The battle for Scotland and the language of apocalypse from Andrew Neil and the right

“Numerous attempts will be made to present Scotland as a basket case: a country which only exists as an advanced developed country thanks to the supposed benevolence of the Treasury and English taxpayers.” Gerry Hassan on Britain’s right-wing media elite talking down Scotland and Glasgow in desperate times.

One of the recurring themes of Scottish politics, from those of a pro-union disposition who are trying to find ammunition to attack the SNP and independence, is the propensity to dismiss the record of the Nationalists in office in language which borders on the apocalyptic. This entails talking of Scotland as some kind of disaster, basket case – while ignoring where such logic would take descriptions of Boris Johnson’s government.

Some of this overblown rhetoric is a sign of desperation and powerlessness – vainly for now trying to dent the poll ratings of the SNP running in to 2021, Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon. James Forsyth writing in this week’s Spectator observed that ‘COVID has helped create a Johnson v Sturgeon dynamic in Scottish politics. This suits the SNP; the party running against a British Prime Minister whose Scottish poll ratings are so poor. Sturgeon has used her daily COVID briefings to turn herself into the nation’s newscaster’ – as if leadership and communication is solely about this.

One long running stain on the state of Scotland has been our terrible public health inequalities and levels of life expectancy – which are a product of many factors notably bitter, brutal capitalism over several centuries including mass industrialisation and subsequently savage deindustrialisation. Debate on this has come centre stage in recent years reaching beyond public health, mainly through talk of ‘the Glasgow effect’, but such has been its success that it is become often caricatured and used to look at Glaswegians in a voyeuristic way, make them victims and blame them for their situation.

This tendency has been hugely accentuated on the right and pro-union circles, and this against a backdrop of worries, ill-heath, sickness and death over COVID-19. Step forward Andrew Neil who in a debate with SNP MP Alyn Smith said that ‘the level of poverty and deprivation in the East End of Glasgow is unrepeated anywhere in Western Europe’ and that ‘male longevity in parts of the East of Glasgow are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa’.

Fraser Nelson used his own version of the above this week stating: ‘There are now parts of Glasgow where the life expectancy is worse than Mongolia, worse than Rwanda.’ To add to the groupthink on this Labour MP Ian Murray decided to make this claim even more sweeping saying without any hint of irony that ‘poverty in Glasgow is worse than parts of sub-Saharan Africa’ – taking Neil’s original words and making them into a statement utterly preposterous and insulting both to Glasgow and people living in poverty in Africa.

Two major factors are at play in all this. One is how life expectancy is understood. In this the continual framing of Glasgow or parts of Glasgow as having levels equivalent to sub-Saharan Africa is totally grotesque and misleading. It is based on work by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), and figures for male life expectancy in the Glasgow East End ward of Carlton affected by the number of hostels and transient population, and a tiny postcode subset – and figures for 1998-2002.

Neil continually quotes an out of date figure for Calton from nearly twenty years ago of 54 years for male life expectancy; a more recent figure for Calton and Bridgeton in 2012 showed 67.8 years life expectancy for men and 76.6 for women, and since then the area has been further transformed by investment. Yet, this has been made into an almost religious mantra by those on the right to try to prove that devolution and the SNP are not working for Scotland.

Linked to this is the need to demonstrate some understanding of health inequalities and life expectancy – long-term indicators of social change. The Scottish Parliament has been in existence for 21 years and the SNP in office for thirteen of those years. While some of us would have liked the SNP to have moved beyond social justice intent and rhetoric to a politics of redistribution, solidarity and shifting power, it is too simple and glib to bash the SNP for Scotland’s long-term problems with public health. As the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said on BBC Question Time this week: ‘I don’t think you can just throw this at the SNP’, not that this stops Neil and Nelson.

