Why we Scots must learn to take a compliment

29th November 2013 at 00:00

A few years ago, I went to two shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in quick succession: The Best of Irish Comedy and The Best of Scottish Comedy. The Irish comedians were wry, warm, relaxed and wore their nationality loosely. I was struck a couple of days later by how different the Scottish show was.

The Scots were far more aggressive, fuelled by bitterness about their nation's failings in health, sport, politics, culture and weather, as if the latter were a projection of national character rather than a meteorological inevitability. If the Irish stand-ups were self-deprecatory, the Scots were self-condemnatory.

We are hard on ourselves in Scotland, where even successes are greeted with incredulity and mockery. When it emerged at a conference this month that Glaswegians were twice as likely to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day as people in Gothenburg, the response from a succession of wags - in the room and online - was predictable: did Irn-Bru, cider and Fruit Pastilles count?

Time and again the Nordic societies are held up in Scotland as impossibly virtuous, breaking our hearts with their unattainable perfection, the Roxane to Scotland's good-hearted but rather unattractive Cyrano de Bergerac.

Yet those countries are often bemused by this adulation. When TESS flew to Helsinki to see Finnish schools in action, a common reaction was "You came all the way here, for us?" Finnish education activist Pasi Sahlberg counselled Scotland at the recent Growing Up in Scotland and Scandinavia conference not to mimic his country's methods. "You have to find your own way," he said.

By many measures, Scotland is doing well at finding its own way and in some areas is striking ahead (see pages 16-18). The conference looked at what longitudinal studies told us about children's lives. Scotland showed up well in educational attainment, reducing smoking and tackling bullying. It was making good progress in cutting teenage pregnancy and alcohol consumption, improving infant mortality rates and keeping young people in education.

The Scottish Parliament has been around long enough for a little historical perspective. In its early days, oodles of money went into youth crime and antisocial behaviour. In 2013, more sophisticated, pre-emptive approaches to children's problems are taking hold, guided by the wisdom of figures such as chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns and John Carnochan, former co-director of the Violence Reduction Unit.

How to do even better? Some delegates implored Scotland to pay less attention to other countries, and instead plough its own furrows. "It's about how you look at your own community and find local solutions," said early childhood expert Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop.

Examples from abroad can be useful, but Scotland has to become more appreciative of its own expertise and achievements. To look inward does not have to result in parochialism; sometimes, the narrower perspective is the international one.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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