The disgrace of multi-deprivation in one of the richest and most civilised countries in world
The Herald Scotland, by Kevin McKenna
Perhaps, rather than study the causes and effects of poverty, we ought instead to be analyse the origins of our continuing indifference to it. This would surely be a much more rewarding field of study for social scientists, mental health specialists and political philosophers. The results of any serious analysis of an affluent society’s behaviours when confronted by the persistent reality of deprivation on our doorsteps would be interesting and, I suspect, profoundly troubling.
After all, any student embarking on a project to record the scale of poverty in Scotland as well as its conduct and consequences doesn’t have to look very far to find evidence and documented cause. This is a well-worn path and the statistical evidence and case studies all, more or less, point in the same direction. There have been few surprises and, when someone does encounter something that is ground-breaking and fresh, we momentarily stop to inspect it before passing discreetly by on the other side of the road.
Some of us (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) make a quick mental note and determine to share it with just the right degree of hand-wringing at the next red corduroy dinner party we attend in the company of our liberal, enlightened and pony-tailed chums.
By then we will have polished it and worked on our delivery, lowering our voices appropriately as we affect to appear pale and interesting while sipping on a robust wee Merlot. And then we recount the story of the "Glasgow Effect". This is the social and cultural idiosyncrasy of our city that condemns people living in our poorest neighbourhoods to a death several years earlier than those living in the other big UK cities with broadly similar health inequalities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
There is a seven-mile long corridor running from east to west through the city in which a Glaswegian can lose more than 20 years of his existence depending on which point on it he has been born and raised. Men born on the far east of this tributary of inequality will be fortunate if they see their 60th birthday such are the levels of illness, violent crime, unemployment and household income they will encounter daily.
In some communities at this end of the line, battle is joined daily from infancy with these four horsemen and this simply renders virtually impossible any efforts by schools in these areas to improve the chances of escape. It’s not a lack of intelligence or a genetic pre-disposition to idiocy that sees very few emerge from school with a certificate saying they are fit for university or properly-paid employment. For, how would you or I have fared in our classes if we had first had to overcome this daily apocalypse?
Those who have been fortunate enough to be reared in a home towards the west of this line will, on average, live beyond 80 and be given every opportunity to have a life of comfort and purpose. In the same way that many of their brothers in the east of the city cannot be held responsible for their own afflictions, nor can many of us in the leafier neighbourhoods have been held to have really earned our affluence. This is not to say that hard work and diligence does not contribute; merely that it helps if you can start your life three goals up.
Many good and well-intentioned people have tried to put their finger on the anomaly of the Glasgow Effect, but little has emerged from their endeavours that explains the reasons for Glasgow’s unique status in the index of human despair; there has been no Eureka moment. This though, isn’t to disparage the brilliant work of Professor Sir Harry Burns in the area of early and pre-natal intervention that has taken him to those places in the world where extreme poverty is permitted to exist in wealthy societies.
It’s too easy to dismiss the project being undertaken by the artist Ellie Harrison to encapsulate the Glasgow Effect in her latest work. In this endeavour she will be assisted by a grant of £15,000 from Creative Scotland during which she will confine herself entirely in the city for a year as she attempts to craft something beautiful and important from despair. I wish her well.
Yet, already, amidst some regrettable comments, she has been accused of peddling in something called "poverty porn". This same phrase was used to describe the 2010 television series The Scheme about a working-class enclave of Kilmarnock in which we were permitted to observe the reality of the lives of those who are fighting an everyday battle against the odds. I found it to be sad yet uplifting to witness nobility, compassion and fortitude among people who had encountered challenges I have been spared.
I witnessed the same fortitude and hope in places where they had no right to exist in an extraordinary documentary by Ross Kemp about Glasgow in his Extreme World series. This too was denigrated and shouted down by people who were effectively saying: "Glasgow’s a great city; it’s not like that; we’re doing our best; why must people always concentrate on the negative?"
For many people though, Glasgow is like that and so are Edinburgh, Dundee and Paisley if you happen to live in Wester Hailes, Lochee or Ferguslie Park. The artists and documentary-makers who occasionally pop by to take a look are welcome to do so at any time. They don’t come here to mock Scotland or to exploit the misery of the poor; if you simply want to gawp at poor people you can pick up a camera and head for Africa or Latin America. But to observe multi-deprivation in one of the richest and most civilised countries in the world: that’s a story and it’s worth re-telling again and again.
“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly,” says Tam Docherty to his son in William McIlvanney’s great Scottish novel Docherty. “It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”
During the course of Scotland’s great constitutional debate in 2014 I was gradually persuaded by the Yes argument principally because it seemed to me absurd that a country so rich in natural resources, academic achievement and highly marketable export goods could not govern itself without crutches. It’s not as absurd, though, as the concept of this same country in the 21st century permitting the extremes of wealth and poverty to be visible to the naked eye in each across the same cities, rivers and peninsulas.