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A few home truths on how to bring out the best in us

Many Scots just lack the right career opportunities to realise their full potential

 

SOME TIME AGO, the Canadians ran a competition to find a suitably pithy slogan for Canada. As everybody recognises the expression “As American as apple pie,” the search was on for something similar that would sum up the Canadians in a few words. People were asked to complete the sentence “As Canadian as...”. After an exhaustive exercise the final winner was "As Canadian as possible ... under the circumstances”.

 

OK, the story is probably apocryphal, but it illustrates the challenge faced by a small economy living in the shadow of a huge one. How to avoid being overwhelmed by the larger and more influential neighbours south of the border; and how to avoid being judged by them as insignificant and parochial. Questions that are familiar to us here in Scotland.

 

And it is not primarily the English that we have to contend with. Some of the most severe critics of modem Scotland are the Scots who have themselves left to build their careers elsewhere. Obviously, it can’t really be any good here, or they would have stayed. That seems to sum up the position that Andrew Neil, the Scots-born publisher of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, takes from his bases in London and the south of France.

 

Another media leader, Don Cruickshank, has recently stepped up to the same podium. The (also Scots-born) chairman of SMG (the parent company of Scottish and Grampian Television and the Herald news papers) told students at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen that Scotland was a “desperately self-centred and parochial” place. The best career move, he urged the students, was to leave Scotland behind as soon as possible.

 

Many have followed such advice over the years. This week’s report of the 2001 census shows that our net emigration level is running at about 7,500 a year and that we are the only part of the UK that is shrinking. Wales has 3% more people than a decade ago; Northern Ireland, about 5%. Here in Scotland the population is down to a whisper above 5m, and on current trends it will soon drop below that milestone level.

 

But are Mr Cruickshank and Neil right about the parochialism and lack of ambition of the Scots? Do we really need to leave the country to open up our opportunities?

 

I was pondering such issues when I saw a preview of a TV programme. This documentary, one of the Channel 4 Faking It series, will be shown next Wednesday, and it tells the story of a woman from Livingston who takes leave from her job as a fire brigade dispatcher to become a television studio director in London, in charge of a live broadcast.

 

As I watched this programme, it was obvious that it provided unwitting support for Mr Cruickshank’s position. The subject of this programme, Lynne Hunt, starts out as a quiet, competent, but relatively unambitious and reserved individual. A typical Scot, and a pretty standard product of her upbringing and education in central Scotland.

 

In the space of four weeks she turns into a charismatic, energetic, dynamic leader, capable of inspiring others to give of their best, generating masses of enthusiasm and energy along the way. Clearly, these qualities were there all along, but she had not had the opportunity to bring them to the fore.

 

This TV programme brings to life, in microcosm, the very case that Mr Cruickshank was making. In order to reach her potential, to be fully stretched and developed, this woman left Scotland.

 

What are the implications of this for our education and employment systems, I wonder? Sure, we are capable of creating quietly competent individuals, people who perform satisfactorily in the workplace. But, in the end, is there something missing in our level of ambition, in our level of self-confidence? And can we fix that shortfall?

 

Also, what can we do to make Scotland a place that more people will choose to move to, making up for those who follow Mr Cruickshank’s advice and leave the country to better themselves? Surely we should be aiming to grow our population base at least at the same rate as the rest of the UK.

 

And will we ever, I wonder, persuade the Scots that head our leading media companies, such as Mr Neil and Mr Cruickshank, to live here.

 

Or will they remain “as Scottish as possible ... under the circumstances”?

 

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