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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 23/05/2006

As you enter Scottish airports from an international destination these days you are told that you are now in ‘the best small country in the world.’ And every time I see this slogan it sets my teeth on edge. Of course, I understand the thinking which has led to such a poster. For some time now – long before confidence was firmly on the agenda – it has been widely accepted in Scotland that as a country we tended to undersell ourselves. There’s also been a widespread view that perhaps Scotland needed to raise its game and become more aspirational. While I understand these arguments I still think this slogan ironically encapsulates the very culture in Scotland that leads to an erosion of personal confidence and an unwillingness to engage in new thinking.

The idea that Scotland is the best small country in the world immediately begs the question best at what? Best for weather? Aye that’ll be right. Best for food? Again, pull the other one. Best for service or sport? Nope. Ok so how about best for hospitality? No Ireland, another small country, is seen internationally as the world’s best hosts. How about scenery? Surely we are best for that. Well that depends entirely on your taste and what turns you on. If it is blue lagoons, coral reefs and palm trees then you will see Fiji as the best. If it is mountainous terrain then Scotland is beautiful but some may see Switzerland or New Zealand as better.

Not only is ‘the best’ small country idea so subjective and dependent on personal taste as to be meaningless but also there’s times when being the best is not always something to shout about. Apparently the Glasgow dental hospital is becoming the international centre for reconstructive dentistry following facial injury and medics come from all over the world to learn techniques developed here. The reason? Glasgow has so many facial injuries as a result of violence, particularly stabbings and slashings with knives, that Glasgow is developing real expertise in this area.

I have little doubt that in Scotland we are often too critical of ourselves and sell ourselves short. Just look at how we treat our parliament and politicians. I also believe that we have lots to celebrate and be proud of. I just think to be meaningful we have to be specific about our achievements. Having been in the USA recently I have returned even more convinced that Scotland is a genuinely interesting, in fact fascinating, country. Look around and you see the richness of our history and our culture. As a result, not just of the Scottish Enlightenment but also the intellectual flourishing in the 19th century, Scotland produced more than its fair share of geniuses and contributed hugely to the world. We are also a very friendly people who genuinely believe in society and the common good. Again these are characteristics which we should feel positive about.

We don’t have to purport to be ‘the best’ to project a positive image of Scotland and trumpet what we have to offer. Claiming we are ‘the best’ simply reveals deep-seated insecurities, reveals our difficulties in understanding diversity and individual preferences, and shows just how competitive we can be. It is also cack-handed. How do you think visitors from other small countries feel as they walk past these posters? They are certainly not going to see Scots as the best for building relationships. It is also a mindset which prevents learning. If we think we are the best small country in the world then this means we have nothing to learn from other countries – a ridiculous proposition when you consider how successful some small Scandinavian countries are not just at sport but also economically and socially.

In my last blog I mentioned a video presented by the American photographer Dewitt Jones. It is called "Celebrate what’s right with the world". He says at one point that rather than organisations or individuals trying to be the best in the world they should try to be ‘the best for the world’. Now that would be a sentiment worth putting on a poster.

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