This brings us to the second point: what this debate is really about? Are these right-wing voices suddenly emboldened to talk about the scandal of poverty, blighted life chances and shame that is Scotland’s record of public health inequalities? Are they suggesting that after 21 years of soft, centrist social democracy north of the border we need to redouble our efforts and focus resources and priorities on the Scotland that is disadvantaged? If that were so we should welcome their conversion, but of course in the real world Neil and Nelson have no interest in redistribution and social justice, only making cheap points about the efficacy of government and record of the SNP. But their referencing of this subject should be used not to hide this terrain or to pretend that everything is rosy in devolution Scotland but instead to talk and focus on the difficult stuff of how unequal Scotland is and how little progress has been made in the past two decades.

This gathering right-wing groupthink of London Scots commentators is one we are going to hear more of in the coming months, towards the 2021 elections and their aftermath. Numerous attempts will be made to present Scotland as a basket case: a country which only exists as an advanced developed country thanks to the supposed benevolence of the Treasury and English taxpayers. This is not a language and politics of partnership, co-operation and pooling and sharing, but emphasising to people that they had better be careful about questioning how the UK is run or to challenge the ruling Tory order.

The above is a prima facie case of ‘talking Scotland down’. But it represents more. It shows the fraying of the nerves and decorum of unionist thinking on Scotland: after ‘love bombing’, this is a kind of shock therapy capitalism unionist style. They are driven by impatience and desperation, and while they can be presented as caricature they are attempting to underline the belief that Scots are powerless to change big structural issues. The argument goes along the lines of Scotland having had 21 years of devolved talk and action on this and nothing has fundamentally changed, so really you have to accept the status quo.

If you think about the underlying message of Andrew Neil and Fraser Nelson and Ian Murray then really what they are offering is a fundamental choice between accepting this rotten status quo, and rising up and demanding fundamental change which goes far beyond devolution and the continuity version of independence. There is something logical in the likes of Neil and Murray taking up this, but as for Ian Murray, Scottish Labour’s sole MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, to so brazenly adopt uncritically a right-wing unionist set of lines about Scotland only underlines how lost and adrift the Scottish party is.

This is about more than the much touted muscular unionism: this is a disaster British nationalism intolerant of other political traditions and centres of power on these isles, and which is in the foreseeable future away to use the post-Brexit transition period to concentrate constitutional, political, judicial and regulatory power at the unreformed centre to the expense of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the London mayor and Northern English city mayors. This is an age of brutal power politics shorn of compassion and humanity which requires for cover the likes of Neil and Nelson damning and diminishing any alternative mandates and political sentiments.

We cannot let them away with it, nor can we just passively acquiesce in a political conversation of centrism and caution in Scotland, but instead use the interest in social justice and public health to advance long-lasting change and talking about inequalities. The status quo is not adequate – whether it is one on offer from Westminster or Holyrood.

Comments (30)

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  1. Ian McCubbin says:

    Your narrative is good, yet sad.
    I was youth working training in Easter house 45 years ago.
    Was so sad yet enchanted, but took a trip north to Perthshire for quiter venue to survive mentally.
    It breaks my heart to see parts of Glasgow no better off life expectancy wise now.
    All the Vichy Scots need to have a wake up call of the deep dark winter to make them see what they do to undermine there birth place.
    Much shame and suffering of a nation on them including Andrew Neil.

  2. david lugton says:

    BBC Radio -5 live actually praised fraser nelson(well briefed) when he repeated this 1:52:00

  3. Florence Sinclair says:

    13 years in Govt, with limited powers, and virtually no borrowing authority cannot redress the neglect of 290 years of total Unionist control. The shame is predominantly Westminsters.

  4. Mary McCabe says:

    They no longer focus on the “Too Wee” mantra – it’s too easily dispelled in an objective way by comparing the size of other independent countries.

    They do still maintain the “Too Poor” mantra, in hopes that economics is a subject most folk don’t understand and lack the patience to research in full.

