In the poor heart of Glasgow, political loyalties melt away

In the poor heart of Glasgow, political loyalties melt away
Kevin McKenna, The Observer

The councillor is making his rounds, quietly soliciting from his neighbours their troubles and concerns. It’s lunchtime in Cranhill Community Centre in the north-east of Glasgow, and he stops beside a serving hatch to ask for tea and toasties from a handsome blonde woman who delivers one-liners while keeping an eye on the homemade lentil soup. The conversation starts at battle speed and soon changes up to full Glaswegian ramming rate: nothing is missed and no one is spared. She is unhappy that her daughter is still waiting for a new modern studies teacher to replace the one who had become ill.

“She’s got a qualified acceptance for the uni, but she’s got to get her modern studies,” she says, and Frank Docherty, a Labour councillor in these streets for 12 years, begins to take notes. A university place in this neighbourhood is the golden ticket and he wants to ensure that no one drops it.

Outside a slate-grey sky is pondering whether to dispense driving sleet or merely torrential rain. Finally it opts for both and, collars turned up, we walk out towards a row of flats which you might be tempted to call desirable. On the way we stop to inspect a solitary bunch of flowers, its Cellophane wrapping tied to a wrought-iron railing, a withering memorial to a wicked act.

The flowers mark the spot where, in late 2013, a 53-year-old woman, out walking her dog late at night, was killed. She had lived in one of these flats and her murder was the third to occur in this little stretch in the space of seven months.

These numbers might easily qualify this street for the title of most dangerous in Britain, but this would seem to be rough justice for an area that has a fierce and loyal community spirit coursing through its veins. A drop-in centre, the community hall and one of those dramatic yellow- and blue-fronted civic buildings where the local housing association dwells is at the heart of a group of streets which daily rejoins the war against unemployment, drug and alcohol misuse, child poverty and violent crime.

Cranhill lies within an area east of Glasgow’s city centre within which are to be found the worst set of indicators of multi-deprivation anywhere in the UK. This district is bounded to the north by the M8 and to the south by the river Clyde before it passes out of Glasgow’s jurisdiction and into the concrete plains of North Lanarkshire.

In Glasgow, according to Scottish government statistics, the gap in life expectancy between those living in its most affluent neighbourhoods and those in its poorest is wider than anywhere else in the UK. There are other socially disadvantaged locales in Glasgow – mainly in the north of the city – but nowhere is the concentration of deprivation as intense as in these neighbourhoods – places such as Easterhouse, Parkhead, Dalmarnock and Shettleston.

Politically speaking, this has always been red territory, for obvious reasons. But as Lord Ashcroft’s stunning poll of Labour’s safest Scottish seats revealed last week, these places are at the centre of a storm that may be about to wipe the party from the electoral map of west-central Scotland. Glasgow Central, Glasgow East, Glasgow North and Glasgow North West are all set to move from Labour to the SNP in previously unthinkable swings averaging more than 20%. It’s as though an entire people has said: “We’re tired of your broken promises and your infidelity, and so now we are moving in with the SNP. Bye.”

Docherty has been aware of the warning signs for years but few others, it seems, have paid heed. And in a bittersweet twist of political fate this quiet revolt by the people of the East End may yet lock Ed Miliband out of 10 Downing Street. It would be the ultimate revenge for a community that itself felt locked out of the New Labour project.

Cranhill has a child poverty rate of 44% and an alcohol misuse rate which is 120% above the national average, while its income deprivation rate runs at 30%. In some streets in these districts the child poverty rate is 55%, while alcohol abuse runs at almost 300% above the national average.

In figures released a few weeks ago, life expectancy for boys born in the 10% least deprived areas in Scotland between 2011-13 is 82.4 years, compared with just 69.9 years for those born in the 10% most deprived areas, most of which are to be found here. Fewer children from these streets reach university, because the percentage of pupils from local schools gaining three passes at higher grade is lower than anywhere else, while those with five passes are almost unheard of. Here is where death rates from cancer and heart disease are at their highest.

“The Glasgow Effect” was a term coined by academics flummoxed at why the city had significantly higher levels of ill health and premature death than other UK cities possessing similar social challenges.

Gordon Matheson, Labour leader of Glasgow city council, feels that the statistics on deprivation are made worse by circumstances beyond the city’s control, both current and historical. “The re-drawing of the regional boundaries took many of the city’s most affluent suburbs into neighbouring local authorities, such as East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire,” he said, “and this began to distort the picture.”

