The Govanhill International Festival and Carnival.
If ever one wanted an object lesson in how austerity can create the conditions for the growth of the far right, one should look no further than Glasgow’s Govanhill district. So far, it has escaped, due to some positive actions to build community cohesion.
The Hoxton of the Southside
In many ways, Govanhill is a divided community. On the one hand it is a popular district for young people – what might loosely be described as hipsters – attracted by its artisan coffee shops and a newly-opened organic supermarket. Estate agents would highlight its spacious park and easy transport links to the city centre.
But Govanhill is a somewhat problemed district. There is a class divide, and many of the indigenous, working-class population express alienation from the world of ‘tree hugging’ hipsters.
If not the most deprived area of Glasgow, Govanhill has some examples of extreme deprivation. It is an area of mixed housing, its grid-patterned streets delineating adjacent quadrants of owner-occupied and privately rented, spacious, high-ceilinged, desirable tenement flats, alongside social housing.
Then there is the lowest end of the scale, Slum dwellings, overcrowded and dangerous. In a recent fire in one property – many do not meet the most basic safety requirements – four prams were counted emerging. It is said that there are four Govanhills, depending on the quadrant in which one lives, and this is reflected in its social mix.
It is Scotland’s most multicultural area – it is said that fifty languages are spoken within its square mile – the home to a large, settled Pakistani population, many refugees and – among the most disadvantaged and marginalised of all – a significant Roma population, some of whom endure overcrowding and appalling conditions, the victims of rogue landlords. As ever, the poorest get blamed for the conditions they themselves have to endure.
On the positive side, local organisations put much effort is put into integrating its various components. The community annually hosts an International Carnival, with a multicultural, anti-racist focus which brings people from the whole community together.
Crime’n’Grime in ‘Govanhell’
But a walk through Govanhill immediately reveals its problems. Glasgow City Council, which last year moved from years of Labour control to an SNP minority, struggles to keep the streets clean. There is uncollected rubbish and discarded furniture.
Govanhill – indeed, Glasgow – is not unique in having such problems. Austerity has hit basic services throughout the UK as recently highlighted by councils in England cutting back to the basic, legal minimum services. A few years ago, middle class gripes about going from weekly to fortnightly rubbish collections became a cliché. The Scottish Government’s aspiration is to oppose austerity, but one notes there is the legacy of a politically expedient Council Tax cap which historically offered local authorities little room to manoeuvre.
So under these conditions there are some within deep family roots in the district who it is difficult to get on board with the idea of a positive, vibrant community.
This is evidenced on social media where there is a popular ‘crime’n’grime’ group which is active in publicising the piles of rubbish and infestations of rats, mice, cockroaches and bedbugs – the latter the cause of much of the discarded furniture. The social media impression is of a group that sees only the bad in ‘Govanhell’ and can’t imagine why anyone would want to like there voluntarily.
Another frequent complaint is the groups of East Europeans – mainly but not solely men – who gather along the main drag to escape their housing conditions and socialise. Police, to give then their due, are tolerant of this. But it is undeniable that some – particularly women – find this intimidating. It feeds into a general fear of crime which is worse than the actual incidence: police insist that crime rates are no worse than other districts. But you would not get that impression on social media: Govanhill is a “Hellhole”.
Its ugly head.
It would be absolutely wrong – and loaded with class bias – to paint the indigenous, working class community as especially prone to racism. However, racist comments and assumptions do appear online and are often given a by. From some – granted a minority – when there is talk of ‘vermin’, they do not mean the cockroaches and bedbugs.
So this racism – if not endemic then certainly there – is something that can be latched onto by a community already feeling – perhaps justifiably – hard done by.
Into this environment, fascist groups have started to whip up trouble. ‘Brits First’ graffiti has appeared. Online, approving references to recent Scottish Defence League demo have appeared, with a strong hint that they would support a mooted march on the City Chambers. This is an opportunity for them.
For clarification – I am not saying that people have taken the SDL bait, merely that these sinister groups have a way of sniffing out fertile conditions for organisation.
All this comes at a time when.UK-wide, some are beginning to reject conventional politics for the far right. The Tommy Robinson phenomenon has not (yet) happened in Scotland – the SDL could only muster their 50-odd usual suspects for their last demo. So they would be more than happy to coattail an existing campaign which has already marched on the offices of the local Member of the Scottish Parliament, one Nicola Sturgeon, with whom little love is lost.
It’s a Raid!
Then recently, adding to the mix 100 police along with a further 100 benefits, tax and immigration officers carried out a massive raid in Govanhill. A hostile environment for ‘benefits cheats’. A hostile environment for migrants.
It has to be said that the local experience of community policing is largely positive. The police have at times been active in reducing tensions. But this was in no way community policing.
In the current climate, a show of force by police and immigration begins to look terrifying to some residents. One called it “Bully boy tactics” The raids led to just 16 arrests and the seizure of one cannabis factory. “They went into just a few properties, with warrants, so why were so many needed?
A paltry figure of £4m was estimated to have been fraudulently claimed. This is nothing compared to the money the DWP is saving by sanctioning people in poverty in Glasgow. Was it worth the distress?
And do we see 100-strong police raids tackling tax evasion in douce suburbs such as Newton Mearns? Are there also cannabis factories in Newton Mearns? Why, yes there are.
Online, the raids have been greeted with glee. “Finally something is being done.” The overt show of strength has supported the narrative of Govanhill’s crime and immigration ‘problems’. “Nicola [Sturgeon] has publicly stated that she is wanting another 400,000 to come to Scotland.”
The Tories’ Double Whammy
So here we have the familiar pattern The Tories Double Whammy. Austerity creates inequality, and with it grievance. Basic needs unfulfilled. Rubbish on the streets. To sustain the unsustainable, people must be encouraged to deflect the blame anywhere but where it belongs. Talk negatively about immigration and dole cheats again and again and again until people start to turn against members of their own community. We know how that story ends.
It should be acknowledged that there are people across various communities whose conditions are grim. We owe it to them to recognise and address the root cause of their problems, to allow that people whose attitudes we sometimes disagree with also have legitimate grievances about their living conditions. We must recognise the deliberate creation of hostile environments as the distraction tactic that they are.
Life will go on in Govanhill. It is a strong community. There is every reason to believe that the far right will not succeed in its ugly little dreams of division and hate. Various positive initiatives which draw the community together, not least the carnival, the Big Noise orchestra, the Milk cafe social enterprise supporting refugee women, the Friends of Romano Lev Roma organisation. Glasgow’s strong tradition of anti-racism will have no truck with fascists.