    However the apocalyptic descriptions of Scotland under its devolved Government is definitely part of the “Too Stupid” rhetoric. See what happens when you let a bunch of Scots take some decisions for themselves – we’d better not let them near any important matters.

    The more apocalyptic the better for us. When they compare areas of Scotland to sub-Saharan Africa (where many areas lack access to clean water, schools, healthcare, and a minimum level of nutrition) they draw ridicule upon themselves and therefore discredit all their further arguments.

    1. james cormack says:

      They are ignorant and are simply do not care or understand anything about sub-Saharan Africa. They are little England snobs still obsessed by an empire that is long gone. They are parochial and don’t even mind being reminded of it.

  5. Alistair Taylor says:

    There’s something unpleasant in that photograph of this man. His eyes perhaps? So near one another. Not to be trusted.

    It would be fine to see some writings and thoughts from our young, bright, visionary people.
    Enough of the right-wing dinosaurs like A Neil.

  6. MBC says:

    The rejoinder to this crap is to trot out statistics showing the appalling levels of poverty and inequality in England. Call it for what it is. Tory crap. Tory corruption. Tory contempt for the poor. Tory government. I don’t care if it brings the whole house down. The English are too passive by far.

  7. James Robertson says:

    Great piece, Gerry. We need to be challenging the Unionist Right’s rhetoric in this way all the time. Few of us who support independence think the SNP Government has done enough to tackle the issues you highlight, but they are long-term issues and will take a long time to fix. Of one thing we can be sure: the Unionist Right has no interest in fixing them, they are only interested in using them as political clubs with which to batter the SNP and the wider self-determination movement.

  8. David Cairns Pettigrew says:

    David Cairns Pettigrew

    1. David Cairns Pettigrew says:

      Excellent honest concise analysis of the expected Unionist barrage of hatefilled garbage form a morally bankrupt and irrelevant larger neighbour run by Westminster like fuedal lords with half a brain

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        When I knew him in Glasgow uni in the late sixties/early seventies, Neil became only the second working class Tory I’ve ever known. He’s intent on trying to create more of the type, and he’s not stupid. But he is so blinkered that he cannie understand reality through his warped mindset, however sharp he may sometimes appear. Presently he’ll pass on, and we can get on with dealing with reality, without worrying about the unusual distraction he poses.

        Murray is a different kettle of fish; just another anti-socialist ‘Labour’ careerist in a tradition which stretches back over a century. Fortunately many of the dwindling number of Labour-tending politicians and trades union activists in Scotland have both more understanding and more caring. Which is why the better amongst them are now increasingly supporting our democratic right to a second referendum, and the best to supporting independence.

  9. Simon Taylor says:

    The more the London metro Scots draw on the ” Glasgow affect ” , the more they flag up the ” Union affect ” . Why after 300 years of Union are parts of Scotland comparable with Sub Saharan Africa ? Why are most Independent EU nations of similar size outperforming Scotland in most metrics. The narrative has to be that the Union is failing Scotland. There is simply no other reason

    1. Ian Mitchell says:

      Totally disagree. It is due to the Nationalist obsession with power at the expense of the people. Also, their fixation on hating the English. The fact is that Nicola Sturgeon confessed to Mandy Rhodes in a book called “Scottish National Party Leaders” (2016) that “hatred” (of Mrs T.) has been “the motivation for my entire political career” (p. 358). This has a psychological rather than a political root, especially as the object of her hatred has been out of power for thirty years, and dead for ten. It is therefore very dangerous.
      This is how Putin rules Russia, and we really do not want to imitate that. Like Sturgeon, he would rather be hated by important people than liked by “ordinary ” people. Both need anger to achieve their ambition to control their people. So they are always negative. Always aggressive. Always controlling. They believe in the power of fear. Neither of them governs in good faith. To them the rule of law is an inconvenience. This could end as badly here as it is ending in Russia.
      The root of the problem is contempt for the rule of law. There is a book about this called THE JUSTICE FACTORY: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland? (Ian Mitchell, 2020) You can contribute to the campaign to shine light into all this murk by buy the book and, if you like it, circulating as far and wide as you can. Details here:

      1. Wul says:

        Ian, any book you have authored is likely to be utter mince if you really believe that this statement of yours explains why Scotland is failing after 300 years of union: “It is due to the Nationalist obsession with power at the expense of the people. Also, their fixation on hating the English.”

