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Kirsty Mackay : the Politics of Scottish Decline

Kirsty Mackay : the Politics of Scottish Decline

The picture shows a baby sleeping in a wooden cardboard box. The box is a Scottish Baby Box, introduced by the Scottish government in 2017 to tackle infant poverty rates and is designed to give each child born in Scotland “the best start in life”. It’s a picture that at least shows love, caring, and fortitude in the most difficult of circumstances. A picture that sums up the health, wealth, and housing histories that affect Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow.
Billy © Kirsty Mackay

These are histories that have not come about by accident, argues photographer Kirsty Mackay. The infamous (and sometimes exaggerated) short lifespans of Glasgow’s population (and its men in particular) are often characterised in England as the result of eating, smoking, drinking, and abusing drugs on an industrial scale. Not so, says Mackay, instead of pointing to a far more complex web of government policies that are at best negligent, at worst criminal.

You can start with the period in the 1970s and 1980s when the city of Glasgow went through a “Managed decline.” That is the term used to describe a deliberate government policy of deskilling, and depopulating a city. It was a policy made in the face of the decline of traditional industries of mining like shipbuilding, docking, and heavy industry.

© Kirsty Mackay

With that “managed decline” came the closure of shipyards, the demolition of older tenement housing, and the construction of new housing that lay beyond the traditional infrastructure of the city. This led to a separation of people from community, from work, from each other. As a result, the people got alienated. And that might be why they die young and the city of Glasgow is in such a mess. That, in simplistic terms, is one of the theories.

Mackay analysises this hypothesis by incorporating a text from a publication titled History, Politics and Vulnerability: Explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow which she uses to structure her book. Different chapters look at alienation, health, weather, poor diets, low diversity, genetics, alcohol, bad diet, a plethora of drugs, poor housing quality, neoliberalism, external physical environment, and deindustrialization.

Debbie with her baby © Kirsty Mackay
Bea playing in the close, Battlefield © Kirsty Mackay

Does Glasgow’s population suffer from alienation or “anomie”?  The hypothesis is considered and then discarded. There is no evidence to support the hypothesis, says the report. Mackay’s sober but beautiful images printed on slightly smaller page sizes are folded into this report so the images and the text complement each other. For this anomie section, we see images of empty building lots and open expanses accompanied by parallel captions that point to more complex considerations.

The diets, the weather, the drugs, and deindustrialization are dealt with in similar form. None of the considerations are dismissed or evaded. Instead, Mackay points to underlying causal factors that are amplified by her quiet of Glasgow and its people. Political factors come into play, and neoliberalism, a divisive housing policy, a supine local government, and pretty much everything associated with managed decline is found to be responsible.

Children walking home, drumchapel © Kirsty Mackay

There are images from city archives, images that link the problems of the present to those of the past. Decaying shipyards are accompanied by old images of the March for Jobs of the Thatcher years; images that link up to the ‘managed decline’ mentioned earlier.

There are portraits of Billy, a young man who scores 8 out of 10 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire. Were you hit, sexually assaulted, unloved, living with problem drinkers or people who went to prison are some of the questions on the questionnaire. But Billy is doing well despite it all, and is going to university.

Billy, 19, Easterhouse © Kirsty Mackay

Maps show the death rates in different parts of the city, many of which are appallingly high, and there are images that show a series of wooden crosses commemorating drug deaths in the city. “I reflect every night,” says J. who made the crosses. “I speak to my dad that passed away and I speak to my son that passed away. How are you? This is me another day clean and if I can go to bed clean that’s a good day. And if I’ve not caused anybody any harm, caused myself harm, and if I’ve not upset anybody, that’s an even better day for me…. If I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life that’s an amazing day for me. It’s hard but you keep it simple. And the simple thing is don’t use and every day will be alright.”

The Fish that Never Swam makes for sober but accessible reading. It’s a kind of sociology tract, but one that is beautifully photographed, designed and printed. And there is optimism in there. People play with their kids, they make new lives, they face up to their circumstances; Women Against Capitalism do face painting at the Care and Share event, as dads from the Men Matter group walk their kids through the greener (and sunnier) areas of Drumchapel.

Memorial © Kirsty Mackay

And if you want a final message of the book, this is from Danny Dorling, an Oxford University social geographer and academic, “The harm done to one generation has repercussions long after that harm is first acted out. Those who perpetrated the social violence that was done to the lives of young men starting some 20 years ago are the prime suspects for most of the murders in Britain.”

By Colin Pantall

Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.

The Fish that Never Swam, Kirsty Mackay, 288 pages, £ 45.

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