away,
But if I have a dream at all 
For once you won’t be on that stupid plane.”

Some ambition. And we were on that stupid plane all too soon, of course. At Wembley tomorrow evening England will expect a similar outcome: sending the Scots homewards to drink again. Perhaps this will be one of those rare exceptions that proves the rule – a decisive third goal by Billy Gilmour would be nice – but it seems likelier that our southern big brother will blast its way through our defence, our ambitions and our hearts.

This outcome will be met, as it always is, by self-deprecation and dry humour. If we Scots have learned anything it’s that no one can laugh at you if you’re already laughing at yourself. At this, at least, we are world champions.

But behind the jokes, beyond the game, it is possible to see this chortling acceptance as something akin to a virus. If you can laugh at everything, then you don’t have to take anything seriously. It licenses a view that you are in your rightful place, that you shouldn’t expect to do better, that nothing much can be done about it anyway. It’s just easier that way, isn’t it? No need for a plan to fix the weakness, for the hard, relentless work of improvement, for the kind of decisions that might in time lead to success but will in the process piss off the frowsty custodians of How Things Are.

As in our football, so in our politics. Scotland is too often and in too many areas a mediocre nation with mediocre public services and, for the most part, mediocre politicians. For two decades, devolution has been accompanied by a baffling tolerance of an education system that is clearly in decline. Rather than address this we have jimmied the metrics, so that failure is hidden behind a mountain of self-justification and cant. The delivery of better schools would require a battle with the guardians of the status quo, an end to cosy relationships, a willing embrace of risk. Simpler just to shuffle on, massaging the statistics and managing the rhetoric.

The same is true of our economy. Nicola Sturgeon felt it necessary on Wednesday to apologise to businesses for her government’s poor communication through the pandemic. While the First Minister has a refreshing willingness to admit when she has got things wrong, that is not the same as putting them right. 

In a paper for Reform Scotland this week, Ross Brown, a professor at St Andrews University, called for the Scottish Enterprise (SE) network to be dismantled and replaced by institutions focused on encouraging entrepreneurship, to address our low rate of start-ups. This is a view widely shared across the business community, which finds SE and its satellites too bureaucratic, slow-moving, and often irrelevant. Brown points to Israel as an obvious template, but don’t hold your breath: the effort required for such an important reform would be vast. No one believes the government has the drive, or is willing to use up its political capital, to take it on.

Scotland’s political culture distrusts success and ambition, and has no tolerance of risk. Wealth creation, profit and failure as a precursor to success are all regarded with something approaching contempt. 

Amid the ruins of our tall poppies, MSPs look south to Tory Westminster and see only arrogance, hard-heartedness and selfishness. Few of them seem to have any real grasp of what it takes to succeed in a competitive global market, the need for hard choices in government, or an understanding of the difference between arrogance and confidence. They revel in their own averageness, mistaking it for decency, spouting off about values and community while failing those who need them most.

Football is only a game, but a nation is a rather more serious thing and deserves to be treated as such. It is past time for the laughter to stop and the hard work to start. That way lies victory.

[See also: The dark side of the SNP’s economic model]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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