        The SNP have been in power for 13 of the 300+ years of Union. Was Scotland a thriving, healthy, prosperous nation, devoid of social ills until 2007? Can you please list those SNP policies which have so successfully dragged us suddenly backward on almost every national wellbeing indicator in just over a decade?

        Can you evidence, by contrast, the massively better socio-economic situation enjoyed by citizens in the north of England (happily devoid of SNP rule) over the same period? Can you also list those policies and SNP statements which evidence “hating the English”?

        I think you’ll find that hatred of Margaret Thatcher was not confined to Scotland. The fact that she was English was not what people hated about her rule.

        You’re talking rubbish.

        1. Wul says:

          FFS Ian Mitchell, the SNP don’t even run Scotland! They just get to play with some of the less important knobs on the dashboard.

      2. alwayswrite says:

        Well said Ian, and just look at how many SNP appear on kremlin propaganda channel!

        None other than Salmond with his very limp ‘ show’ oh plus all singing and dancing human rights activist Craig Murray

        The pair of them are an utter disgrace,nothing but kremlin useful idiots and propaganda stooges for Putin

  10. Ian Mitchell says:

    It is certainly true that Scotland is collapsing as a society. Part of the reason is revealed in an interesting book I reviewed on video recently. It is called SNP Leaders (2016), and shows how “sectarian” Scots are, by dividing the country into “authentic Scots” and those who are not “authentic”. This is in the chapter on Nicola Sturgeon by Mandy Rhodes. It is well worth watching, if only to understand why the gap between Easterhouse (as quoted in the next comment) and Perthshire is so great.
    See here:

    1. James Mills says:

      See me , Ian Mitchell , see mince , I write and speak it fluently !

  11. Mike Harding says:

    It’s important to remember that whatever with the dire state of some parts of Scotland there are parts of England such as Hartlepool, Salford, Liverpool where many years of Tory misrule have led to these places becoming what they are. We have to change not just the machinery of govt. but the whole mindset that sees people as simply collateral to be used and abused as the neo-liberal/free-marketeers wish. Without a change in thinking nothing will change.

    1. Wul says:


      The one thing that would cool my ardour for Scottish independence would be a radical change in what our English cousins want the UK to be. If there were an uprising of popular support for a fairer, less harmful way of running the UK, I’d be less keen to leave it.

      ( I’m by no means convinced the SNP actually want social democracy, as evidenced by the way they run their own party (centralised and debate suffocating), but if we win independence they can produce a manifesto for a better Scotland along with all the other, now actually Scottish, political parties)

      PS: I’ve enjoyed your music, particularly “Captain Paralytic and the Brown Ale Cowboy”.

  12. Robin Kinross says:

    Excellent article – and good to know the truth behind the life expectancy figures.

    There is a typo here:
    “There is something logical in the likes of Neil and Murray taking up this”
    (–> “There is something logical in the likes of Neil and Nelson taking up this”)

  13. D S says:

    It’s not just intolerance of other centres of power on these Isles, but indeed intolerance of any centres of power anywhere in the continent. Leaving the EU was necessary for the Tories once Brussels became a true centre of power.

    Taking back control is all about taking back control for the Tory party, to maximise the relevance of the English upper class in home and world affairs, to justify the elite status they believe their birth and schooling awards them.

  14. Clwyd Griffiths says:

    Superb article by Gerry Hassan. I hope everyone in Scotland reads this.

