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Quadrant, October 1979, 23 (10), 27-29.

The Scottish Paradox

John J. Ray

Why is it that some countries are richer than others? This is a question which is of course fraught with political perils but it is nonetheless one of the most vital and involving of modern times. Any light that can be shed on its answer could be of incalculable importance.

The standard answer that economists give would at its minimum include characteristics such as saving rate (i.e. rate of capital formation), political stability, and a competitive, profit-seeking private-enterprise economy. Sociologists might name the Protestant work ethic or some other motive of equivalent import, political pluralism (not necessarily democracy) and a breakdown of traditional extended family ties. Both would stress level of education and literacy.

The above list is not exhaustive and it is certainly not unanimously agreed upon. Whether our list of characteristics leading to economic advancement is longer or shorter than the above, however, the Scottish paradox consists of the fact that the Scots have just about everything on anybody's list and yet are poor and getting poorer. The natural resource windfall of the North Sea oil discovery will give temporary respite but the long term trend is not hopeful. Yet with their legendary thrift, their devotion to education, their classically Calvinist Protestantism and their venerable capitalist democracy they should by all accounts be among the most prosperous people in the world.

An understandably popular fallacy of modern times is that natural resources (by which is generally meant mineral resources) are the key to wealth. There are however many examples of countries already wealthy or fast becoming so which have few or no domestic mineral resources (such as Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore) and other examples of mineral rich countries (such as much of Africa) which are showing no advancement at all. At best natural resources can have only a facilitative role. In any case, from the beginning of the industrial era Scotland has had its own supplies of the mineral that has only recently been demoted to second place in terms of industrial desirability - coal.

Scots themselves tend to attribute their relative poverty to the climate or the poor quality of the land. Yet Sweden has a far more severe climate and prospers. The land too might be poor but there is a lot of it per head by European standards due to Scotland's small population. In any case much of the poor quality of the land is visibly due to erosion which in turn is generally man-made. The sacrifice of forests for the ubiquitous sheep was probably the key factor there. In other words, if the land is poor it is so to a considerable extent because the crofters have made it so. Overgrazing of sheep in difficult times is producing the same result in the Sahel of Africa today. Even so, Scotland is still largely self-sufficient in terms of food products.

In general, then, the Scottish paradox could be due to political events or to as yet undefined elements in the Scottish character. The first explanation is extremely popular in Scotland at the moment and has given rise to the fast-expanding Scottish National Party. The political events identified are generally termed "English Dominance" or on some occasions "English Oppression". This however is more a turning to a traditional scapegoat than a serious attempt at explanation. It is for instance the case that a disproportionate amount of British welfare and defence expenditure is made in Scotland and one has to look hard indeed to find possible instances of oppression. In fact a case could be made that the Scots have forced their form of government on the English. On most occasions since the war Labour governments have gained power only with the aid of the overwhelmingly socialist Scottish electorate. On such occasions, the majority of English seats went to the Conservatives.

We appear to be left for the moment then with the task of finding something in the Scots themselves to account for their being one of the Common Market's "special assistance" areas.

One line of approach would be to compare Scotland with other special assistance areas (such as Calabria) to see what they had in common. A potentially more useful approach, however, might be to see what is different between the Scots and South Eastern England. This comparison is useful because there is so much held in common between the two areas (same language, same government, similar history etc) and yet they differ very greatly in prosperity. This shows up not in differing standard wage rates but rather in vastly different levels of unemployment. South Eastern England has virtually no unemployment by modern standards whereas Scotland has crushing levels of it. The sort of difference being spoken of in the Scottish popular press in late 1977 was between levels such as 1.5% and 14%.

Here, a comparison will be made between the citizens of the two big cities of Scotland and South Eastern England - Glasgow and London.

The psychology of economic development is an as yet little developed science. It is hard to know where to start looking for personal characteristics that might explain economic backwardness in a people. The most extensive body of research to date seems to centre around the concept of achievement motivation. This concept has been developed by McClelland [1] as an extension of Weber's notion of the Protestant Ethic. It is held that Protestantism leads to economic development via its encouragement of a general motive to achieve. Our first hypothesis then must be that for some reason, the Scots are especially low on achievement motivation.


Much of the achievement motivation research of the past has been done with projective tests. These are now generally suspect throughout psychology because of their generally very poor reliability (failure to give the same answer twice. See Entwisle [2], Weinstein [3].

The present research is based on a test of known reliability and validity -- the Ray-Lynn 'AO" scale [4]. This test is in behaviour inventory format, is completely balanced against acquiescent response set and was constructed from the start for use with a general population sample rather than students. It was used in the present study in a short form of fourteen items. See appendix.

The test was included in a questionnaire which also included a selection of questions on current social and political issues. These were due to Wilson [5] and were included to check further on possible attitudinal difference between the Scots and the Southern English. Two additional questions on attitude to the E.E.C. and preferences for Scotland's political future were also included together with the usual demographic questions.

This questionnaire was given to a doorstep sample of people in the Glasgow and London areas. The sampling frame in each case was the conurbation rather than the city itself. The sampling method was cluster sampling -- the same method that is universally used by British public opinion polls, where it gives generally very accurate results. The sample size in each city was 100. Samples larger than 100 give very little gain in statistical significance and it is in any case the representativeness rather than the sample size which counts.


The two samples were found to show no significant differences on demographic characteristics. The reliability of the achievement motivation scale was .73 in London and .72 in Glasgow. Both are satisfactory levels for a short form of a scale. Mean scores (and S.D.s) on the scale in the two cities were 32.45 (5.70) in London and 31.33 (5.64) in Glasgow. The difference is not statistically significant.

