The Last Dance

“I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot – and missed. I’ve failed over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed” (Michael Jordan).

“To step aside is human” (Robert Burns, Address to the Unco Guid).

Like many folk, I spent a bit of lockdown watching The Last Dance, the acclaimed Netflix documentary about the great Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty that dominated the sport in the 1990s.

I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. But, having watched it, I realised that you don’t need to be a basketball fan to enjoy it. I’m not, but I watched it four times over. I don’t even think you need to be much of a sports fan, because at its heart the documentary series isn’t really about sport but about how people succeed.

Apart from the great Michael Jordan, the guy who really took the Bulls to greatness was their legendary coach, Phil Jackson, who drummed into his players the mantra that to win you had firstly to learn to lose, and to treat every loss as an opportunity not to blame the people around you but to learn the lessons from defeat and apply them to your next challenge. “Next time”, he would say, “we will fail a little better than before”.

And, certainly in the early days, the Chicago Bulls failed quite a lot. Indeed, in their first championship they scraped into the playoffs with a losing record in the regular season, before finding their form in the knockout stages. Every time they lost, they learned and improved. Acceptance and humility were the keys to their success. And, of course, they had Michael Jordan.

Great as they were, the Bulls didn’t win every game and every championship. But on the occasions when they lost nobody suggested the coach should resign, largely because his track record showed that he embraced setbacks and disappointed, changed course, tried harder – and invariably won. The trajectory wasn’t constantly upwards, but the general direction certainly was. The fans, the players and the owners had faith in Phil Jackson because they could see the bigger picture.

Indeed, it was Michael Jordan’s determination not to fear failure that was key to his greatness. “Why would I worry about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet”?, he would say. It rubbed off on his less stellar team-mates. They played without fear of consequence and therefore with freedom. They became better players and a better team. They won six championships and made Chicago proud.

Which brings me to the events of last week.

That the Scottish Government didn’t have the best of weeks recently over the exams issue shouldn’t really need saying. By “not the best of weeks”, read “clusterbouroch”. But that’s not really the point.

John Swinney and the government screwed it up. But, having done so, they apologised and put it right. The opposition called for heads to roll, but the Scottish public, whilst hardly about to confer the freedom of Edinburgh on Mr Swinney, recognised and even respected his maturity and his essential decency and was in a mood to draw a line under the affair. For that reason, I think, calls for a resignation misjudged the mood and failed to gain any traction.

I think this tells us several things.

Firstly, the public is more forgiving than we might have realised. We should demand many things from our elected representatives – like honesty, integrity, transparency and hard work – but we shouldn’t expect them to be flawless. Listening to calls from the opposition benches for Swinney to resign, it’s almost as if they thought intransigence and mendacity means you keep your job while an admission and a promise to sort the problem gets you the bullet. That to me seems entirely the wrong way round, and we end up with a judgemental parliament full of people so scared of making a mistake that that they never take the kind of calculated risks required to bring about the kind of meaningful change that Scotland is crying out for. It’s been a tough week for the government, but like Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, next time we will fail a little better.

And the second thing I would suggest is this.

The UK Internal Market Bill will be debated in the Westminster Parliament next month. It’s a piece of legislation that has at its heart the concept of mutual recognition, and what that means is that an unelected body in London will have the power to scrutinise any piece of Holyrood legislation it wishes to determine on whether it is compatible with the so-called internal market – and that includes pre-existing legislation (like minimum alcohol pricing and free tuition fees) and bills in devolved areas like farming. So, for example, if Scotland wanted clearer food labelling and London decided this would be an obstacle to a deal with Donald Trump, then we could either do it anyway and see the industry decimated or accept a lowering of standards and harm the health of our people. It’s about as brazen an attack on our devolved powers as it is possible to imagine.

And yet the exam results stramash showed what it’s possible to achieve with a strong Scottish Parliament. The government wanted to do something that the people didn’t want them to do. The people complained vociferously and Holyrood apologised and reversed its decision.

The fact that this wouldn’t – couldn’t – happen over Trident, Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax or an illegal war – things that are arguably even less popular than the exam results policy – because we are not allowed to legislate in these areas; and given that we are now facing a power grab that would reduce our legislative power even further – makes, I think, an incredibly strong case for Scotland’s self-government. Sports coaches often tell their students that there’s no such thing as over-achieving: all you’re actually doing is catching a glimpse of your own potential. Amongst all the sound and fury of last week, the saga gave an insight into what kind of democracy we are on the cusp of winning.

We’re nearly there. For this most unequal of unions, this truly is The Last Dance.

Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.

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