Glasgow paying the price of alienation, says public health expert

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By Maurice Smith

Glasgow’s appalling health record is the result of poverty, lack of drive and a feeling of uselessness amongst people in some areas of the city, according to Scotland’s leading public health expert.

Sir Harry Burns, who previously held senior public health positions at Greater Glasgow Health Board and the Scottish Government, says the city is paying the price of industrial decline and its impact on social cohesion over the last 40 years.

Professor Sir Harry Burns
Professor Sir Harry Burns

Burns believes there are four major and shocking causes of lower life expectancy in parts of the city: drug addiction, alcohol abuse, violence and suicide.

Contrary to the popularly-held belief that it is all down to a poor diet and heavy drinking, Burns points to the social and psychological roots of the problem. He links it directly to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in heavy industries like shipbuilding, and the consequent loss of resource, facilities and capacity.

In a fascinating interview on Newsnet Radio / Bateman Broadcasting, Burns said that social breakdown has been the real root cause of poor health. In his view, many children today have grown up in circumstances where their parents – and even grandparents – have been without work. The impact on some communities such as the East End has been catastrophic.

“If your parents are heroin addicts, they don’t know how to parent, they’re neglectful, they leave you alone in the house aged five while they go out for drugs, how secure do you feel? How secure do you feel when you know that no matter how hard you try you’re never going to get a job? “ asks Burns.

Burns, now Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University and recently appointed to the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, decried the coalition Government’s attitude to welfare, including its sanctioning of benefits’ claimants for failing to conform to working norms like keeping appointments.

“We should be investing in people in difficulty, not making life harder for them,” comments Burns. “Sanctioning people for simple misdemeanours like turning up late is frankly inhuman.

“If people turn up late for appointments it’s because they are incapable of that. They may not own a watch, or they cannot read or write. The punishment for misbehaving at school is to exclude them from school – that is insanity.”

Jimmy Reid addresses shipyard workers, 1971
Jimmy Reid addresses shipyard workers, 1971

Burns quoted to the famous speech made by then shipbuilders’ union leader Jimmy Reid, on his election as rector of Glasgow University in 1972. Reid identified the problem facing west central Scotland as one of alienation, a feeling of despair as people felt they could no longer determine their own destiny.

Recent studies have indicated that when compared to the experiences of Liverpool and Manchester – two cities with very similar demographics and industrial history – Glasgow still had the highest incidence of alcohol-related liver disease and urban pockets of low male life expectancy.

“Glasgow got austerity before it became fashionable,” recalls Burns. “In the 1970s we were beginning to see the loss of meaningful jobs. Suddenly the jobs went. If your skills were transportable you left Glasgow. At the same time housing was being modernised. Tenements were replaced by high rise flats. Cohesive communities were broken up.”

5299842401_3f1070558f_zHe points out that among 16 West European countries, the incidence of liver disease caused by alcohol abuse in Scotland was amongst the lowest from 1950-70, and only a little higher in the following 20 years. “But  from 1990 to 2005 it zoomed to become the highest,” Burns adds, pointing out that this period was when the full effects of inter-generational worklessness became apparent.

“It was the poor at the time of the Reformation who experienced the greatest growth in capacity that led to the Enlightenment, through the introduction of universal schooling. Scots have shown themselves to be innovative and creative. Might we not create a second Enlightenment?

“Why shouldn’t we invest in creating new industries that grow the economy,  rather than the spurious growth of derivatives and junk bonds and all this kind of rubbish that the bankers invented to create a market that just churned money around and earned them big bonuses? Nothing is created in that.”

Burns began his research as a surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary after noticing that patients from poorer parts of the city tended to take longer to heal after surgery. He continues to be in international demand to discuss his research on the impact of social factors on a community’s health.

He predicts that the Glasgow experience will be witnessed in future in economies that have been subjected to extreme austerity measures post the 2008 banking crisis, and particularly in southern Europe.

Glasgow's life expectancy: worse than Manchester, Liverpool (Scottish Government diagram)
Glasgow’s life expectancy: worse than Manchester, Liverpool (Scottish Government diagram)