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As Austere England Grumbles, Scotland Is All Smiles: A.A. Gill

October 05, 2011

Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The TV weather map shows the U.K. wreathed in autumnal sunshine. Records have been broken. The trees are turning golden, and there are girls in bikinis in the park.

There is, though, just one small cloud right up in the northwest of Scotland, and that’s the one I’m sitting under. Outside, the sky hangs like dirty laundry caught on the granite crags. The rain looks like smoke blowing up the glen. The burns are in spate, billowing peat-tanned water in great gulping cascades.

My southern family is in shirtsleeves. I’m in tweed. And that’s how it should be. The highlands are supposed to be blasted and sodden. A whole week of sun, and half the population comes down with skin cancer.

The weather reflects the default demeanor of the Scots. We are a dour people, naturally prone to harsh pessimism and morbid, small expectations. Our laughter is hollow, our greatest pleasures husbanded grievances and the opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Scots are righteous miserabilists, and as P.G. Wodehouse pointed out, it really isn’t difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. He might have added that you rarely see the two things together at the same time.

But hold the front page: What is this? One professor David Bell has concocted a happiness index that shows, for the first time in recorded history, that the Scots are happier, or at least more contented than the English. Not just the English, but also the Welsh. Scotland is the smiliest part of the United Kingdom.

Happiness Lessons

This could mean one of two things. Happiness indexes aren’t worth the computer screens they come on, or something odd is happening in Scotland. And that may be of interest, and perhaps of some use, to other countries struggling with depressing times.

Well, unemployment is falling in Scotland, against the trend across the rest of the U.K. Most importantly, private- sector jobs are being created at twice the rate of those disappearing in the large state sector.

Crime is falling steeply. The wave of riots that flared across England didn’t include the Scots, who dispatched police officers south to help the neighbors, allowing us the small, dry pleasure of an “I told you so” moment.

House prices, with the exception of some hotspots, are lower and more stable than south of the border, and a higher percentage of people rent in Scotland. The unfashionably corpulent social services provide free university education for native Scots. (The English have to pay at St. Andrews and its kin.)

There is free care for the elderly -- as opposed to England, where people are forced to sell their houses before getting old-age respite -- and prescriptions are now gratis. All this, for a nation of barely five million, whose distance from mainland Europe makes trade expensive.

It’s not, however, all haggis and neeps. Scotland still has some of the worst, and certainly ugliest, public housing in the U.K. Life expectancy is among the lowest in Europe, due to the chronic diseases associated with smoking, alcohol and a diet of fried things and sugar. Drug addiction is a pandemic.

Wages are lower than in the south, and the symptoms of bullish capitalism are less evident. There’s less flash, and fewer of the toys and decorations of leisure-time consumerism, and this may be the reason for the relative happiness gap. For once, Marx might have been right: Poverty is relative. It isn’t what you have, it’s what you have in relation to your neighbor.

Resentment Sent Abroad

Scotland has a paucity of millionaires compared with England. The difference between what most employers take out of the business and what they pay their workers isn’t nearly as great as in the south. And here, the large conspicuous landowners tend to be foreigners -- Dutch, German, Scandinavian and, of course, English -- so resentment about absentee landlords is all sent abroad.

Edinburgh’s small but vibrant financial sector hasn’t cast such an avaricious paw over the country as the City of London does, even though the Scottish banks were some of the worst behaved in the financial crisis.

There is the sense that Scots are all in this together -- and that, combined with a natural lack of deference to wealth, or perceived position, seems to be paying the happiness dividend.

Of course, the English see it slightly differently. They are paying for all this social largesse. State spending from the U.K. government is $15,800 per capita in Scotland, some 10 percent higher than in England. The English point out that only 1 in 3 Scots is a net contributor to the tax pot. In turn, the Scots reply that the pot comes in great part from their oil revenue, and that their devolved government should be allowed to raise its own taxes.

This would be the big step on the road to independence and breaking of the union. What’s new about the idea it is that the traction for a financially independent Scotland is now coming from England. It seems that the relative unhappiness is flowing uphill from the richer to the poorer. It is the blinged-up, credit-maxed English who are resenting the poorer, cash- strapped, clannish Scots, and they may push for divorce.

Up here, most would rather have a separation, and maintain the cushion of comprehensive social services. It falls short of full independence.

And the moral from all this may be that to attain national happiness in hard times, what you need, more than money, is camaraderie, and fair shares of hardship. It also helps if you have a mutually agreed upon old enemy who is also your best friend.

(A.A. Gill, the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times of London, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Stacey Shick

Click on “Send Comment” in sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the writer of this column: A.A. Gill in London at aagill1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.


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