The changing nature of work in the UK was not kind to Glasgow. When it was regarded as the second city of the Empire at the end of the 19th century its shipbuilding output accounted for more than half of the UK’s and it was making a quarter of the world’s locomotives. But when de-industrialisation came, nowhere did the heavy trades decline more rapidly and more profoundly than in Glasgow. Tens of thousands of west of Scotland men derived a gruff pride in working hard for their money and providing food and shelter for their families. It was a biblical model by which workers in these parts measured their worth to the community.

When, in the 1960s and 1970s, the yards went quiet and the furnaces turned cold, no redundancy payments would ever be big enough to heal the gaping wounds in the psyche of generations of Glasgow men and, latterly, women. There were no enterprise zones, no tax inducements for inward investment, and no re-training.

A social and cultural catastrophe was occurring and no government during this period lifted a finger to help. Britain was still, by degrees, an affluent country in these years, but it was as if some cruel, neo-conservative social engineer had decreed that an entire section of the population was forever to be denied a share in it.

Doctor Sir Harry Burns was the Scottish government’s chief medical officer for nine years until 2014 and he has made the study of health inequalities in society the defining characteristic of his lifetime of work. He wants governments to underpin their approach to meeting the challenge of deprivation with science. “The seeds of deprivation are sown very early in life. Chaos and uncertainty and poor parenting produce a range of biochemical processes that lead to a reduced ability to learn, to engage socially, and to an increased exposure to acquiring chronic disease in later life. We’re seeing this in some parts of Glasgow,” he says.

“Studies have shown that the brains of young animals which are neglected or exposed to threat develop differently. The parts of the brain connected to learning and empathy don’t develop properly. In the field of genetics it’s been shown that the lower down the social scale you are, the faster your DNA ages. All around the world where people have looked at this there is a consistent story. Difficult circumstances in early life lead to bad outcomes, and not just in health.

“There is nothing special about Glasgow. We’ve just had a bigger dose of this. When people lose their traditional ways of living, when they are disconnected from their traditional structures, they take drugs and start fighting. When you talk to young men of 17 and 18 in places like Polmont Young Offenders Institution, they consider their lives finished.”

He wants to see early intervention strategies adopted by the government if they are genuinely serious about addressing the root causes of health inequality. He is optimistic that the Scottish government is beginning to grasp this. “I was probably the only chief medical officer on the planet who knew how many children in his country were being read bedtime stories. And we are educating their parents too, because we are telling them: ‘If you read to your kids, good things will happen.’ And where there are issues with adult literacy we are quietly offering parents help.”

The Gallowgate is one of the main roads leading out of Glasgow city centre into the heart of the city’s east end. Once there were reckoned to be more than 100 pubs on this stretch – one on every corner. Now only a few remain and when you walk out on it up towards Parkhead Cross you are passing from one world into another. At one end lies the Great Eastern Hotel, a notorious hostel where broken men, cast out from their communities, went for hard respite. Now it is a block of modern apartments, but its twin, the Bellgrove hotel, still exists a mile or so up the road; a privately owned flophouse profiting from the giros of 200 men who have been driven to its door by alcoholism. For years the city council has wrung its hands in a state of bewildered helplessness as public awareness of this gateway to hell in their midst has grown.

A small Glasgow charity, Salt and Light, is trying to provide a little compassion and kindness for these men while the council seeks a long-term and sustainable solution.

Annie and Martin McIlveen, the couple who run the charity, adopt a real-time approach to their work with these men. Each week they take a customised bus up to the Bellgrove from which they dispense some food and warmth, but also a degree of the dignity and respect which was probably last encountered a long time ago. “These men are brothers, fathers, husbands, sons and nephews. They belong to someone, to us all,” says Annie. “One wrong turning, one bad decision, can lead to their lives unravelling: jail, violence, unemployment and finally drink before an early death releases them.”

“We don’t judge them,” says Martin, “because they get enough of that the rest of the week. These boys have serious and complicated issues which will not easily be solved, but we try to make a connection with them; get to know them and then slowly some of them amaze us with their gifts and abilities. If you handed over the keys of the Bellgrove to us, we would make something of it and bring hope back into the lives of those who live here.”

At the close of the day in his office in Glasgow’s city chambers, Frank Docherty has taken a phone call. The situation about the missing modern studies teacher is in hand: a permanent one will be in place by the end of the week. It may yet change the life of a bright East End teenager because on one winter afternoon a connection was made and someone cared and someone intervened. It is a sacred moment, and you feel blessed merely to have witnessed it.

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