The Scottish Parliament Has Declared War on Me for Speaking the Truth about Poverty

By Fraser, Nelson | The Spectator, February 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Scottish Parliament Has Declared War on Me for Speaking the Truth about Poverty


Fraser, Nelson, The Spectator


It takes more than an inch of snow to stop the wheels of Scottish democracy. The devolved parliament was hard at work on Monday morning, eight of its members engaged on a most sombre business: a motion formally denouncing a rogue political columnist. It reads as follows:

That the Parliament notes that the journalist, Fraser Nelson, in comments on The Spectator's Coffee House blog. . . referred to Castlemilk and Easterhouse as 'beautiful names, scummy estates' draws Mr Nelson's attention to. . . a motion which celebrated Castlemilk High Schools 2008 HM Inspectorate of Education report. . . and to motion which highlighted the recent award of the International Scotswomen of the Year title to Mary Miller, a former Castlemilk resident. . . and considers that Mr Nelson's rudeness towards the communities of Castlemilk and Easterhouse is outstripped only by his ignorance of them.

To trawl the internet and denounce offending phrases is, alas, not an atypical pastime for MSPs. Rather than seek new solutions to the appalling poverty in east Glasgow (whose ghettoes have the lowest life expectancy in the developed world), Scotland's legislators attack those who draw attention to the problem. Devolution has hardly given Castlemilk bold new champions. Its first MSP, a young Labour peer, stepped down after being imprisoned for fire-raising. Its new representative, Charlie Gordon, was recently found to have paid £13,000 of public money to his son's internet firm. He is the author of the above motion.

I crept on his radar, I suspect, not initially because of the blog but when I joined a BBC Radio Scotland debate on whether children in these deprived estates should be given a £10,000 education voucher. This was the proposal by Reform Scotland, a new (and rather optimistically named) thinktank. I was all for it, arguing that the desire to do what's best for one's child is a basic, powerful human instinct felt as strongly in Bearsden and Milngavie (two of Glasgow's richest estates) as in Easterhouse and Castlemilk (two of the poorest).

Conditions in these two estates are beyond doubt: they are living tableaux of the way the unreformed welfare state makes poverty permanent. Most adults there are living on benefits. Two in five mothers smoke throughout pregnancy. A boy born in either estate is likely to die sooner than one born in Kazakhstan, North Korea or Romania.

And it was a Castlemilk resident named Mick, with whom I used to work the 5 a. m.shift in a Royal Mail sorting office, who first pointed out the paradox. 'Why is it, ' he once asked, 'that this city's scummiest estates have the nicest names?' Yet when the Stuarts of Castlemilk sold their estate to the council in 1936, it was every bit as picturesque as it sounds. It had a stately home, later demolished, and rolling fields that were turned into a concrete jungle of council flats. The area became synonymous with crime, drugs and -- from the early 1980s -- a place where urban regeneration budgets came to die. Buildings were spruced up, yet the odds stacked against the children who grew up there were heartbreakingly high. For all the undoubted cosmetic improvements in Castlemilk High, its academic record remains dire -- and continues to deteriorate. …

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