  15. SleepingDog says:

    So what exactly is going on in sub-Saharan Africa then? Could it be centuries of malignant, invasive and extractive behaviours by the Global North? Countries saddled with unjust debt after colonial and neocolonial practices? Punitive austerity measures imposed by Western-led international financial organizations? Foreign-backed dictators armed by the colossal global arms industry and their forces trained by countries like the UK? Neoliberal famine and state terrorism? Pollution and environmental degradation by multinational corporations? Modern slavery? Corruption schemes run by international banking? Election rigging? Military interventions?

    As with historical racialised chattel slavery which enriched Scotland, Scotland (as part of the British Empire) has its own responsibilty for imperial crimes committed in Africa on Africans, including mass atrocities against the persons of Africans. Awakening to this past and present should also be very much part of the Independence, Unionist and imperial/anti-imperial debate. Africa did not just underdevelop itself and stand on its own neck.

    And now I’ve just realised there is a computer game called Neocolonialism which I’ll have to try out.

  16. florian albert says:

    Gerry Hassan is correct in saying that the ‘Spectator Scots’ engage in hyperbole. The reality is that hyperbole is the common currency of public debate now. He engages in it; so do I. As an example, he uses the phrase ‘educational apartheid’ to describe the attainment gap in Scottish schools; so do I.
    The real problem with his analysis is that he has in, in the past, made many of the points that the ‘Spectator Scots’ make, albeit in a far less strident manner.
    Scotland’s present levels of inequality have been accepted by the centre-left for decades. Both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond, in their journey from socialism to ‘friends of Fred Goodwin’ came to see this as the best available alternative. When it became clear that inequality had become crystalized in Scotland, they had no alternative. Ditto Nicola Sturgeon and the mass of centre left commentators.
    Five years on from the referendum, the centre left has no plan or platform for dealing with inequality. (The left – grouped around Common Space – has one, but has failed to get the mass of voters even to acknowledge that it exists.)
    Displacement activity is a poor substitute for policies and politics.

  17. JC says:

    Excellent piece Gerry, a wee correction needed though: “There is something logical in the likes of Neil and Murray taking up this” – should be ‘Neil and Nelson’.

  18. Charlie Gallagher says:

    Gerry, unionists should be reminded that it was Labour in power in Glasgow for well neigh 50 years that did little to reduce poverty, life expectancy etc and successive Tory and Labour Governments were just as culpable. They could also be reminded that it was Glasgow City Council aided and abetted by certain Trade Unions and their Neanderthals that went to Court to try and prevent women employees from getting for years their lawful back pay from the Equal Pay Awards. I believe that Glasgow City spent nearly £2 million in trying to block these awards and then their Trade Unions fought to have their legal costs met from monies due to the already hard-done by ladies. Aye, that’s Labour’s unionist Neanderthals that caused just about all of Glasgow’s poor health, education problems etc they and while the SNP Scottish Government and more recently in control of Glasgow City Council they have worked hard to turn matters around but you can’t turn a super-tanker around on a sixpence!

    1. James Mills says:

      And a certain Labour ‘leader’ in Holyrood was prominent in this action !

  19. Alasdair Macneil Fergusson says:

    A comparison with Ireland – in 1921 the richest part of Ireland was carved out to remain with Britain. It is now the poorest part of Ireland. Scotland (and most of England) will always be economic fodder to a capital project centred on London. No other N. European country is a ‘basket case’ We have a choice to make.

  20. james cormack says:

    Do these idiots know where sub-Saharan Africa is and what the conditions you will find these?

    I have only been to The Gambia and it was slightly affected in a positive way by tourism. However I very much doubt if Neil and Nelson
    have ever seen the wonders of Nouakchott (Mauritania), Bamako (Mali), N’Djamena (Chad), Conakry (Guinea) or Ougadougu (Burkina Faso).
    They will find the most appalling poverty and high mortality rates: there are large areas without running water.

    To compare any of these places with any western European city is absurd and they know it.

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