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Scottish Parliament Speech: Smarter Scotland (June 2007)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Do we want a smart or a wise Scotland? Being smart can mean being adaptable, but it can also mean being slick and plausible. It does not seem automatically to imply having culture or even knowledge - it could be self-deceiving.

Burns, who tends to be read on ceremonial occasions and not much otherwise, was referring to Adam Smith's "Theory of the Moral Sentiments" when he said:

"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion."

That ought to be above every schoolroom in Scotland, because the values that it represents are as strong now as they were in the 18th century.

When we consider Scotland and the intellect, we must quote James Bridie, our great playwright. He said, unhelpfully, that no language was as good as Scots for rendering insults about intellect. "Glaikit", "doitit", "donnert" and "daft" are all qualifications for being a bampot or - more recently - a numpty. However, what Burns said was what Walt Whitman, who was a great popular educationist and the great poet of American democracy, considered a way of thinking, a way in which we conduct ourselves and a way in which education and culture enmesh.

So, culturally, should we follow Whitman's America or Europe? If we look at a Scottish crowd in the streets, from the tip of its baseball cap to the heel of its trainers, America seems to have taken over. Is that wise? Does one still think of Walt Whitman or of Homer Simpson?

Gordon Brown has no doubt about role models. We can look at "Moving Britain Forward" - I wonder how many people have - and seek references to Europe. There are none; it is the forgotten continent. Europe is only 100 miles from London, but Gordon Brown never looks there. Ditto that strange ideological soup that is Wendy Alexander's "New Wealth for Old Nations", in which the only people who can prescribe the future of Scotland are American economists.

The United States is an odd country but is it, on balance, educational? Has it improved since Whitman's day? Amazingly, it can ban Darwin while making social Darwinism compulsory. Is that intelligent design? It is probably as near to it as George Walker Bush can get.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Yes, but at the same time the United States's particular commitment to a petrol-driven economy will soon land it in considerable trouble.

In Wendy Alexander's symposium, Ed Glaeser said that the car is the future when looking at the planning of central Scotland. That was in the day of the one-dollar gallon, and that day is long gone.

We are condemned to Europe and we have to survive there. We have fostered consumers and not Smith's citizens. We have piled up £1.3 trillion in debt, which is 16.5 per cent of our gross national product; 60 per cent of that has come about under new Labour and has been financed by a car boot sale of UK assets.

We have to test our social development and look at its detailed outcomes. For instance, Gordon Brown applauds increases in US productivity, but they have been gained by squeezing retail - what has been called walmartyrdom. We are always told that massive retail developments create hundreds of jobs, but what do they do to education? What sort of jobs do they create? What happens to the kids leaving our schools and to the higher-value parts of our local economy? They are being replaced by shelf stacking and cold calling. The demolition of the shipyards in Port Glasgow was succeeded by the building of five call centres. That was a contribution to the knowledge economy. What happens to the local small and medium-sized enterprises that generate much of our training and growth? What happens to the schools themselves?

If we complain that a deskilled and unmotivated society is depreciating the value of education, we have to look at the size of the Scottish black economy. Drug use, for example, is three times larger, proportionally, than it is in Germany. If we continue along our current road, will those proportions not become larger?

We do not face an easy ride to get out of this situation. We face what Robert Louis Stevenson called climbing the great staircase of our duty. However, if we get culture and civics right, and if we relate them to our flagging energy resource, we can succeed and become a wise country.

Finally, members should think of the mass of well-produced public relations bumf that descends on us and, all too often, goes straight into our wastepaper basket. Were that material to be changed into well-edited, competitive journals of report, on which we could have a civic debate about educational and social goals, and were it to become the Scots equivalent of Le Monde or Die Zeit, that would be something to think of as the crown of our educational system.

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