Murder Most Predictable

2nd February 2006

Several years back, I attended an event that was to resonate strongly with me. I was sitting in a crematorium with a sobbing family, mourning another youth who went to town on a night out and didn't come back. The boy in question had called into a party on his way home and got involved in a drunken brawl with another young guy over some vague, trivial grievance neither could probably remember that much about. One died in the hospital, the other spent the best years of his life behind bars. It forcibly struck me then just how many times I'd been through different versions of this scene before; witnessing a family's lives wrecked because one of its members was a victim or perpetrator of the kind of violence so interwoven into the fabric of Scottish social life as to be almost mundane. That this now generally happens out off view of tourists and the urban dwelling professional classes often means that it's deemed not to occur at all. If it is registered, it's met with derisive choruses of 'chavs', 'yobs' &2339;thugs' -or that Scottish derivation made famous by the Sunday Post newspaper- 'neds.' However, choosing to ignore this problem, or snorting contemptuously at it, is a perfectly natural response. After all, it is an embarrassment. Like practically all developed countries, Scotland is competing in an international tourism and conference market. Alongside the great natural beauty of the country, the wit, warmth and vibrancy of its people are amongst its most marketable assets. We are not, and never have been, a nation of violent psychopaths. Until recently our so-called 'ned culture' was seen largely as a thing of the past, out of step with Scotland's new view of itself. The 'Tartan Army' who follow the Scottish national team, have morphed from the thugs who terrorised London in the seventies into cuddly, if drunken, teddy bears who only want to hug the world. Strathclyde Police's Operation Blade of the late nineties -our own little decommissioning programme- was seen as a massive success as youths handed in tons of knives, swords and machetes. Now supposedly, we are a forward looking country with its own parliament, making decisions like grown ups do, perhaps -whisper it- even taking tentative steps towards nationhood. Occasionally though, the ugly spotlight of reality is thrown in our faces, and what's illuminated makes this upbeat establishment view seem a little like wishful thinking. When Scotland's artists and writers have the temerity to depict the darkness that too often lies at the heart of our collective psyche, they are easily dismissed as nutjobs indulging in their own personal, soiled fantasies. However, two new reports on the Scottish murder rate, one published recently by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the other forthcoming from the University of California, are harder to brush aside, and serve to cast a dark shadow over our more complacent pretensions. The University of California claim that Scotland's murder rate now exceeds America's and Israel's, while the WHO study says that you're three times more likely to meet violent death north of the border than you are in England and Wales. Furthermore, a separate United Nations report described Scotland as 'the most violent country in the developed world', with more than 2,000 people subjected to serious assault every week. What's going on here? It's almost like the Glasgow City of Culture reinvention or Edinburgh's continued status as international festival city is a mirage and nothing substantial has happened since the seventies when Scotland and Finland regularly went head to head on the major indicators of social instability; murder, suicide and alcoholism. In fact, quite a lot has happened. The city centres have been cleaned up. They now boast more high amenity housing for wealthier professionals, more tourist accommodation, and leisure and recreation facilities. Consequently, central zones now also enjoy better policing and saturation CCTV camera coverage. In the process, many traditional central working-class areas like large sections of Edinburgh's Tolcross district have been demolished, in this case to make way for conferencing and business facilities. In short, social problems have been removed from the city centre to the peripheries, out off sight and mind of tourists and professionals. In the Victorian era, Disraeli, that great Tory paternalist, talked about the two nations. In our urban life, we have two cities. Glasgow is Hillhead or Easterhouse, Edinburgh Merchiston or Muirhouse. And you stand a far better chance of being murdered in one than in the other. But why should there be three times as many murders in Scotland than in England? It's surely a little trite to say that heavy drinking is the sole reason, as bingeing is now so ubiquitous right across the UK. More likely it's the pattern of drinking and the peculiar urban environment of the most disadvantaged Scots. The density of housing and the lack of money and mobility in many large local authority or former local authority housing areas, leads to people being pushed together; forced to