I am in the process of being formally denounced by the Scottish Parliament for remarks I made on CoffeeHouse last week - that Castlehouse and Easterhouse were "beautiful names, but scummy estates". An MSP named Charlie Gordon has found time in his busy schedule to table a motion against what he read on the blog. So far, it has 11 signatures. It reads as follows:
That the Parliament notes that the journalist, Fraser Nelson, in comments on The Spectator magazine’s Coffee House blog on 30 January 2009, referred to Castlemilk and Easterhouse as “… beautiful names, scummy estates”; draws Mr Nelson’s attention to motion S3M-1561, which celebrated the award-winning Castlemilk Stables project, a regeneration project that produced a building awarded Scotland’s Best Building 2008 for best practice in conservation and sustainability through design excellence; also draws his attention to motion S3M-2184, which celebrated Castlemilk High School’s 2008 HM Inspectorate of Education report, which awarded the school six excellent ratings, the best ever achieved by a Glasgow school, and to motion S3M-3286, which highlighted the recent award of the Evening Times International Scotswomen of the Year title to Mary Miller, a former Castlemilk resident and founder of the outstanding Jeely Piece Club in Castlemilk; further notes the many outstanding regeneration projects in Easterhouse, and considers that Mr Nelson’s rudeness towards the communities of Castlemilk and Easterhouse is outstripped only by his ignorance of them.
As I say in my political column today, trawling the internet for words to denounce is not atypical behaviour from idle MSPs like Gordon. Tom Harris has joined in the fun today. I've said my piece on this in the magazine - focusing on education. It was in this context that I made the remarks that so offended Charlie Gordon. People are dying years before their time in these estates, sucked into a life of drugs or welfare dependency - and no one gets angry. Rabbi Lionel Blue once called it moral long-sightedness: the ablity to focus on poverty in Africa, or the effects of global warming, but be blind to the heartbreaking deprivation outside your own doorstep. But Scottish Labour isn't just blind to it, they are attacking anyone who points it out. Or pretending that, when I said "scummy estates" I was somehow referring to the poor souls who have to live in these welfare ghettoes.
I used to support devolution thinking that London was ignoring these estates - that it kept shovelling regeneration cash there, congratulating themselves on some useless arts centre, then leaving the people of east Glasgow in what could be a hideous social experiment. Wait until Scotland has its own parliament, I thought, then we can start to focus on the poverty we see in the estates of Dundee and Glasgow. These places will have new, fresh heroes I thought - they'll come up with some fresh thinking.
How naive I was. Castlemilk's first MSP was "Lord" Mike Watson - a party hack who was only ennobled to assuage some spat about selection for a safe Westminster seat. They dumped him on Glasgow Cathcart for Holyrood instead. He bowed out of the political scene when imprisoned for arson - he burned down a pair of curtains in a hotel (and got caught on CCTV). Bold new local heroes indeed. His successor is Charlie Gordon, who was last in the news when he was found to have sent £13,000 of public money to his son's internet firm.
What mystifies me is that stronger words are not used about Castlemilk and Easterhouse - because the poverty in there - this hideous, hugely expensive poverty - is a national outrage. Why do we tolerate such levels of deprivation? When did we become inured to it? Are we so socially segregated that we can get hugely upset and wear wristbands for Africa, yet not care for those fellow nationals whose life expectancies are closer to the third world than the UK national average? British poverty has become unmentionable, the people in these estates are forgotten. They are literally not counted in the unemployment figures. They're given welfare, sent to live in these estates, and forgotten.
There are 129 MSPs in Holyrood. Yet it was an Englishman named Iain Duncan Smith who was so shocked by what he saw in East Glasgow that he formed the "Easterhouse Agenda" with radical thinking on welfare reform. That agenda became the Centre for Social Justice which became the Conservative Party's guiding welfare principle.
I wonder if, in their more reflective moments, the likes of Charlie Gordon and Tom Harris ever ask themselves why it was Iain Duncan Smith - not them - who got really angry about the poverty in their constituency and decided to do something about it. But to do what IDS did takes energy, imagination and determination. Slagging off those of us who draw attention to poverty there is so, so much easier.
P.S. I did a short video for the BBC about poverty in East Glasgow at the time of its by-election. Here it is:
P.S. It's pistols at dawn with Tom Harris and myself tomorrow. On Good Morning Scotland at 7.30am.