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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Psycho-analysing a nation

The Scots have a lot to be proud of – gaining, throughout the centuries, a high reputation for intellectual, commercial and engineering endeavour – and for honest behaviour. A reputation that is global from a mix of ambition and evictions which have spilled us to the far ends of the earth.

And yet, 2003 saw the publication of a book with the title “The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence” which suggests that Scots have inhibiting beliefs, attitudes and general mindset which lead to conformity. Much of the mindset arises from Scotland's Calvinist past. A sympathetic review (there were other, angry ones) suggests that these include -
·         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 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.
·         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.
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. The 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.
But this summer, the world’s journalists who flocked to the country seemed to see a rather different, more buoyant, people. My E-book The Independence Argument – home thoughts from abroad tries to give a sense of how that argument was conducted.
But, in the event, only 45% of the voters chose the independence path. 

Does this therefore prove the point about lack of confidence? 
But in what sense do we (or have we) lack(ed) self-confidence?  
Why did so many Scots have it in the 18th and 19th centuries?
And when did we/they lose it?

Or are the confident Scots all ex-pats?
How might this be measured? 
Is the situation static – or changing? 
Assuming we think it’s a bad thing, how might it be changed? 
What sort of measures have been adopted? When? With what support mechanisms? 
These are the questions I have from reading the book…although the book's preface makes it very clear that the author is impatient with demands for proof...

I spent the 70s and 80s working in the political and administrative heartland of Scotland – with students, professionals, community activists and fellow-politicians - and I agree with the author, Carol Craig, that “failure” (and the fear thereof) was a central reality for an unacceptable number of working class Scottish families.
“Born to Fail” was indeed the phrase some of us latched onto in 1973 in the run-up to the first election for the new Strathclyde Region (responsible for most of the municipal services for half of the Scottish population). It had been the title of a challenging report from a national Children’s Charity which revealed the disproportionate number of families in the West of Scotland who suffered from the multiple handicap (indeed stigma) of unemployment, poor housing, poor health and poor educational achievement.

My own experience since 1968 as a reforming councillor had made me angry with the treatment such people got from local bureaucrats – and had demonstrated how positively people responded if given the opportunity to engage in self-help activity and social enterprise…..
The new Region made a priority of community development from 1976; developed local participative structures and special programmes which ran for 2 decades and was then absorbed into the strategy of the new Scottish Government - work which is well caught in some recent reflections - Supporting People Power. But, frankly, it made little dent on the malaise – which was down (in my view) to decisions of global multinationals, governments…..and…. drug barons

And that’s where I would question Carol’s thesis. It’s a great read – on a par (as far as historical dissection goes) with Arthur Herman’s (rather more positive) The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots invention of the modern world. She’s unearthed some apt quotations from writers over the centuries – as you would expect of a doctor of literature- and also gives real food for thought with her comments about Jung and Positive Psychology; tables which compare Scottish, English and Irish characteristics; and fascinating comments about how we differ on the deductive/inductive spectrum. 
The introduction does make the important point that she has moved in her life from a strongly political perspective to one that tried to bring in the social and psychological elements. As she puts it on page 24 of the new edition “I simply attempt to add psychological, behavioural and cultural dimensions thus making for a richer and more complex picture”. In amplification she suggests that
the thinker who has contributed most to our understanding of the dangers of “fragmentation”…is Ken Wilber…who asserts that there are two important dimensions; interior and exterior and individual and collective. These then combine to make four quadrants – psychological, behavioural, cultural and structural”. 
This is an important framework – even if Wilber is now a bit discredited.

But the author then doesn’t really deal with the 2 “collective” quadrants and therefore leaves herself open to the sort of attack she gets from radical sociologists and Marxists. If I had read the book when it was first published (2003) I might well have complained that it made no reference to the efforts a lot of us were making in the 70s and 80s to deal with that sense of failure and self-confidence by developing community structures and social enterprise (not sure which quadrant that’s in). The making of an empowering profession is a good record of those endeavours…..
But the fact remains that social indices in those communities which concerned us all of 40 years ago are even worse than before……the lack of confidence therefore for me seems to be largely a class thing....although the author does make an important point about the signals returnees and their spouses pick up......Extroverts clam up......perhaps that's a "small-nation" syndrome? 

With the benefit of the last 24 years I've had living in other countries, my main critical comment relates to the lack of comparative (eg European) references. 
How cultural behaviour is shaped and changes I find increasingly fascinating - “Path dependency” is the term the academics have used for the grip tradition seems to have on the way we think and behave in our social and political activities. Its 25 years since the wall fell – but little seems to have changed in the political mindset of Bulgarians and Romanians – although things are definitely now on the move in Romania in the judicial system. 
When I first worked in Hungary in 1994 I was very struck by what one of my (older) Hungarian team colleagues said – that their history had taught them to be disappointed in their hopes…..By what fusion of education, family circumstances and communications does a society come to develop values of hope, disappointment, fatalism? I would like to see much more discussion of such issues – and Carol Craig’s book is one of the few which could help us explore this field

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