On the single questions about general social and political issues, however, there were very widespread differences indeed. Compared with the English, it was found that the Scots favoured coloured immigration more, the death penalty more, Sabbath observance more, co-education more, and Socialism more. They also oppose divorce, birth control and the Common Market more. In fact on only four issues of the twelve examined were the two groups not significantly different. These were censorship, working mothers, evolution theory and whether Scotland should get greater independence.


Clearly achievement motivation was a false trail as far as explaining the differences between English and Scottish economic prowess is concerned. When such motivation is reliably and validly measured, the differences are so small as to be effectively non-existent. The fact that there were no significant differences in demographic characteristics of the two samples also means that artifacts due to age, sex, education and occupation can be ruled out. We clearly must look beyond achievement motivation for our explanation of the Scottish paradox.

The differences on social attitudes however, more than justified the traditional Scottish view that they are very different from the English. The differences revealed do also offer a hint as to how the Scottish paradox might be explained. The thread that runs through the observed differences is of a greater Scottish moral severity. The severe Scottish Presbyterian is no myth even in these atheistic days. Thus we see the Scottish view as being rooted in a brand of Christianity that still pays great homage to the commandments of the Old Testament: crime must be punished severely -- by death if "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" calls for it; the Sabbath should be kept -- it is after all in the Ten Commandments; divorce offends against the sanctity of marriage "what God has joined together let no man put asunder"; birth control also offends against God's purposes that man should "go forth and multiply and fill the earth;" socialism even is nothing more than a political application of the chief Christian commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself." Perhaps the only item that does not clearly fit this image of strongly old-testament Christianity is the opposition to co-education. At the risk of creating a chicken and egg problem, however, it must be said that co-education has always been the norm in Scotland. There just has never been any custom against it. This may be tied up with the fact that reverence for education traditionally had a wider class-spread in Scotland than in England. It was less of an upper class preserve in the heyday of the segregated schools of England.

It is then the economic application of this moralism -- socialism -- that might have given rise to the Scottish differences on the economic front. In post-war Britain generally there is a strong tendency to regard profit as immoral. In London, however, there still seems to be an instinctive admiration for a man who is smart enough to "beat the system" and end up rich. In Glasgow the same man would be more likely to be regarded as a bit of a blackguard who is robbing his fellow citizens. The ordinary Scot is morally offended by wealth. The ordinary Englishman is not.

Thus although the British government as a whole bends every effort towards destroying profit and the enterprise which produces it, it is only in Scotland that such formal sanctions are backed up with informal sanctions. If an Englishman can leap through all the hoops that officialdom puts up and come through in the end as a wealthy man, he can at least look forward to feeling proud at the end and basking in the admiration of his fellows. Neither of these rewards would be at all assured in Scotland. On the contrary, he would have a guarantee of considerable opprobrium.

We are thus left with the eminently understandable situation that the society which opposes material wealth is not materially wealthy. In Scotland it is permissible to secure one's material position by saving because this cannot in any way be robbing anybody else; but securing one's material position by earning more in the first place would mean the unendurable risk of endangering one's standing as a worthy person with one's fellows.

This explanation does then at one stroke explain the fanatical Scottish thrift, the poverty of Scotland and the affluence of Scots who emigrate to societies less intolerant of wealth. When he does not have to run the risk of social disapproval (when he lives, say, in such deeply conservative countries as Australia or the U.S.A.) the Scot is as good at creating wealth as his heritage would lead us to expect.

Ideally, of course, the Scots and perhaps most people everywhere would like it to be possible for wealth creation to proceed by lifting everyone up at the same rate. They would approve of the whole society getting richer at the same rate if that were possible. Experience, however, teaches us that this is never so. From industrial revolution England to the Brazil of today, average standards of living tend to be improved by expanding the size of the middle class rather than by making the poor richer. The poor may very rapidly become fewer but only very slowly richer. The Scots quite simply prefer an evenly poor society to an unevenly rich one.


1. McClelland, D.C. (1961) The Achieving Society Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

2. Entwisle, Doris R. (1972) To dispel fantasies about fantasy-based measures of achievement motivation. Psychological Bulletin 77, 377391.

3. Weinstein, M.S. (1969) "Achievement Motivation and Risk Preference." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13, 153-172.

4. Ray, J.J. (1970) Christianism.... The Protestant ethic among unbelievers. J. Christian Education, 13, 169-176. ; Ray, J.J. (1975) A behavior inventory to measure achievement motivation. J. Social Psychology 95, 135-136.

5. Wilson, G.D. (1973) "Liberal Extremists." New Society, 26,263-264.


The Items of the Short Form of the Ray-Lynn AO Scale

Response options are "yes" (scored 3), "?" (scored 2), "no" (scored 1). Items marked "R" are to be reverse-scored (e.g. "1 becomes "3") before addition to get the overall score.

1. Is being comfortable more important to you than getting ahead? R
2. Are you satisfied to be no better than most other people at your job? R
3. Do you like to make improvement to the way the organization you belong to functions?
4. Do you take trouble to cultivate people who may be useful to you in your career?
5. Do you get restless and annoyed when you feel you are wasting time?
6. Have you always worked hard in order to be among the best in your own line: (school, organization, profession).
7. Would you prefer to work with a congenial but incompetent partner rather than with a difficult but highly competent one? R
8. Do you tend to plan ahead for your job or career?
9. Is "getting on in life" important to you?
10. Are you an ambitious person?
11. Are you inclined to read of the successes of others rather than do the work of making yourself a success? R
12. Would you describe yourself as being lazy? R
13. Will days often go by without your having done a thing? R
14. Are you inclined to take life as it comes without much planning? R


Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.

In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.

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