The Forgotten Scotland
The Guardian Comment, May 4th 2010
Scotland prides itself on its difference, radicalism and egalitarian traditions. This is a nation which tells itself that it has never voted for the Tories since the 1950s, saw off the poll tax, and is more collectivist and less individualist than the rest of the UK.
There is much in Scotland’s political and social traditions to be proud of, but much folklore, myth and self-congratulation. Moreover, while the Scottish Parliament has done many beneficial things, there is a general air of complacency and smugness at the heart of Scotland’s political classes, which can be seen in the current Westminster elections.
Scotland’s institutional consensus emphasises the numerous mostly well-intentioned laws and initiatives which have emanated from the Scottish Parliament. Yet, who has most gained most from devolution is not the general public but Scotland’s professional middle classes, whether it is through more public sector jobs, higher teacher and health professional pay, or the abolition of student tuition fees.
What is left off of the political agenda is the challenge of ‘forgotten Scotland’, the scale of exclusion, poverty and welfare dependency which exist across the nation. Glasgow has one-third of its working age population on state benefits, with huge groups of the city trapped on incapacity benefit. Male life expectancy in the Calton ward in Glasgow is 54 years – the lowest in Western Europe. And all of this is not exclusive to the West of Scotland, with over half of all households in Dundee having no one in paid work.
In parts of Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and elsewhere, three generations of people have been excluded from the world of formal work. This throws up all sorts of issues about how we function as a society, how labour markets work, and what constitutes ‘good times’ given the vast number of people who have been written off even in the so called ‘boom period’.
In a recent debate at Glasgow’s ‘Aye Write’ Festival on ‘The Future of the Left’, I took part in a discussion with Tariq Ali, Tristram Hunt and Chris Mullin. While we had a degree of consensus on New Labour and neo-liberalism, the three of them saw the problems of poverty and disadvantage as being down to worklessness.
This seems as I pointed out a typical liberal-left position which is at least thirty years out of date. We now know from in-depth academic research by the likes of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health that there is a ‘Glasgow effect’ which we can actually chart and measure, that shows that allowing for the socio-economic make-up of the city, it is significantly worse in terms of poverty, crime and violence.
The answers to why this is so are not a one-dimensional reason such as worklessness as Hunt and Ali pontificated, but a complex mix of factors, ranging from culture, individual motivation, role models, issues of powerlessness, and the role of men and masculinity. The issue of men is crucial here: men die younger, and both perpetuate and are the victims of crime and violence.
Scotland needs to look at how it can address some of its more uncomfortable truths. This is going to become more crucial and important after the election whoever wins, with the onset of public spending cuts which will disproportionately affect Scotland given the larger size of its public sector.
There are the irate right-winger readers of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Spectator’, along with it seems some readers of ‘The Guardian Comment’, who see Scotland as ‘a land of milk and honey’ filled with ‘Jock whingers’ and ‘subsidy junkies’ living the life of riley on English handouts. Nuance, subtlety and fact are not much in evidence with this group.
This perspective shares with many Scottish Nationalists a sense of grudge and grievance about how the United Kingdom works, and both groups for very different reasons aid the weakening of the union. The Nationalists have obvious reasons, but the former are shaped by a mix of the emergence of England, and a general rise in a cynical, disillusioned politics. None of this helps talking about poverty and disadvantage in Glasgow or Grimsby.
Another group: Scotland’s institutional class, primarily but not exclusively in the public sector, who survived Thatcherism and New Labour relatively intact, will try to position itself as the defenders of Scotland and its centre-left traditions.
They have a vision of the future, of themselves as the self-appointed tribunes of the people, defending an innocent northern people from the return of the Tory bogeyman. It is a depressing vision, of politics as caricature and stereotype, clinging to comfort zones and history as folklore.
Such a re-run needs to be avoided, but doing so will in part depend on the result of the election, and if the Tories are elected, whether they have a majority and how many Scottish seats they have. The other part of the equation is how the Scottish debate is conducted, which voices come to the fore, and whether people are prepared in difficult times to face uncomfortable truths about themselves and their nation.