Why so sad?

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By Peter Clark

In my younger years my dad would constantly remind my brother and me how lucky we were to be born in the latter part of the 20th century.  “We’ve never had it so good,” he would cheerily state – pointing out with frequency that “the average person of nowadays lives like a king of a hundred years ago,”  At the time I struggled to understand what he meant – it was the late 1980s going into the early 1990s and strikes and protests were commonplace.  Teachers at school were despondent, fellow classmates likewise.  We lived in Kirkintilloch near Glasgow, went to a state school and were just scrapping by. The overarching feeling was one of doom and gloom.

So how could my dad make such positive statements?  Well he could make them because they were, in fact, correct.  Despite the protests, despite the despair and constant complaining, we could still eat like kings.  Bananas, apples, oranges, kiwi fruits, passion fruits, lamb, chicken, beef were available all year round, fresh and ready for the plate.  Kings and queens from centuries past would have looked on with envy at the spread of culinary delights now available to the majority of the population.  It might have been cold outside, but over 90% of the population now had access to central heating.  The list of improvements to our lives was long and impressive.  Indeed even when 1980s Scotland was compared to 1980s India, China or a whole list of other large, populous countries, our standard of living was remarkable.

However that was then and this is now.  So are there any similarities?  Well the general feeling of doom and gloom is back, newspapers are full of headlines such as ‘cuts’ and ‘more austerity on the way’.  So I thought it was timely to revisit my dad’s positivity and make some modern day comparisons.  Having lived and worked overseas, most recently in Canada where I met my wife, I decided an international comparison was in order.  Why not compare Scotland to Canada and see if there is any room for optimism in 21st century Scotland?

My findings were surprising – and lead to some interesting conclusions.

First I thought I would have a look at the statistics on weather.  If there is something guaranteed to unite Scots then it is the belief that we live in a rain-soaked country.  Indeed while on a tour of Edinburgh with my Canadian relatives over the summer every tour guide mentioned, at least once and some on numerous occasions, just how bad the weather is in Edinburgh – often with a downbeat joke along the lines of “if you can’t see the hills of Fife it means it is raining – if you can it means it is about to rain.”  In fact for the week that the Canadian side were here it didn’t rain once – but that still didn’t mean they left with the impression that Scotland gets anything other than rain frequently – everyone we met was quick to point out to them just how terrible our weather is.

So what do the statistics tell us?  Well a quick look at the Met Office, Wikipedia, the Canadian weather office and the Dundee West End weather station allows us to create a very interesting table:

For the purposes of this piece I have deliberately selected a limited data set to highlight that it is possible to use statistics to tell a positive story.

Statistically Vancouver is twice as wet as Dundee and Toronto gets more rain than Edinburgh.  Yet on my tours of Canada I wasn’t constantly told how wet the place was.  Why is this?  A lot of it has to do with our attitudes and our media.  For instance in Scotland we have such a thing as a ‘wet playtime’; it’s raining outside so we don’t let the children out to play and instead they have to amuse themselves indoors.  This teaches, from a young age, that rain is a negative thing to be avoided.  Compare this to the attitude I found in North America (summed up in the phrase ‘skin is waterproof’) where children are put out to play in all weathers and allowed to enjoy the various seasons.  Indeed while working in Aviemore I heard a popular phrase among the outdoor community – “there is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes”.  It is possible to go out in the rain, even to have fun in the rain, as long as you are wearing the right clothes.  What a refreshing view.  

This negative attitude towards rain means we notice it more.  If it rains we complain, if it is sunny we complain that it might rain tomorrow.  Indeed even our national weather forecasters continue to perpetuate the ‘rain is bad’ attitude.  While listening to BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland on the radio, or watching the weather on the TV, it is amazing the number of times the weather forecast actually has very little to do with the weather and everything to do with feelings.  The phrases “a miserable day ahead”, “I bet you wish you stayed in bed” and “more misery on the way” are the forecasters’ way of saying it is going to rain.  It’s not a weather forecast as such, more a forecast of how to feel about the weather.  

Having been suitably surprised by my findings so far I decided to press on.  What about crime figures?  Isn’t the Scottish media constantly telling us just how crime filled our streets are, while the Canadian press portrays the view that their country is a safe, law-abiding place.  When I lived in Canada there were policemen killed in a drugs bust, children shot in a gangland battle in Toronto and 23 people drowned in one weekend on one lake from drinking and driving or drinking and boating.  Indeed on one occasion my wife heard about a friend who had got drunk, taken a boat onto the lake and jumped into the water only to get into difficulties, by the time she arrived to help her friend had passed away.  These stories received very little media coverage, with absolutely no coverage whatsoever of my wife’s friends death.  Despite the family trying to raise attention of the dangers of drinking and driving or drinking and boating no media outlet was interested.  It was ‘bad news’ and the Canadian media aren’t interested in bad news.  I had a feeling the Canadian press weren’t reporting the full state of their country, while I know the Scottish press have a habit of overstating things – so what are the statistics I wondered?

Well for the last available year (2009-10 for Scotland and 2006 for Canada) Scottish Government and Canadian Government figures are as follows:  Scotland: Total Crimes per 10,000 population: 651.  Canada:  Total Crimes per 10,000 population: 751.  So Scotland’s crime figures are actually lower than Canada’s.  Although crime does exist, Scotland is a relatively safe place to live.  Is this the impression we, in Scotland, have of our country?  If not, why not?  

Again it has a lot to do with our attitudes and the media.  Our Scottish national news programmes, such a Reporting Scotland, often lead with stories to do with crimes.  Trials will be covered in depth, with live reports from outside the courtroom detailing who said what to whom.  One trial can lead the news headlines for days, if not weeks.  This creates an impression that crime is ever-present.  Compare this to national news reports in Canada which will focus on stories that show Canada in a good light, often comparing Canada to America (but almost never Canada to Europe) in order to get good figures, or even Canadian regional news bulletins which like to focus on sports stories, cultural events or good news community spirit events.  Crime happens in Canada, it just doesn’t get the same high profile reporting.  This results in people having a very different impression of their country.  Often the facts have very little to do with how people feel.

So what does all this mean?  Well for one it means we shouldn’t be too despondent.  Although I have compared just two sets of statistics, it does show that there is more to our country than our general media reports.  More often than not the things our media doesn’t report are actually positive.  The figures are out there, even if they are not reported.

Secondly it means our general media are letting us down.  Instead of reporting fully and analysing figures more often than not a party political press release will be printed as news.  Our newspapers, as well as our weather forecasts, are full of opinions about how to feel instead of reports about what is happening.  Headlines will be quick to include words associated with negative feelings such as “anger”, “fury” and “frustration”.  This can be dangerous for a country’s view of itself and lead to inward looking analysis and depressed reporting.

Thirdly and finally it means the time has come for Scotland to wake up to its full potential.  If our media is not accurately reflecting our country, if our educational traditions teach us to fear the weather and have a depressed view of ourselves, then it is time we changed these traditions and our media.  They will only hold us back and depress future generations.  The time has come, the information and technology is available, so let us all stand up together and change our country for the better.