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Liz Truss & Paisley: The town that made a prime minister

Design: Vicky Axelson

Liz Truss & Paisley: The town that made a prime minister

Liz Truss, self-described “child of the Union” and erstwhile daughter of Paisley, is Prime Minister.

“Now is the time to tackle the issues that are holding Britain back,” she said, standing outside Downing Street. “We will transform Britain into an aspiration nation.”

If you hadn’t heard – and prior to the commencement of the race to replace Boris Johnson, most people hadn’t – the new Conservative party leader spent some of her formative years in the Renfrewshire town, moving in at the age of four and out again six years later with her parents John and Priscilla, a maths professor and teacher who would take their daughter on anti-nuclear protests.

The couple, according to an interview with The Guardian in 2009, when Truss was the deputy director of the Reform think tank, were “aghast” at their daughter’s shift to the right, despite her cosplaying Margaret Thatcher at a primary school election event in which no one voted for her.

It was “simply unpopular to be a Tory in the west of Scotland” at the time, Truss has said. Some might wonder if anything has changed. The electorate in Paisley has not returned a Conservative MP in 100 years and more and, outwith the West of Scotland regional list, none have ever been its MSP. Every constituency parliamentarian is currently SNP (one, George Adam, has been dubbed “Mr Paisley” by some) and at this year’s council elections, the Tory group was reduced from eight to five as another SNP administration was returned.

The level of surprise experienced by Truss’ parents by her political evolution is perhaps comparable with that felt amongst Paisley’s “Buddies”, as locals are called, when her primary school days in one of its leafiest enclaves became a key part of her “lass o’pairts” pitch to Tory party members – the only people who had a say in the selection of the new leader of the UK Government. “Haud oan”, said one of the social media posts, “Liz Truss grew up in Paisley? WTF??”

“I consider myself to be a child of the Union,” Truss had said, speaking of her intention to counter the SNP’s independence agenda. “To me, we’re not just neighbours, we’re family, and I will never ever let our family be split up.” Nicola Sturgeon is an “attention seeker”, she also said, and the “best thing to do” is “ignore her”.

Writing in the Daily Express, MSPs Jamie Greene, Russell Findlay, Sue Webber, Tess White, and Brian Whittle said of Truss that “her authenticity when talking about her love for the Union and her affinity with Scotland particularly shone through” during hustings. 

These included an event in Perth, after which reporters found Conservative party members split over their allegiances. Good Morning Britain had sent a crew to Paisley ahead of that event, resulting in an exchange with one local that went viral. “Do you know who Liz Truss is?”, the unnamed man was asked. “Yeah, she went to that school over there,” he answered, pointing towards nearby West Primary before looking straight down the camera. “Don’t vote for her”. 

I'm not very impressed with the way she's treating Scotland

That interview took place within spitting distance not just of her old school, but also of the house where Truss had lived. Low Road is a quiet procession of stone block mansion houses, a throwback to when Paisley, with the mills that churned out shawls in its eponymous pattern, was one of the most prosperous towns in the country. Many of the residences in this Castlehead area have been subdivided, but others remain single family homes of four and five bedrooms. Average house prices on these streets are approaching half a million pounds and, unsurprisingly, it’s one of the best-off parts of the town.

The Truss family moved into Low Road when the young PM-to-be was just four. Residents remember they lived in one house there before moving to another, where they stayed until 1985, when Liz, the only sister to three brothers, was nine. They moved on to Leeds, via Canada, and Truss took her Scottish accent with her. “It was a Paisley/Glaswegian accent and when I got to Leeds I used to be known as ‘haggis basher’,” Truss told The Sunday Times. “That was my nickname.”

The woman who bought the Paisley home from the family remembers the viewing, and the two young children who were there – a boy and a girl. Walking around the property, the girl asked the couple, who have long since moved on, if they would buy it, but their minds weren’t quite made up. “We said we didn’t know yet,” she told Holyrood. “She said that her mummy had said if we didn’t, they would be stuck there forever.”

“I had a bit of a chuckle when she said she was from Paisley,” current Castlehead resident Janette Swanson says of Truss. “Most people did. I’m not very impressed with the way she’s treating Scotland.”

