So, Tom Harris and I had our duel on Radio Scotland this morning. His line of attack was straightforward: that when I said “scummy estates” – a charge for which I’m being denounced in the Scottish Parliament – I could only be referring to the people who lived in those estates. I thought back to the Easterhouse estate I visited a few months back in the Glasgow East by-election (see it for yourself – 2’20 into the YouTube video). There were dead rats in the landing, evidence of drug abuse, children playing around broken vodka bottles in the park, a pub boarded up like a Balkan arms stash to save it from attack, hallways which smell of stale urine. If Tom lived in such a place, I wonder how he’d describe it to his friends? I also wondered: how, in 2009, can we condemn families to live in such places? Why is there not more outrage about the hideous inequality: not just of wealth, but of state school provision and protection from crime? The estates I’m talking about are known for violent crime and sink schools – making life even harder for those growing up in them. And yet this is tolerated, because of an unwritten rule: you can’t get angry about this. You can’t denounce these modern-day equivalent of Blake’s dark, satanic mills – indeed, don’t draw attention to this, ever. Because an attack on the squalid conditions in which we condemn people to live will be seen as an attack on the people themselves.
Harris was asked what word he’d use: “Deprived” he said. And here lies the problem. Words like this take the urgency out of British poverty, as if it’s one decades-long social experiment that one day we’ll get right. Using this language is, I think, dangerous because it is a sociological term for what is a real, urgent human tragedy. A scandal that should cause outrage.
And what is Labour doing to solve this? Harris banged on about the minimum wage. But most of Castlemilk and Easterhouse don’t work – surely he must realise that. He spoke about my “party leader” as if I were a Tory MP. Then, typically, he went on about Thatcher, who left office almost two decades ago. We’ve had 12 years of Labour. As one of the commentators on his blog put it: how many decades does he want? Britain won a world war in six years.
Of course, money can’t change this – only welfare reform can. If a child grows up seeing worklessness (55% of children in Castlemilk grow up in a workless household, 48% in Easterhouse), then the chances of them breaking out of this poverty cycle are slim. In America, the problem of the black ghetto is well known. Ditto the French banlieues. They have vocabulary that at least speaks to the shameful situation into which the state condemns so many people.
But British welfare ghettos are mysteriously invisible to the political class; the language is seen as taboo. Talking about the problem is taboo. They’re “deprived,” dear chap, let’s shake out head and not get angry – or, to be honest, look too closely at the conditions in which the poorest in society live. Let’s find a way of airbrushing them out of the official data. Then people like Gordon Brown claim they have ceased to exist.
I have long considered Harris one of the better Scottish Labour MPs in that he’s aware of the problem, and will admit that these massive construction projects in Glasgow didn’t do much for local unemployment because they had to bus people in. He actually knows how many in his constituency are on out- of-work benefits – 12,000. If they all vote, that’s 20pc of his electorate. After ten years of Labour’s “social justice” I wonder why he thinks his figure is so scandalously high? Where did all that anger go, that so animated him in the 1980s? Perhaps he really does still blame Thatcher.
Sure, there are parts of Castlemilk and Easterhouse that are nice. That’s the tragedy: wealth lives cheek-by-jowl beside poverty in these estates. The UK welfare state has actually insulated areas against the prosperity that can blossom a few hundred yards away. There are parts of Glasgow where life expectancy drops ten years just by walking from one end of the street to another. There are parts of not just Glasgow but east London, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle that are worse than “scummy”. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to bring up a child in these drug-addled welfare ghettoes; what it would be like to step over discarded syringes on the way to school.
At the end of the Radio Scotland interview, I was asked if I want to apologise about saying “scummy”. My only apology is that I could not find stronger language enough to express the circumstances to which the unreformed welfare state has condemned so many people.
P.S. The Scottish authorities may be no use at tackling poverty, but they are really good at measuring it. Click here for more details about how grim life is in Castlemilk, and here for Easterhouse. Also my Jan06 study for The Scotsman into life expectancy the various estates of Glasgow was picked up by the World Health Organisation in a report last year – it concluded that the social (not economic) factors were “killing people on a grand scale”. That very much includes people in the council estates in Tom Harris’ constituency. Its graph, which I reprint below, tells the story. Both Calton and Lenzie are areas of Glasgow – and this is what I call social and economic segregation. When you consider the social injustice of this, there really are no words.
UPDATE Since writing this blog, I’ve made a Ch4 documentary about the situation where I go back to some of Glasgow’s estates. Here it is:-