Michael Matheson: 'why weren’t all those politicians able to fix it?'

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 20 November 2018 in Inside Politics

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson talks about how growing up in a damp, overcrowded flat on a notorious Glasgow scheme shaped his politics

Image credit: Scottish Government

As a small child in the mid to late 1970s, Michael Matheson remembers being constantly dragged by his mother to meetings with ‘the council’ to complain about the damp in their two-bedroomed flat in Prospecthill Circus in Glasgow’s Toryglen.

He and his two elder brothers slept in one bedroom, his grandfather in the other, and for about 12 years, his parents would roll out camp beds every night in the living room where they bedded down.

Black mould covered the walls, the rain seeped through cracks around the windows and the wind howled through the walls.

As a quick-fix solution, council workmen would partition off the worst of the damp. That would last about six months before the mould would reappear and so they’d return and spray chemicals on it. But the black fungus would inevitably return, and the process would start all over again. And with more and more partitioning going up, the rooms gradually shrunk.

But while his parents struggled to make their flat a home on an estate which was beginning to show all the signs of material and social deterioration, for Matheson, the multi-storey blocks lived up to Billy Connolly’s whimsical description as ‘villages in the sky’. With friends always on tap and a watchful eye ever over them, the scheme was a playground for Matheson and his brothers and he loved it.

But after his grandfather died of pneumonia, which Matheson believes was because of the relentless damp in the back bedroom, his parents stepped up the pressure to get the family moved out.

Matheson recalls the frequent promises from councillors and even the local MP that they would soon be relocated but the years slipped by without any action.

“I remember us going up to see a new councillor and he promised he would take my mum and dad’s case to the special housing committee, that he would plead their case, and he was confident he’d be able to get us moved out of the flat because it was so damp.

“I can remember the sense of excitement that something was at last going to happen, and then going back up to the primary school to see this councillor with my mum and dad, my dad was so keen that he hadn’t even changed from his work clothes, he still had his dungarees on.

“We thought this was it, we’re going to get a new house, it was really exciting. I was sitting outside the room waiting and I will always remember my mum coming out of that room crying because the councillor had lost our file, and nothing was going to happen.

“I must have been about nine or ten at the time and I felt bewildered seeing my mum so upset. I hadn’t seen her crying before, she was a really strong character, had to be, and I just remember my mum saying, ‘that’s it, we’re having no more of this’. And that was it…she went on rent strike.

“My parents went and got a solicitor and every week they paid the rent to the solicitor into a special account and they did that for about two and a half years. They did that completely off their own back, they just decided that they weren’t giving the council the rent until they resolved the damp problem or moved us out.

“In the end, we were eventually moved to a house on the other side of the scheme but that whole experience shaped my early experience of politicians and of a system that let a decent family down on tackling something so fundamental as being in an overcrowded house that was also so badly damp.

“I think what I felt was a sense of, not resentment, but just a level of confusion about how this could have gone from being such a great day to such a terrible one. I wasn’t old enough to understand why what appeared to me was going to be a positive thing had just become another excuse for nothing happening.

“And when you’ve got a house that’s overcrowded, that’s damp, when your mum and dad are working, when your dad is driving trucks all over the place so sometimes away overnight, and you’ve got a grandfather that’s also having to be cared for, there’s a lot of pressure in the family which I probably didn’t fully appreciate at that time.

“Looking back, I probably felt a sense of injustice about why weren’t all those politicians able to fix it? Why weren’t they able to resolve something that was quite straightforward to resolve? I can remember that one councillor being so confident that he was going to do something about it and then to be so badly let down because he had lost our file, I can still feel that pain to this day. Like any kid, when you see one of your parents crying, you get confused as to what’s going on, there’s a real sense of let down, and it obviously triggered something in my mind, because when the local elections were next taking place, I showed up at the school, even though it was closed for voting, and I spent the day there handing out leaflets for the SNP candidate who I sort of recognised from chapel.

“The councillor who had let us down? He was Labour – they were all Labour.

“My parents weren’t really political. They would have been natural Labour voters, but certainly for most of my childhood, I think they were voting SNP, and I think part of that was fuelled over the let down over the housing situation. I remember when Willie McGuinness, the SNP candidate, actually won that election, I remember him coming to the house to see my mum and dad and to see the damp for himself, and he was the only councillor who ever did that, so that was a step change.”

Matheson’s family did eventually move and he describes how the scheme started to go downhill as longstanding families like his own left and the sense of community with them.

Despite this, Matheson talks with great affection about his youth in Prospecthill Circus, about it being a “happy time” and with some pride, he can rhyme off success stories that emerged from the same estate.

“Jim Kerr was brought up in the 24-block opposite from us, his brother Mark was one of my best friends, Lord Haughie was brought up above the chippy and Benny Higgins [the former chief executive of Tesco Bank and now working on the establishment of a Scottish Investment Bank for the Scottish Government] was brought up in the same flats, two doors down. Not too bad, eh?”

But he is also acutely aware of the sad stories. His best friend at primary school, Jason, was found dead in the street in his early 20s from a heroin overdose, one of Matheson’s teenage cousins was stabbed to death at 17, and one of his classmates was later one of the city’s first intravenous drug users to die of Aids.

