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Confronting inequality means closing the gap between political rhetoric and social reality

Confronting inequality means closing the gap between political rhetoric and social reality

The charismatic former head of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, John Carnochan, tells the story of David: a modern-day parable of violence, lost opportunities and self-fulfilling prophesies.

David killed a man. A fleeting image caught on CCTV. Two men passing in the street. A seemingly innocuous encounter. The flash of a knife. A single stab wound to the upper torso and a man lies dead on the floor.

David didn’t leave home that night to murder. Yes, he took a knife, but he had stabbed people before and they hadn’t died. He had been stabbed before and hadn’t died. He knew other people who had been stabbed and didn’t die and when he was at school his ambition wasn’t to be a murderer. So why?


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David was born in 1981, his mum was on income support, she was an alcoholic who drank throughout her pregnancy and she was a victim of domestic abuse. 

David was damaged even before he was born. 

His early years were spent in an environment of inconsistency, neglect and physical and emotional abuse. But children are resilient and he adapted to survive. He became hard-wired to a life of turbulence and crime and the chances of him ending up stabbing a man just became more inevitable by the day. The odds were stacked against him.

David was born in Easterhouse, the nineteenth most deprived ward in Scotland. By the time he was three, and as a result of domestic violence, he had moved to the seventeenth and then to the ninth before moving back to Easterhouse to live with his maternal granny and into a wholly workless household with three adult uncles who had 120 previous convictions between them.

He started at Leonard Secondary School, was involved in gang rivalry, was a truant, and eventually deemed outwith parental control. He committed two breaches of the peace and was referred to the Children’s Panel. He ended up in care and then at home on supervision. The family moved again and David was caught for housebreaking, labelled as ‘classroom disruptive’, excluded intermittently from school and was increasingly involved in solvent abuse.

His family were resistant to external interference and his granny, who was well known to the police, refused social workers access to the home. David was done for assault, shoplifting and a further breach of the peace. He was drinking alcohol and stealing cars. The family moved again, then there was an assault, a robbery, an attempted murder and then he killed a man.

All so predictable.

Here is a family who needed help and didn’t get it. His post-trial report reads: “There did not seem to be any indication in the background or supporting evidence suggesting that David is anything other than a pretty ordinary teenager. Although one familiar with general gang culture involving significant and indeed quite organised violence between different territorial groups, he seems to have a decent supportive family and to feel genuine abhorrence for what he did.” 

A pretty ordinary teenager?

Ordinary in what context? Ordinary for his sort, for his area, for a social worker’s caseload, a policeman’s notebook or for a classroom of pupils from just one postcode? Ordinary for a type?

While David was in jail his mum died of a heroin overdose and his sister was admitted into supported secure accommodation. He came out on escorted leave and got arrested for supplying drugs. When he was eventually released from prison on life licence, he was placed back into exactly the area he came from. Scottish Government ministers noted that he “can look forward to strong support from his grandmother and his wider family in Glasgow, and his employment prospects look favourable”. 

David started work with an organised criminal group as a ‘security guard’. He attacked a neighbour with a machete, he was dealing in heroin and cocaine, his mum’s sister died of a heroin overdose and he inherited her dealership, he was carrying knives and involved in unreported assaults. 

And in October 2007, David had a baby son.

Last week, as she was elected the First Minister of the SNP’s third term of government, Nicola Sturgeon said this will be a parliament of new beginnings. She said her government would stand for a society that offers opportunity for all and that: “Wherever you were born, whatever your gender or your family background, you will have the opportunity to make the most of your talent and fulfil your potential.”

John Carnochan has been telling David’s story to politicians for a decade. Derek Mackay, Sturgeon’s new Finance Secretary, knows that story because he could have lived it.

Born into one of Scotland’s most deprived sink estates, his early years were scarred by some of the same elements of David’s story. He and his brother lived with their mother in a homeless unit for a time after fleeing the family home. Many of his classmates ended up in prison, on drugs or out of work.

Derek Mackay is a government minister who understands the importance of breaking cycles. When he was a council leader, he helped pay his community back by refining policy to local need: he redefined eligibility of multiple deprivation, introduced free school meals, encouraged smaller class sizes, and pioneered family nurse partnerships and positive parenting before they became mainstream.

If anyone understands the need to close the gap between political rhetoric and social reality, who knows about the importance of opportunity for all, then it is Scotland’s new Finance Secretary. He says he was ‘lucky’. Luck is something he now needs to ensure happens not just by accident but by design.

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