The Truth

For many in Glasgow East, Labour picked up where Thatcher left off .........

added 19/7/08

Saturday, 19 July 2008
Deborah Orr
The Independent

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 politics.

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 ones.

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 has produced.

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 life.

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 Independent