Any Englishman brave – or reckless – enough to dip his toe into the choppy waters of Scottish politics is well-advised to exercise a bit of caution. Even at the best of times, the Scots don’t take too kindly to being lectured to by their neighbours to the south, but particularly so in these days of a deepening tribalism in their affairs.
To seek to understand this polarisation is to intrude on a kind of painful family feud. So I tread carefully. But the story goes, I think, something like this.
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There was a time when politics in Scotland was a fairly staid and predictable affair: Labour was dominant; most Scots hated the Conservatives; the Lib Dems (or old Liberal party) controlled a few seats in the Highlands and Islands; and the SNP, known as the ‘Tartan Tories’, was seen as something of a crank outfit and its raison d’être — independence — a fringe position.
But that was then. Now the SNP reigns supreme and Labour is in sharp decline. (It’s pretty much as you were for the Tories and Lib Dems.) This seismic shift in the popularity of both Labour and SNP is a tale of hubris, complacency, the politics of grievance, and a rediscovered national self-confidence and sense of identity.
Devolution was seen by the new Labour government as not only desirable in itself, but also a tactic designed to end the debate over independence for good. But, the law of unintended consequences being what it is, millions of Scots went and got the taste for running things themselves. And their ultimate unwillingness to settle for what they came to view as an ersatz version of the real thing ensured that the independence campaign, and thereby the SNP, was suddenly emboldened.
Meanwhile, Labour, having taken Scotland for granted for too long, began to haemorrhage support. Its pursuit of austerity-lite policies in the years after the global financial crash, and then its alliance with the other ‘English’ parties, particularly the Tories, in the Better Together campaign for the 2014 independence referendum, accelerated its demise. Again, the SNP, which had long since reinvented itself as a progressive alternative to Labour, reaped the dividends. As far as Scottish politics was concerned, all had changed, changed utterly.
Glasgow was the last Labour bastion to fall, the party’s long hegemony over the city eventually collapsing in the Westminster, Scottish parliament and city council elections in 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.
But, despite all that, vestiges of support for the party in this most working-class of cities do remain. In fact, as I travelled around the constituency of Glasgow East, I found it hard to believe that it was anything but Labour. But it is. Only just, mind. The seat is a hyper-marginal, with the SNP holding it by a mere 75 votes.
The East End of this city was once a major industrial centre, home to sprawling manufacturing, engineering and textile works, including the vast steelworks of Parkhead Forge. The sounds and smells of heavy industry would permeate through the nearby slums, of which row upon row of poverty-infested tenement blocks were the main feature. The history of this part of the city is one of working-class solidarity and culture, of cranes and mills, of deprivation and squalor, of the Irish diaspora and Celtic football club, of the notoriety of the Gorbals district and 1920s razor gangs.
Today, the old industries may be a fading memory (Parkhead Forge is now a shopping centre) and the remaining tenements sandblasted to look clean and new, but the hardship is still all too prevalent. The East End contains some of the most deprived areas in the UK. Unemployment and levels of poor health are comparatively very high; the number of benefit claimants well above the UK average.
Every one of the seven Glasgow constituencies represented at Westminster voted Remain in the EU referendum; but, of them all, Glasgow East saw the largest share voting Leave.
After the war, huge new municipal housing estates – known as the ‘schemes’ – were constructed across the city to rehouse families displaced by slum clearances. I headed out to one of these – Easterhouse – an infamous place that over the years has gained a national reputation for gang culture, violence and drugs. If Glasgow East is deprived, then Easterhouse feels like its most impoverished corner.
The place has attracted much media attention and the occasional famous visitor – Princess Diana and Jacque Chirac among them – over the years. They are brought here, no doubt, to discover what life is like for those living on the breadline in one of the most disadvantaged pockets of the nation, almost as junior doctors having a somewhat unusual and stubborn medical condition demonstrated to them.
It was after a visit here while leader of the Conservative party that Iain Duncan Smith was inspired to launch his crusade for ‘compassionate Conservatism’. The moment was, it is said, his ‘Easterhouse epiphany’.
If you come here expecting some kind of benighted, lawless ghetto, you will be disappointed (or pleased – depending on how you look at it). True, mattresses and other discarded furniture are piled up on some streets, drab and unsightly low-rise blocks of flats abound, shop fronts are shabby and uninviting, and you’re likely to stumble upon some untended grassy wasteland every few blocks.
But Easterhouse is fighting hard to reinvent itself, and vast amounts of money have been pumped into the place to help it along the way. Much of the original estate has been pulled down, to be replaced by modest but modern housing, and there is the odd shiny new building, including the Kelvin college campus (which wouldn’t look out of place in a Home Counties town) and an art and culture facility called ‘The Bridge’.
