December 29, 2020

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Josef Stalin famously commented that a single death is a tragedy, but one million is a statistic. It was an acute perception — put to most appalling use by Stalin himself — of the way that both individuals and the wider media process news of death. The minutiae of one person’s fate can move strangers to tears, but a distant story of misery told only in large numbers is often easily brushed aside.

The way in which the wider United Kingdom metabolised the recent story of Scotland’s drugs deaths is a case in point. It emerged earlier this month that the country’s drug-related death toll is now 3.5 times that of England and Wales, and leads Europe by a shocking degree; in 2019 there were 1,264 drug-related deaths in the country of 5 million, roughly seven out of ten of whom were male.

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The findings have proved a political scandal in Scotland, taking up numerous column inches and leading to the resignation of Joe Fitzpatrick, the SNP minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing. In the rest of the UK the story has briefly touched the news agenda before melting away. It is admittedly a period of unusually feverish political drama, with a new strain of Covid-19 on the rampage and a Brexit deal in the balance until Christmas, but I don’t think that in other circumstances things would be any different. They never are. On my Twitter timeline, Scottish drug deaths — rather like the victims of Northern Irish paramilitary shootings and beatings — scarcely surface at all as a topic of serious concern among members of the London media and professional classes. Nor have they done so for many years.

There are a number of reasons for this, I think. One is that England has become used over the years to the insidious idea that what might be dubbed “Celtic dysfunction” is an immutable fact of life, a bit like the rain. This dysfunction, it is thought, is most often expressed through violence, abuse of alcohol or drugs, although occasionally it snakes into eloquence. At times it may become a topic of heightened cultural interest, as with Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting or Douglas Stuart’s recent Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain, but that rarely translates into any sense of political urgency. When Scotland movingly or humorously dramatises its pain, the results are praised and savoured, but little sustained effort is made to alleviate the reality.

Along with devolution, another question has arisen: who owns this reality? In Westminster the attitude is that Scotland does, particularly with the SNP in charge: if they want to claim Scotland, the thinking goes, they can take responsibility for its human misery as well. But the truth is that neither Holyrood nor Westminster owns it fully: an effective drugs policy appears to have fallen down a gap in approaches between the two administrations. Where the British Government treats drug abuse primarily as a criminal justice matter, the Scottish Government increasingly regards it as a health emergency, leading to the Home Office blocking proposals for a “safe consumption” facility in Glasgow.

For drug users, the two opposing policies seem to represent either punishment or what might be called despair management. It may be that neither offers a satisfactory outcome. The Orwell prize-winning Scottish writer Darren McGarvey — who himself overcame addiction to drink and drugs — has eloquently argued that the punitive approach does not work and that a form of decriminalisation would give the authorities more policy options. But he also says that the SNP’s “harm reduction” model is itself flawed, and will lead to continued deaths: the SNP has actually cut drugs services and reduced spending on rehabilitation facilities, which are most likely to offer addicts a decisive path out of addiction.

There are no easy solutions, since many potential elements may feed into a drugs crisis: family dysfunction, economic deprivation, the easy availability of drugs, the fragmentation of community, a history of criminal offending, a spiral of shame and the individual’s sense of his or her own loss of meaning in the world.

A large amount of what holds true for Scotland also seems to be reflected in my birthplace of Northern Ireland, which itself has sharply escalating numbers of drug-related deaths. As in Scotland, the greater proportion of such deaths are among men, and many involve the mixing of a number of different substances. Those living in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland — with their additional history of Troubles-related losses — are five times as likely to die a drug-related death as those in wealthier parts, and around 70% of those deaths will be among men. A separate but linked phenomenon is the relatively high rate of suicide in both places (although some of Northern Ireland’s suicides have recently been recategorised as accidental drugs deaths). The group most vulnerable to suicide across the board in the UK is that of middle-aged men.

Is there any truth in the notion that a predisposition to drink, drugs or even despair is a notable streak of the communal psyche of Scotland or Northern Ireland in a way that is less pronounced elsewhere? To say so is to run the risk of overlooking societal factors, or romanticising sadness. Some of the characteristics that seem innate may in fact be cultural and historical. Both Glasgow and Belfast, for example, once had heavy industries — in particular ship-building — that provided stable employment, rewarded engineering skills, and to some extent defined masculine meaning. When such industries melted away, they left a hole in working-class communities which nothing in successive generations has adequately filled. Women, too, have had to navigate the wider consequences of this loss, not least its damaging effects on the men around them.

The prevailing religious culture in both places, too, put a particularly strong emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work — both important values, but if one then repeatedly lapses from them, the internalised sense of shame is especially acute. The drug addict is often presented as someone who is essentially feckless, irresponsible and selfish. Yet it might be truer to say that while addiction makes addicts behave in a selfish way, the spur to the addiction is often deeply rooted in feeling too much rather than too little: the shameful sense in moments of lucidity of being worthless and unlovable, and of having routinely disappointed friends and family in a manner that now seems irrecoverable. The pain demands a quickly palliative measure, which when it wears off is likely to intensify the source of pain.

