Scotland: a World Leader Again?

Chris Thomson on how transforming Scotland is part of a wider and deeper level of change than just political independence.

As a Scot living in Catalonia, I find myself in very interesting times. My home country and my adopted country are remarkably similar. They are both rugged and mountainous, with wonderful coastlines. They both have distinctive histories, cultures and languages. They are both semi-autonomous, with their own parliaments. And, as I write these words, they are both contemplating independence. There, however, the similarities end. Scotland has an agreed process – the Edinburgh Agreement – that could lead her to independence, but, by all accounts, she does not have sufficient desire to take the next big step. In contrast, Catalonia does not have an agreed process – Madrid will almost certainly reject the result of the referendum to be held here on 9th November – but all the polls suggest that she has an overwhelming desire to be independent.  In spite of Scotland’s seeming reluctance to take the next big step, I keep wondering whether Scotland could ever be a world leader again. If this seems an unlikely prospect, please bear with me.

Scotland is a remarkable country. For a long time she punched well above her weight on the world stage. For example, she used to be the world’s pre-eminent shipbuilder. It is an astonishing fact that during the first half of the Twentieth Century about 75% of the world’s ships were built on the Clyde. And there was a time, not so long ago, when one of the world’s smallest countries had some of the world’s top medical schools. As for inventions, Scotland’s reputation is legendary. The list is long – television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, golf, steam engine, radar, modern banking, antisepsis, antibiotics, quinine, fax machine, logarithms, and many others. Few other countries can lay claim to such inventiveness. No other small country comes close.

As if this were not enough, it is no exaggeration to say that the foundations for the modern world were laid in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Many of the ideas and practices that emerged in Scotland during that period are now at the heart of most societies. Modern medicine, modern science, modern economics, modern government, and modern education – all of these can trace their roots to Scottish thinkers and pioneers. Scotland led the way in giving the world the global paradigm we call “modernity”. Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are perhaps the best known, but there were others who made important contributions, such as Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and John Millar, as well as many in science and medicine. It is difficult today to appreciate just how influential Scotland used to be. Her influence was so great that Voltaire was moved to write: “…we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.” Coming from one of the greatest thinkers of his age, that was praise indeed.

Of course, that was over two hundred years ago. If Voltaire were alive today, he would be unlikely to say what he said then. It is true that we are the home of golf and whisky and we produced Dolly the sheep, but these pale beside the influence of the Enlightenment. Yet the fact remains that Scotland used to lead the world in significant ways. The question is: could she do it again? I believe that she could, but I think it will happen only if there is a fundamental change in the culture. This needs a little explanation.

Leadership of the kind Scotland displayed during the Enlightenment and right up until the 1950s happened mainly because the culture was revolutionary and subversive. It is no accident, for example, that the Labour Party, with its former passion for home rule and radical social change, was born in Scotland. However, such a culture can be uncomfortable, because it is suspicious of state and corporate power and because it cannot help questioning the status quo. Yet, if power cannot be challenged and the status quo cannot be questioned, how do we expect to move forward? What Scotland needs now, in addition to being independent, is a culture of encouragement. In practice, this would mean that government, business, academia and other Scottish institutions actively support thinking, ideas and activities that challenge them and make them feel uncomfortable. That alone would be a big step in the right direction. But it would also mean that the people of Scotland would have to have a much more positive attitude towards change and uncertainty. Rather than seeing change and uncertainty as threats to be resisted and avoided, they would need to see them as exciting opportunities to do something new and different. The healthy attitude to change is that you lead change. The unhealthy attitude is that you resist it. Scotland will take its place again among the confident, leading nations of the world only when its culture changes. Our leaders can help by encouraging radical, original thinking that questions deep-seated beliefs and the status quo. Meanwhile, I can think of two key areas in which Scotland could again be a world leader. They are economics and health. Why these?  It is because Scotland once led the world in these two areas, and there is no a priori reason why she could not do so again.

The historical precedents are striking. Scotland’s inventiveness in public health and medicine helped to pave the way for what has become the modern medical model of health and healthcare. In many respects Scotland pioneered antisepsis, anaesthesia and public health. That brought many benefits to the world. However, there is a growing sense that we need to fundamentally rethink what we mean by “health” and “healthcare” because, however hard we try, we are hardly making a dent in some important health statistics. Anyone who works in the health service in the West of Scotland knows this to be true. Modern medicine is undoubtedly good at some things, particularly mechanical repair, emergency intervention, and pain relief. But it is not so good at other things, such as mental and emotional illness, as well as the so-called “diseases of civilisation”. And it is simply not equipped to deal with the deeper, root causes of ill health, such as the problems caused by the pressures and values of modern living. There is a therefore a groundswell of opinion that believes that we need to develop a radically new approach to health and healthcare. Scotland could, if she wished, lead the way on this, just as she led the way in the past. Indeed, there are signs that this is already beginning to happen, such as the After Now project in Glasgow.