He remembers fights in the school playground, the classrooms going into lockdown and pupils routinely carrying knives. Drugs were endemic, and he recalls one incident when a pupil stole money from a teacher’s handbag in full view of the class, so desperate was he to buy drugs. Matheson, however, has never tried drugs, not even cannabis, which he sees as a gateway drug.

“I can think of a number of friends from school and also from the high flats that have lost their lives to either violence or to drugs. Some of them were very good friends of mine. They never got the opportunity to realise their full potential and drugs is probably the biggest factor that killed most of them.

“They were brought up in the same environment as I was. Got in with the wrong pupils, got in to the wrong situation, got caught up, as I say, in the violence. It tended to be knife crime or it was drugs and you know, a couple of them were very, very good friends when I was a kid, they went to school with me, and once they were caught up in that, they just couldn’t get out of it, couldn’t break out of it, and sadly, in the end, it took their lives.”

So what made the difference? Why not him?

“You know, I often think about that. When I was in the justice portfolio and looking at tackling reoffending, I would ask myself, what is it that makes the difference between someone brought up in the same neighbourhood, the same environment, and given the same life chances; one goes down one route and one goes down another. There’s a lot of academics that will give you explanations around what they think it is, but I think sometimes it’s luck and it’s key individuals in your life that make a difference.

“For me there were two teachers – my maths principal and my geography teacher – who I know had a marked impact in my life and that wouldn’t have been the same for some of my friends who have since died. So, I’ve got that experience at school with teachers, and there’s no doubt my parents’ influence, but I think it’s also a bit of luck sometimes.”

“You know,” he laughs, for a moment. “When I was at school, I was heading to become a forester. A boy from the high flats that went to school in the Gorbals and wanting to be a forester, is a bit unusual, I know, but then I’m a great optimist. 

“I think part of that was because I was really passionate about the outdoors and from the age of 12, I really got into climbing through the scouts. It was a big part of my early experience in getting out of Glasgow. I just loved the outdoors. It’s where I felt most free and most in control. Still do.

“But probably the big influence on me was Mrs Balloch, my geography principal. When I was 16, she encouraged me to apply to go on an expedition to the Western Himalayas with the British School’s Expedition Society. I remember coming through to Edinburgh to be interviewed, I’d only been to Edinburgh – to the castle – once before so it was a big deal. I came through on the bus because Mum and Dad didn’t have a car, and I had to go to Merchiston Castle School and when I got there, there was a queue of kids all waiting to get in to get interviewed, every single one of them had their school uniform on with the exception of me – we didn’t have a school uniform in my high school.

“I remember joining the queue and waiting and eventually going in to get interviewed by these two teachers from Merchiston Castle. A couple of months later I hadn’t heard anything, so eventually I phoned them, and the guy said, ‘yeah you’ve been selected’. I had to go down to Sheffield for this training camp for the weekend and I remember going down there, getting the bus down, and then I had to get a taxi out to the campsite, it was the only way to get there, and I thought I’d be in the Scottish group. It turns out I was the only one they selected from Scotland and there was about 100 others from the whole of the UK. That had a big influence on me.

“I don’t know why they chose me, but I remember I had put a journal together of all my experiences around climbing; photographs, stories – I used to write about my climbing, I used to log all my Munros as well. I remember taking it in and showing it to them all and looking back, I think they were quite fascinated by it, quite interested by this boy from a poor part of Glasgow who loved climbing. Maybe I was a bit of a novelty?

“I did feel a bit out of place when I got to Merchiston Castle for the interview, it was a bit of an eye opener, a bit daunting, but I’ve got quite a strong sense of self-belief in what I want to do. I think part through my own upbringing but also, I know what I’m good at, I know what I can do, and usually when I apply my mind to it, I do fairly well.”

Matheson is a bit of a dark horse. He joined the SNP formally at 17 when he was a student studying to be an occupational therapist and became very involved in the anti-poll tax campaign. He got involved at an HQ and constituency level rather than in student politics.

He later worked on Roseanna Cunningham’s successful Westminster by-election campaign in 1995 and despite Dr John Reid’s 18,000 majority, stood against him in Hamilton North and Bellshill in 1997 – albeit unsuccessfully – but by then he had been bitten by the campaign bug.

He has been an MSP since 1999 and held various positions in the Scottish Government; public health minister, Cabinet Secretary for Justice and now for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, but so little is known about him, even around the cabinet table. The most common adjective I have heard ascribed to Matheson is ‘quiet’, that he’s someone that just ‘gets on with it’, and yet, I have rarely heard a politician talk with such passion about inequality and which resonates all the more for being grounded in his own life experience of growing up in Prospecthill Circus. He is quiet, but I think he should have kept his emotions less in check, been more forthcoming and stepped out of the shadows because he has more answers than some might think.

I saw Matheson at a fringe event along with John Swinney at SNP conference a couple of years ago when he suddenly became very animated. The subject was the relentless cycle that saw care-experienced young people ending up in the justice system. He was Justice Secretary then and spoke with such conviction about the need to align education and justice to prevent young people drifting into trouble. He was speaking from the heart.