I spent some time a couple of years ago interviewing male teenaged victims of post-ceasefire paramilitary shootings and beatings in Belfast, attacks in which they had almost died and from which they were permanently scarred. Some had been targeted by the local “hard men” for their alleged involvement in petty crime, including small-time involvement with drugs. They were now almost certainly self-medicating more often to dull their anxieties, not least in constant anticipation of their attackers returning.

They displayed a remarkable lack of self-pity, in part because it was a pointless emotion, since there was and is very little coherent political will or strategy to help them rebuild their lives. Aside from a few brave community workers and academics who regularly speak up on their behalf, and their own families, there is almost no meaningful wider support shown to them. In the vast majority of cases they are too intimidated to consider giving evidence against their attackers in a public prosecution.

One spoke of a friend who had taken his own life after an attack of unimaginable brutality. Another told me he was fine now, and then casually mentioned that he had tried to kill himself on the night of his own engagement party. These youths were trapped within layers of indifference, both local and national, and immobilised in policy failure. I imagine that, albeit for less immediately brutal reasons, much the same sense of being officially considered either a non-person or a public nuisance applies to many of those who lose their lives to drugs in Scotland. The prevailing narrative around them is not one of empathy or outrage but ennui.

The by-products of stress and tension are not always wholly negative, provided there is at least some place in society where one seems to matter. Some of the wittiest people I have known — both men and women — have had extremely difficult childhoods. Their self-preservation demanded an enhanced attentiveness to the world, including the ability to closely  observe the innately unreliable adults and situations around them. Humour became a way both of detaching from emotional hurt and translating it into a usable currency: the dark, quick wit that so often characterises working-class Belfast and Glaswegian banter frequently has its origins in discomfort of some sort, whether outside the family or within it. The Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, for example, was only four years old when his mother abandoned him and his beloved older sister Flo to the erratically cruel care of paternal aunts and his father’s physical and sexual abuse.

As an adult, talking about the abuse, Connolly revealed an extraordinary ability to sift and separate elements in his father’s character: “I love his memory now, as much as I loved him when he was alive. It was disloyal of him to do that to me, but there were other aspects of him that were great.” This heightened alertness to the agonising complications of others — the perpetually shifting, layered quality of the world — can be a great asset to a comedian or writer. But early betrayals also create an abiding reservoir of pain, into which people can pour drink or drugs or eventually their whole selves.

Connolly recognised this about himself in time to give up alcohol and cocaine, while holding on to the humour like a life-raft. Others don’t. One certainly would not wish the darker aspects of Billy Connolly’s childhood on anyone, but the question remains: would he have been the same electric stage presence had he grown up in a gently nurturing, stable middle-class family in Surrey?

Probably not. Yet the fact that dysfunction can give rise to compelling humour or art should not be a reason for a complacent failure to address it in policy terms. For every Billy Connolly or Douglas Stuart — who manage by means of resilience, talent, hard work and luck to alchemise their early adversity — there are numerous others who will be entirely crushed by it.

Another factor, I think, now mitigates against effective action on both drug-related deaths and suicides in Scotland in particular, and the wider UK in general, even as the statistics climb. It is the current style of political discourse, especially in sections of the Left, which accords moral status to victimhood while becoming increasingly selective about who is granted that status. If the wrong “category members” knock on the door, they’ll often find that the empathy police have quietly closed the club.

At present, public discussion of disadvantage often emphasises necessary questions of race and gender while simultaneously underplaying those of class, familial care, education and poverty. This is partly because the online public conversation around disadvantage — like many public conversations — is often dominated by the middle and upper-middle classes, a large proportion of whom have little personal experience of poverty or class discrimination, for example, and tend to minimise the importance of these factors in determining life chances. The most disadvantaged people in society often aren’t making their voices heard in the argument at all: they’re too busy struggling, and sometimes failing, to get by.

In much of academic and social media discourse, “white men” are routinely glued to the top of the privilege tree — somewhat illogically, since without further qualification the category can encompass both a homeless, unemployed person and Jeff Bezos. As an automatic shorthand for privilege, however, it doesn’t really work, especially once geography and socio-economic class are factored in. It will certainly include a notably high proportion of those in both the drug-related deaths and suicide statistics: seven out of ten drug-related deaths in Scotland are among men (including all races, of course, but at the last census Scotland was 96% white.)

Despite much cultural discussion of race, the prevailing policy direction is doing very little to help less well-off black and Asian men across the UK either. Those social problems which are male-dominated (although of course they affect women as well) are also those to which society is increasingly unsympathetic. Budgets for drug and alcohol treatment programmes have been widely cut in recent years.

Men in the UK have roughly three times the suicide rate of women. According to the Samaritans, men who are less well-off (defined as a household income of less than £17,500 a year) are up to ten times more likely to take their own lives than those who are better-off. We need to talk about this, just as we acknowledge that women are disproportionately victims of domestic violence.

These are grim statistics of a brutal epidemic of self-destruction and loss, and it is striking how little they feature in the broader national conversation. Devolved responsibilities, shame around deprivation and addiction, institutional indifference and the oddly skewed prism through which once-progressive movements now view privilege and victimhood, have combined to make male despair increasingly invisible, even as it mounts: somebody else’s problem, and nobody’s problem at all.