Saturday, 19 July 2008
The whole point about Glasgow East is that it is a
place that has been completely ignored for many years.
Now, with a by-election coming up, it has suddenly become
a fascinating part of the world – not for its own sake,
of course, but because it will next week be playing
a walk-on part in the great game that is Westminster
What obsesses Westminster at the moment is the future
of Gordon Brown. So it has projected its obsession on
to the constituency. The election is being viewed as
some sort of referendum on Brown's leadership, and of
course the result will have its implications for the
Prime Minister. But Glasgow East's residents will be
voting, instead, on the way they've been governed for
the past 30 years, which is something that the Scottish
National Party understands only too well.
I'm not from Glasgow myself, but I share the background
of its people. I'm from Motherwell, a satellite town
of the city, that shares almost identically its recent
history of industrial meltdown and its consequent social
cost. Like everyone from that part of the world, I recognise
the truth in the picture that is being painted – of
poverty, drugs, neglect, poor health, bad housing –
but also hate and resent it.
It's true, as political commentators have been so fond
of pointing out over the past few weeks, that life expectancy
in some parts of the city and its environs is lower
than that of Gaza, and true too that the area bucks
the overwhelming general health trend, so that in some
corners people are living shorter lives now, not longer
But the population, and the way people live, is far
more mixed than these bleak statistics can express.
East Glasgow's miracle is that it does continue to have
vitality, despite all of its privations. Back home this
week, I didn't find that there was much appetite for
discussion of the immediate political situation. People
here have long and bitter memories, and they dislike
the misery snapshot that the furore around the election
Brendan McLaughlin, who has lived in Glasgow all his
life, put it best. "What people don't realise," he told
me, "is that there are four distinct patterns in Glasgow
East. The different places have different cultural heritages.
There's the inner city, that was traditionally dependent
on cotton mills – Bridgeton, say, and Calton. There's
the places that were annexed to Glasgow – Shettleston,
Parkhead – places that were wee towns already, total
communities that already had social structures in place.
"And East Glasgow has its affluent parts too – Dennistoun,
Bargeddie, all over the East End there are still huge
old houses. There's a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.
Finally, there's council scheme East Glasgow – Easterhouse,
Barlanark, Ruchazie, Garthamlock. They are the places
that had no structure in place, that were built so that
people could live near their work."
When he was a boy, McLaughlin recalls, everyone had
an expectation of work, wherever they lived. He never
saw trouble as a boy, he says, and never saw the police.
The women ran the social side of life, and the men went
to work. He knows that dark and criminal things happened.
But it occurred out of sight, beyond the fabric of daily
He is awed still at how quickly and recklessly it was
all dismantled – the mills, the steelworks, the shipbuilding,
the car-making. And he remains appalled at what swept
in to take its place. McLaughlin turns conventional
wisdom on its head, and asks me to remember all the
now barely remembered japes that the Conservative government
thought up to disguise the stratospheric unemployment
figures. If anyone invented welfare dependency, he asserts
with some force, it was Thatcher.
The single most damaging of those statistic-juggling
innovations, he says, was the one that disqualified
16-18-year-olds from claiming unemployment benefit,
at a time when their parents were adjusting to the horrible
new reality of wagelessness themselves. Young people
at that time, he argues, were sitting ducks.
In the early 1980s, McLaughlin was in his 30s, doing
youth work to get pin money while his family lived on
his mature student's grant. He still remembers the young
guys in his football team – who thought drugs were for
hippies – telling him that loads of heroin would soon
be coming, but that they would not be involving themselves
with such namby-pamby hobbies.
Some years later, he met up with some of them, to be
told that a couple had died of addiction, and that most
had been ruined by it. McLaughlin is still perplexed
by the sudden, roaring tsunami of addictive substances
that belted through Britain during deindustrialisation.
Like many Glaswegians, he reviles Thatcher to this
day. But his own political activism has for many years
been directed against the unremittingly Labour government
that has ruled locally from the city chambers. Through
Thatcher, through Major, though Blair, though Brown,
he says, they were the people who could have made changes,
made noises, but chose not to. Devolution, under Labour,
he notes, did precious little as well.
McLaughlin holds no great torch for the SNP. But over
the years that have passed, this Glaswegian socialist,
a success himself, and comfortably retired, has reached
the implacable conclusion that it is Labour that is
the enemy of the people. The great wonder, in Glasgow
East, is that there s still so many people who have
not yet come round to his way of thinking.
The article may be read here: The