Swanson has lived there since 1997 and her children went to the same 1930s-built school as Truss did. West Primary has a good reputation, so she was surprised to hear Truss mention her years in Paisley and then Leeds, saying that “many of the children I was at school with were let down by low expectations, poor educational standards and a lack of opportunity”. “Too much talent went to waste,” she went on. “I didn’t believe, and I don’t believe, that it has to be that way.”

It’s a characterisation that rankles with Swanson, as with others who live locally. Paisley buddies are nothing if not proud, and with a range of big-money infrastructure projects currently on the go, there’s a sense that this is a town to be talked-up, not down. “It’s not a bad school,” Swanson says of West Primary, a feeder school for Castlehead High, where former pupils include actors Gerard Butler and Richard Madden, as well as late tennis player Elena Baltacha and STV weatherman Sean Batty. Both of Swanson’s children graduated into professional jobs and Truss, she says, has “a bit of a cheek”. “Is she ashamed of being from here?” she asks. “Not everybody here is very wealthy – I’d put myself in that category, we probably have one of the smaller houses in the street – but this is a nice area; it’s quiet.”

The Tories kicked the shit out of Paisley

Although, she adds, Paisley was “probably better” in Truss’ day than it is now. The family moved in before the rot of deindustrialisation had really taken hold. The growth of Paisley during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution had been rapid and the town was sometimes referred to as the Manchester of Scotland, but when plants shut as big employers moved elsewhere, the effects were disastrous.

Much of this took place while Margaret Thatcher was in Number 10, and many locals still blame her party for job losses that triggered a steep downturn in the area’s fortunes and created conditions in which addiction and crime became as synonymous with the town as thread or jam had once been. “The Tories kicked the shit out of Paisley,” one man tells Holyrood on a visit to the town. “We were screwed, absolutely screwed.” “This pretendy-Paisley thing, it’s an insult,” says another. “She’d be lucky to find us on a map.”

Around the time Truss lived in the town, there were mass losses at preserves firm Robertsons, chemicals specialist Ciba-Geigy and famed textile mills of the Coats and Clark families. Kensington and Chelsea MP Alan Clark, who served in Thatcher’s government, was a descendent of the latter family.

But the closure that is perhaps best remembered is that of the Peugeot Talbot car plant at nearby Linwood, where the loss of around 5,000 direct jobs is said to have caused nearer to 13,000 redundancies when indirect employment is included.

At one point, 60 cars per hour had been made on the production line of a facility opened by Prince Phillip to create Hillman Imps, then Hunters, Sunbeams, and Avengers, but by 1981 it was gone and west of Scotland manufacturing was crumbling under Thatcherism. Unemployment in Strathclyde rose to 17 per cent.

Speaking in February of that year, Renfrewshire West MP Norman Buchan said the government did not understand “the deep sense of anger and bitterness” amongst the public at the end of an employer that had been brought in “as a result of the efforts of the Harold Macmillan Conservative government” and what he called a “new brutalism” from the administration of the day. Kilmarnock MP William McKelvey claimed that “it is being said quite openly in the pubs and clubs around the area” of then-Scottish Secretary George Younger that “in less than two years, he has managed to destroy more Scottish industry than Adolf Hitler”.

“We are under no illusions about the impact on the immediate area of Linwood,” Younger told the House. “The loss of 4,800 jobs cannot occur without creating major economic and social problems.”

In the 80s and 90s, Paisley came to generate bad news headlines about gang violence, stabbings, and dereliction. While crime rates have drastically decreased, the stigma that grew around it has been hard to shake, especially for one area in particular – Ferguslie Park.

Lying less than a mile and a half away from Castlehead, it was badly affected by the Linwood and mill closures and spent eight years at the foot of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Though fortunes are improving after decades of regeneration attempts (it’s now third last on the SIMD), income levels remain lower than average, but there are more adults with long-term limiting health conditions, more smokers, more babies born with low birth weights and more unpaid carers than the national average. While Castlehead is a cool blue on the SIMD data map, Ferguslie is a fierce red.