The other historical precedent is the leading role Scotland played in developing modern economics – most notably through Adam Smith. Although it is true that modern economics has brought higher living standards to many people, it does not seem to bring happiness, health, social justice, peace and wisdom, which is surely the point of it all. All the signs are that the economics born out of the Enlightenment is well past its sell-by date. Although it served us well for a long time, it has now taken us to the brink of disaster, in the form of climate change, resource depletion, staggering inequalities, as well as the steep decline of democracy in many countries, as big money controls the reins of power. We urgently need a new economics that has sustainable development and people development at its heart. There is no doubt in my mind that an independent Scotland would be well placed to take the lead in this, since she is already prominent in green energy and education.

I believe Voltaire was right. Scotland was a world leader in the past. And I believe that, despite her apparent reluctance to be fully independent, Scotland has the potential to be a world leader again. The time is certainly right. This is surely the moment for the world to go beyond modernity, into whatever global paradigm is going to replace it. Few would deny that modernity brought many benefits – market economics, modern government, modern medicine, modern education and the scientific method. There is no doubt that for a long time these things made life better and easier for a large number of people. However, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most destructive century in human history, and the present one has not begun well.

As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents, inequality within and between nations is very high and rising, mental and emotional illness are epidemic, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever. There is a strong sense that the current way of understanding and doing things – namely modernity – has outlived its usefulness. And it is clear that all attempts to make modernity work better (politicians call this “modernising”) will, at best, make only temporary dents in our problems.  What we have long assumed to be the solution to our problems may turn out to be their main cause. Using modernity and modernising to try to solve our problems is like trying to use petrol to put out a fire. It is very evident that we need a new global paradigm. In fact there are signs that one is already on the horizon. Although it does not yet have a name, it has some characteristics that distinguish it from modernity. For example, the following seem to be emerging:

A new economics – this is about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them.  It will bring with it new kinds of relationships, new kinds of businesses, and new kinds of institutions. The new economics does not mean that we will not have things to do. There will always be plenty to do. But it does mean that we will be much less likely to overdo!

A new education – this is about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than just schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways. At the heart of the new education will be the development, in children and adults, of wisdom and intelligence

A new healthcare – this is about self-reliance and wisdom, rather than about dependence on experts and technology. Medical treatment will be the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy

A new politics – this is about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the wealthy. At the heart of the new politics are two ideas – the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute

None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I am suggesting here may be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it is often messy and painful. Yet if we want to preserve this planet and survive and prosper as a race, we have no choice but to change fundamentally. That may take a generation or three, but we have to start somewhere. Scotland led the way into modernity. Will Scotland help to lead the way into the next global paradigm? She undoubtedly has the capacity. The big question is: does she have the desire?


Comments (10)

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  1. Thank you for this thoughtful blog posting. I agree that a key issue is the willingness to welcome change, and that question of confidence is something that needs a sustained and prolonged encouragement of little steps. I think we are seeing that with many of the Yes-related projects that are taking (substantial parts of) the country by storm, and it is this that gives me hope that even if the referendum vote results in a No this time around, it’ll come back before too long, because that confidence and renewed enthusiasm for positive change will have taken hold.

  2. Tom Platt says:

    Chris Thomson asks:
    “Scotland led the way into modernity. Will Scotland help to lead the way into the next global paradigm? She undoubtedly has the capacity. The big question is: does she have the desire?”

    This Scot certainly does. So too do our children. The grandchildren are too young to ask. I believe that the result will be “Yes” but it will be closer than I thought.

  3. timwardintermedia says:

    Reblogged this on MessageCraft and commented:
    Chris Thomson wrote this thoughtful article on Leadership, Intelligence and the upcoming Scottish Independence vote for Bella Caledonia. Chris is the author of the forthcoming book, Full Spectrum Intelligence, a great book for assessing and improving your multiple intelligences. Highly recommended.

  4. Tim Ward says:

    Chris Thomson’s article drags the debate on Scottish independence out of shortsighted win/lose economics and into the realm of destiny and intelligence. Chris is also the author of a forthcoming book, Full Spectrum Intelligence, which can be ordered in advance now on The book provides a much needed context for the referendum – what would it take for Scotland to behave wisely and well? No better time to ponder this question. (From the publisher of Changemakers Books)

  5. Douglas says:

    The Voltaire quote, or so I have read, was actually aimed as a barb against France as opposed to being made in praise of Scotland, ie, “things are so intellectually dull in France that we have to look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization, how bad can things get…” So not what it seems, though I have never seen the quote in context and if anybody has it handy, please post.