share each others obsessions and social space in a way which would be unthinkable even to many lower middle-class people. Due to the relative isolation of the Scottish housing scheme, gangs of20bored youths seeking action are as likely to converge in isolated places like underpasses, or on the edge of industrial estates, than in the security camera infested town centres. With less threat of intervention and immediate detection, the potential for violence and the probable level of it are exponentially increased. In such a marginalised environment and in a culture where the individual rather than the community has primacy, people require compelling drama in order to give life meaning. The scheme becomes the world, a stage for self-actualisation through the principal means that status is now achievable for many young people: violence and scamming. Throughout the years there has been a decline in the competing sources for affirmation; sporting, educational and cultural, as these have not been deemed market-friendly investments in peripheral housing areas. Dangerously, Scottish binge drinking often takes on a different form to that practised in England with its lager, High Street and punch-up culture. In the West of Scotland, the destructive influence of certain fortified wines like Buckfast, has been well20documented. 'Buckie' may never make it onto the wine lists of the smarter Glasgow and Edinburgh eateries, but it's cheap, easy to get down and will literally get you off your head. Moreover, it's considered 'fair game' by many Scots to combine potentially volatile cocktails of drink and drugs, with often just about anything considered appropriate in the mix. This makes behaviour less predictable, and the consequences therefore often more dire. Another big difference north of the border is in the knife/weapon culture. It's still a widespread assumption, particularly in parts of Glasgow, that carrying a knife is acceptable behaviour. This probably goes as far back as the Highlander's sgian dubh, but has more recent roots in the 'tools' culture of the city's industrial past. Thankfully, Scotland's gun problem has not yet reached the same scale as London, Manchester or Dublin's. It would be truly terrifying to think what might happen if this came to pass. Scotland now has the highest prison population in Europe. Paradoxically, by incarcerating so many of its citizens, the authorities have created a 'jail culture' in some areas. Thus prison is no deterrent to many disadvantaged young people from housing schemes. They will have friends or relatives who have served or are serving prison terms. More sentencing and bigger prisons merely sustain and support this culture, compounding the problem. Now so many young people simply expect to go to jail; it's not even seen as a status symbol or an occupational hazard as much as a rite of passage and an integral part of life. It's very easy to get sent down these days. Just being poor gives you an excellent head start; it has never been easier for young Scots to experience prison life. So in the process of reducing marginalised youth's opportunities to gain legitimate status, we've replaced them with another one: doing time. Now a massive underground economy exists and with it attendant criminal career opportunities. In the absence of other vacancies these will be quickly filled, with Scotland’s Prisons often acting as black economy Jobcentres. Recreational illegal drugs have radically changed things here, and possibly forever. Now an insatiable, perfectly elastic market exists with a marvelously efficient pyramid system of agents eager to service it. The more ruthless you are in this criminal empire, the further you will go. Ironically, the clichés of mainstream business and Hollywood culture are regurgitated with a vengeance in the Scottish black economy. But equally dangerous is the lack of understanding of urban violence in our society and the almost zero action on social marginalisation. Our escalating problems in this area are repeatedly explained away with continual references to 'neds' 'yobs' or 'chavs'; in other words, by the pathology of a few disaffected bams who have always been with us. But one of the main issues that we've refused to engage with is just how much our society has changed. If we do still legitimise war and imperialism it's generally in a more covert and highly technological form. Therefore fewer opportunities exist for disadvantaged, reckless youths to directly enjoy the exciting adventure, and be culled in the process. It's sobering to think that many celebrated 'heroes' of both World Wars would inevitably be referred to in these tiresome derogatory terms so liberally employed in public life today. In my view this is just a way of not confronting the problem. I believe that the UK in general has struggled to create a dynamic post-imperial, multicultural society. In their frustration, the middle-class establishments on both the right and the left have tended to scapegoat the traditional white working classes for this. Yet in Britain today it's almost impossible to have a serious debate about the impact of class structures