“There’s a profound impact on you when you lose friends and family because of drugs or violence,” he says when I remind him of the event. “But it also gives you a resolve that if we’re going to tackle these issues, we need to be serious about how we’re going to go about doing it. Let’s not get caught up in a political narrative that sounds comfortable and easy because the reality is that most of this is about inequality and if you’re not going to tackle the underlining inequalities that people experience, then the violence will continue, and the drug use will continue. Let’s not say what’s easy to say politically; let’s be honest about what we need to do to challenge it and to make a difference.

“We have made great strides forward in making it more and more of a focus within government policy and I remember saying to John [Swinney] … there’s a page in there that’s basically the heart of our Programme for Government, and he said, ‘what do you mean?’ and I said, ‘take this bit,’ and it was all about early years experiences, ACEs, about tackling inequality, how that then creates a pathway into the criminal justice system, into drugs, into violence, and I said, ‘that’s absolutely the very heart of what we need to change as a government’, and the way in which we’ve now got that greater integration into our policy thinking around tackling these types of issues I think will help us in the years ahead in a very, very significant way. We’ve got a long way to go, but if we get that level, it will make a massive, massive difference to Scotland.

“I think, at times, politicians can end up making short-term policy decisions to manage the here and now as opposed to making the fundamental differences we need to make.

“Modern-day politics, now more than ever, is looking for immediate solutions and immediate answers to very often complex, interdependent issues, that we can’t provide a quick and easy answer to. What we can do is set the course … bring together the parties who can work to make the change … to help support it, but it will take time. That was really informed for me from the time when I was public health minister. We were caught up in this idea that the health service needs to tackle our health inequalities, actually, health inequalities is a consequence of social inequality. If you really want to make a difference here, don’t expect the health service to resolve it, tackle the social inequality. If you do that, then you’ll start to unpick the health inequalities that we have in society. When I was in justice, one of the early actions I did was to take the drugs element of the portfolio and move it into health. Drugs are a health issue not a justice issue, it needs to be tackled with a public health strategy, … not a criminal justice approach to it, because that won’t resolve the problem. The crux of all of this is social inequality.

“When I came into government in 2011, in public health, it shaped my thinking around changing the approach to tackling health inequalities from it being viewed as the NHS’s responsibility to saying, it’s about decent housing, educational opportunity, closing the attainment gap, etc and making sure, for example, when it comes to things like targeting a reduction in smoking, that we’re not just exacerbating inequalities.

“We had a target to increase the number of people who were on smoking cessation programmes, but when we stripped back the data, the vast majority of the folk came from middle-class backgrounds, so actually, we were exacerbating the inequalities. We need to calibrate things in a way that focus on the areas where there is the greatest disadvantage in order to help to bring people up to a better level. That formed my thinking right from the very outset when I was minister for public health, and then when I was in justice, it firmed my thinking about how we use evidence and data to inform our policy thinking on reducing reoffending.

“But remember, reducing reoffending isn’t actually dealing with what the drivers are, that’s inequalities, and how do we, as politicians, get to an evidence system that’s not about media headlines, but is about being serious about trying to change things in a way that will be meaningful to individuals who end up getting involved in our criminal justice system? To stop them getting involved in the first place or into it again? How do we break that generational link that goes on between children who experience parental imprisonment to try and minimise the impact it has on their life experience?

“One of the reasons I was so strong in pushing for the opening up of family centres in our prisons was because we know the significant impact it has on families and children and if we want to break that cycle then we need to make these types of decisions. The problem is they are long-term things. They’re not quick answers. They don’t necessarily get you a great headline, but in my view, they will make a fundamental difference in the future. To all our future.”

Listening to Matheson be so passionate is a revelation. Where has he been hiding? And can he apply that drive to tackle inequalities in his new brief as Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity?

“Yes, I believe I can, because this is about ensuring we create an inclusive Scotland. I’ll give you an example. There’s a lot of progress being made in encouraging people into using e-bikes, electric cars, and so on and I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago looking at how we’re making progress in this and what I’m really worried about is that this becomes a middle-class pastime. And actually, some of our harder to reach households in our more deprived communities are the ones who we really need to reach into. The challenge I was making to the policymakers was to go away and think about how we are going to do that. How are we going to make sure that as we go towards getting rid of diesel and petrol cards by 2032 and we move, by and large, to electric cars that are more expensive, how are we going to make sure that we don’t make a social inequality in who can afford to have a car and who can’t, or who has access to be able to make use of an electric bike? So, one of the challenges is how to make sure we don’t increase inequalities as an unintended consequence of making progress in another policy area.”

As a schoolboy, Matheson used to deliver milk to the street he now lives on. His mum used to call it ‘Spam Valley’. There’s no doubt he has been on a journey from his early days in Toryglen but equally, he’s not mawkish about his past nor is he prepared to forget where he’s come from or how easily his story could be different.

That lived experience of inequality and how it was overcome should make Matheson the poster boy for a government that has put inequality at its heart.

It is interesting that he isn’t.

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