    This piece strikes me as being the latest in a very long line of “wunderbar Scotland” articles on Bella and in the MSM, which follow the same Scottish under confidence paradigm of always, ie, it’s not enough for us to be independent we have to actually lead the world!!!

    This fever pitch of national self satisfaction and gloating which has reached a crescendo the last few weeks is difficult to stomach and reminds me of the 1978 World Cup Campaign in Argentina when we were not just going to play as well as possible, but were going to “come back with a medal”!!!..

    It seems that there is no half way house for the Scots. Either we cannot do anything at all – “too wee, too poor, too stupid” – or else we are about to transform civilization. It is typical of the under-confident to overstate their abilities….it’s a kind of manic depressive way of being.

    It is also worth noting that countries no longer lead the world – corporations do. Think Apple or Google.

    And nor is this idea that the Scottish Enlightenment somehow seamlessly matches with “Scotland” at all credible.

    The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment often met with great resistance from other Scottish institutions, not least the Church of Scotland, and not least David Hume, the greatest Scottish thinker of the all, who was denied an academic post because he was an atheist!!!

    So this Scottish Enlightenment led the world = Scotland led the world is unsound logic….

    What you can say about all these famous Scots is that they believed in critical thinking…and that critical thinking and glib self-satisfaction, which is all the rage these days, never go hand in hand.

    1. Crubag says:

      I don’t think anyone has ever been able to source the Voltaire quote – it’s not in his complete works (which are online) or in his readily available published letters.

      All the sources given are modern, suggesting someone has coined it, and it has found favour, like “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” attributed to Ghandi

  6. Crubag says:

    I’d agree with Douglas that the article, while well meant, does veer at times into tea towel territory (quinnine? What about the South Americans or Italians?).

    But where it is weakest for me is the sense I take from it that a “nation” (national government?) can order up a renaissance (an 18th century coffee shop on every corner – nationalise Starbucks?), or change human thinking by funding university departments.

    Each of the intellectual advances above was the product of interested (often self-interested), self-motivated individuals, working within a network of like minded collaborators/competitors, not as part of a state apparatus of invention. As Douglas points out, they often contested with established opinion, which public representatives were quite content with, in order to make progress (what would ours be? state intervention, redistribution, universal benefits, education to 18?).

    For thinkers like Adam Smith, they also closely observed reality as it was and drew conclusions. Smith didn’t invent capitalism, but he provided an explanation as to how he thought individual/corporate competition could sustain societies. The “paradigm” was already there, but Smith helped us understand it.

    None of this critical thinking be whistled up or directed by government. In fact, it may make its greatest contribution by getting out of the way. A new economics, education or healthcare will more likely come from individuals, groups (communities) or companies pursuing practical initiatives on the ground, rather than an official working group to investigate best practice which will be immersed in all the received wisdom and established practice of the time.

  7. Joe Farrell says:

    I utterly agree that Scotland and Catalonia are the two sister nations of Europe, and I have been saying that the two should moving forward at the same pace, with each being an example to the other. That is why it is so dispiriting that while you could follow the Scottish debate in the Catalan press, you would find it impossible to follow developments in Catalonia in the Scottish press. And do not put that down to the inadequacies of the media in Scotland. An SNP MEP – whose name I forget – when asked about Catalonia has intoned more than once that the situation in the two countries is so dissimilar. That is not analysis, that is ignorance and even worse that is provincialism. When did you last hear any Scottish politician refer to what is happening in Catalonia? The only time other countries are mentioned in the current debate is in reference to size. When anyone says Scotland is too wee to survive, it will be pointed out that so many countries in the EU or the UNO are in fact smaller that Scotland. There is no discussion of actual policies being pursued in other countries, and any notion that we could learn from other lands is anathema. I find that discussion of interdependence is much more developed in Catalonia than it is here. If we could launch the idea that the new nationalism in Scotland is part of a Europe wide trend, strong in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall, but with parallels elsewhere most evidently in Catalonia, we would develop a deeper vision.

  8. Crubag says:

    “An SNP MEP – whose name I forget – when asked about Catalonia has intoned more than once that the situation in the two countries is so dissimilar.”

    I’d say that is more likely to be realpolitik than ignorance. Whether it is Article 48 or 49 for EU Member State status, Scotland is going to need Spain onside. No point in provoking the Spanish state.

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