and continuing inequality on our nation's social problems. It would be healthier for our body politic if people could discuss these issues in public forums without being viewed as bitter malcontents, hell-bent on destroying our enterprise culture. As with class, another unhip taboo in Blair's 'inclusive' Britain is to talk about the differing status of the constituent national identities that comprise our islands. It's arrant nonsense to think that anybody in poverty in London or Liverpool is better of than anyone in the same situation in Edinburgh or Glasgow. However, the dominant national culture of the UK is 'England' and Englishness is seen as the norm in most of the media. The non-English are therefore, by extension, often unwittingly and unintentionally cast in the role of lesser. The fact is that in a UK context, Scotland, particularly the populous part of it, is too often seen as a run-down place. The people who leave are viewed as the go-getters; descendants of the entrepreneurial sons and daughters of the empire. Those remaining are frequently cast as a low-life rump. Their lot is to be patronised by a smug political and media class, often more 'British' than 'Scottish' in it's orientation, sometimes augmented by southern white settlers who've made a killing on the housing market. A depressed region of England can just about get away with this treatment. After all, it20has the other reference point of the assumed superiority of its 'Englishness' to fall back upon. I think it's far more damaging for a country to be viewed in this way. I’m aware that this is not a comfortable argument to advance, and many Scots who do so are viewed as self-pitying ingrates, but only a myopic idiot could argue that it carries no validity. Despite the oft-vaunted tolerance of Scottish society, we have our persistent issues with racism. As with most places, people at the bottom of the pile will tend to vent their anger and frustration on incomers. Glasgow's policy of housing refugees and asylum seekers in communities already disadvantaged and under extreme social pressure seems almost custom designed to maximise this problem. In sectarianism we have our own peculiar embarrassment, so ingrained in our culture that we can hardly even bring ourselves to discuss it at any serious level. This is because our two largest sporting and cultural institutions -the Celtic and Rangers football clubs - have grown fat and rich by pandering to it. The Nil By Mouth organisation, set up following one such sectarian murder, is commendably attempting to bring this continuing danger to the forefront of our national thinking. Nil By Mouth have drawn attention to the regular massive increase in violence in West Central Scotland over the weekend of the 'Old Firm' derby. Scottish sectarianism operates in the same way as racism. When you continually dehumanise somebody by labeling them as an 'Orange' or 'Fenian' bastard, on the basis of their surname, the school they attended or the colour of the daft Carling Beer top they sheepishly wear, it makes it all the easier to abuse them in other ways. One factor again comes shining through here: alcohol and our twisted association with it. But that relationship might be a little more appropriate if some Scots had better homes, jobs, and educational and cultural opportunities. In other words, if many of our people had the chance to genuinely celebrate life rather than simply 'getting out off it.' Edinburgh Council is laudably attempting to address the issue of social exclusion through a series of creative and innovative educational and cultural measures. It's timely too; Scotland's Social Focus on Deprived Areas report found that more than 50,000 people in a city of the size and supposed affluence of Edinburgh are living in poverty and relying on benefits. Scotland has a lot going for it, but there is also a great deal to put right. One of the things we can start to do is to have some proper debate. That means addressing the currently almost taboo issues of poverty, social class and national identity. Until we do this, even the most well-meaning of us are cast in role of modern versions of the Tory paternalists of old. If that's to be the parameters then I for one will cheerfully work within them, because it's better than doing nothing. But I won't delude myself that it's that much better. Too many negative aspects of our culture mesh in with poor economic and social conditions to fuel a destructive violence. Some writers and artists have been accused of depicting this culture in a way that comes close to celebrating it. I make absolutely no apology for saying that I don't want the sass and style of urban Scottish culture to be blanded out off existence. But I most certainly do want the soul-destroying litany of stabbings, slashings and slayings to come to an end. I don't like attending the funerals of young people. I really would much rather be going to graduation, award and achievement ceremonies. Perhaps if we had more of these events for disadvantaged young Scots, then we wouldn’t be fretting over our embarrassingly high murder rate.


Originally featured in the Guardian.