You can’t help but feel, though, that much of this is little more than cosmetic surgery – a superficial makeover on a timeworn body which, beneath the veneer, still suffers from the wear and tear of the daily grind. It’s clear, when you look at the poverty statistics, that the regeneration scheme, which dates back to 2002, has been little but a sticking plaster.
What can the mainstream parties possibly say to convince those whose existence here has been marked by constant need and privation that their lives really will change for the better after the general election?
At St Benedict’s Roman Catholic church on Westerhouse Road, 67-year-old Mary Maguire, until now a lifelong Labour voter, is helping to prepare a special Mass. “Labour are a joke these days. Not just Corbyn; the whole party. They are a joke,” she tells me. This time she will vote SNP because it is the only party standing up for Scotland. She supports independence. “Scotland is a rich country. We’ve lots of resources, but we don’t get a say. Everyone says that England pays to keep us, but that’s rubbish.”
She voted Leave in the EU referendum. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” she says. “I voted Yes to the Common Market first time round, mind.”
“Is unemployment a big problem around here?” I ask. She bristles. “Yes, but lots of people work too. People want to work. Easterhouse isn’t just full of people claiming benefits.” It’s a common theme here. Locals are acutely aware of the reputation of the place, but are desperate to convince you that it isn’t as bad as all that.
I thank Mary for her time and offer five quid for the donation box. She gently rebuffs me. “Don’t be daft. We don’t take money off people who come to see us.”
For all the problems caused by a lack of decent jobs, low wages, inadequate housing and social exclusion, there’s a kindness and warmth in Easterhouse. Folk are friendly and eager to chat.
Friends Donna and Fiona are walking along Aberdalgie Road. Donna, 41, tells me she is “on the fence” but veering towards Labour. “I’m a single parent and would probably be better off financially under Labour. Plus, Labour would look after the NHS. And I don’t trust the SNP.” I ask about the challenges facing Easterhouse. “Drugs. They are a big problem here. And some of the teenagers have no respect and no manners. They trash the place. Mind you, there’s nothing for them to do. And over there,” she points, “is a homeless centre filled with young men. I don’t always feel safe walking around.”
“What do you think of Boris Johnson?” Donna widens her eyes and puffs out her cheeks at my question, as if to say, “Don’t get me started!” I do get her started. “Let me just say,” she snaps back, “that I bought a Donald Trump toy for my dog. He ripped it to pieces. So now I’m looking for a Boris Johnson one.”
I ask Fiona how she will vote. “I won’t,” she retorts sharply. “It’s a waste of time. Nothing ever gets done. They are all a load of shite.” She reflects. “Although at least the gang fights have stopped now.”
Crawford Irving, 24, has lived in Easterhouse for two years. He moved here because “the rent is cheap” and earns his living as a door-to-door fundraiser for a charity. “Yeah, we’ve got our problems,” he says. “Drug issues. Poverty. You go to the shops at 10 in the morning, and people are lining up to get their cans of beer. Or outside the chemist the junkies are queuing to get their methadone. But all places have their problems, don’t they?”
He likes living in Easterhouse and is in no hurry to move on. “Underneath it all, there is a real sense of community on the schemes. It’s like we’re all struggling, but we’re struggling together.”
He will vote Labour on 12 December. “I trust Corbyn. He’s genuine. Rides a bike and stuff. I like that.” And though a supporter of independence, he is no fan of the SNP or its leader. “Nicola Sturgeon is dishonest. She hasn’t made Scotland better. She said she would restore the NHS to its former glory, but it’s in decline.”
History tells us that the evils of unemployment and low wages are primary factors in so many other social problems that can plague communities such as Easterhouse – not just the usual mix of crime, drugs and vandalism, but the absence of self-worth, of dignity and a sense of vocation.
Give people meaningful, rewarding work and the rest will follow. It’s a truism as relevant now as when man was fashioning tools from flint. Yet it is rare these days to hear any party – not even Labour, with its radical economic programme – make the case for full employment as a prime goal of economic policy.
On the train back to the city centre, I read on my iPhone a breaking story exposing an old column written by Boris Johnson, in which he stereotyped British working-class men as “drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”. I guess if you were fortunate enough to brought up on the playing fields of Eton rather than the streets of Easterhouse, you can deceive yourself into believing that such simplistic garbage provides any explanation at all for the trials and tribulations faced by our most blighted communities and the mindset of those who populate them.
Alighting at Queen’s Street station, I walk the few yards to George Square, home to a statue of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.
“Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord / Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that / Tho’ hundreds worship at his word / He’s but a coof for a’ that,” wrote Burns in “A man’s a man for a’ that”, his paean to the poor.
For some reason, I am still thinking of the Prime Minister and that old column.