It's not about getting folk political, it's about getting them to say no, let's not settle for our lot

It’s where Terry McTernan has always lived. At 42, the community activist is close in age to Truss, but their lives couldn’t have been more different. The mature student is the first in his family to enter university and his father, he says, “drank himself into the ground”, something he believes is linked to the area’s “dearth of opportunity”. In his youth, his peers wouldn’t write their full addresses on job applications in case of discrimination, and the term “Feg” was widely used as a derogatory term for people from the community. Now the classist slur is being reclaimed by some, mostly younger residents, McTernan says. 

The sense of identity, of pride in the area, is important to him, and his Darkwood Crew community group is on a mission to empower. In the Tannahill Centre, people know he’s the man to talk to and constantly stop to ask questions. Crew members take pride in their area and, he says, are solving problems for themselves. They cut grass, look after the village green, pick up litter, and run a weekly food market where £2.50 will get you groceries worth £15 from the shops. It’s help that’s necessary – around half of housing association tenants here have some form of support to pay their rent. 

“It’s not about getting folk political,” he says, “it’s about getting them to say no, let’s not settle for our lot; let’s get up off our backsides and we’ll do it for ourselves.

“I’ve seen every manifestation of regeneration; I’ve heard every buzzword there is to hear. Quite often, this is chosen for the people in Ferguslie, rather than by the people. This is about finding our own solutions. To a degree, that’s a Conservative way of looking at things, that idea of self-sufficiency.” But, he goes on, “the Tory years were not good for communities like ours”. “A Poundland Thatcher,” he says of Truss, “is that really what the country needs?”

UK politics “allows the literal scum to float to the top, and that’s the Tories,” he says, “and that’s how they have us fighting over tins of beans”.

So, what does McTernan want from the new Prime Minister? Disused, steel-curtained, 1930s council houses are currently being razed in Ferguslie to make way for more than 150 new homes, and McTernan says it’s about investment and living standards. “That’s what Liz Truss needs to focus on,” he says. “Boris Johnson said a pound spent in Croydon is worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde. That’s rubbish. A pound spent here is worth far more because it will go round every community group and we will hold on to it in Ferguslie for as long as we can.”

As voting in the Conservative leadership race continued, the results of one local investment were revealed. The new Barnwell Street bridge across the White Cart river at nearby Renfrew links business centres on either side of the waterway. It is one of a series of infrastructure improvements jointly funded by the Scottish and UK governments through the £1.3bn Glasgow City Region City Deal.

This has also enabled development of the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District Scotland (AMIDS) by Glasgow Airport, which is within Paisley’s bounds. The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre have chosen to locate here, as have aerospace giants Boeing, and it is hoped that improved connections for active travel will also make for a town centre boost.

Student housing for the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) helps deliver customers for bars and takeaways, though the High Street remains littered with retail units in search of tenants. Once the most congested high street in the UK, Paisley saw traffic ebb as a much-criticised one-way system aimed at solving congestion problems drove shoppers away to out of town malls like Braehead, a 1.1 million sq ft complex on the boundary of the local authority area.

In the US, they call Ohio a bellwether; Paisley may be a sort of Scottish version of that

Part of Paisley’s runner-up bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021 included a town centre regeneration blueprint including a £22m revamp of the historic town hall and an even bigger £42m overhaul of its museum. It could be argued that the entire town centre is a museum, with its medieval abbey amongst 125 listed buildings, 17 of these category A. The Secret Collection, a treasure trove of publicly owned artefacts, is now here, and a former clothing shop will become a new learning and culture hub with library services. Councillor Lisa-Marie Hughes, chair of culture and leisure body OneRen, wants her team to be “the people Beyonce phones when she comes to Scotland and wants to do a smaller gig” and Kirsty Devine, helming the museum initiative, has said projects like hers come up “once in a century”. There’s so much going on, in fact, that former PM Benjamin Disraeli’s comment “keep your eye on Paisley” comes to mind.

“The original context of that was in his novel Endymion and about the possibility of radical strikes in Scotland,” says political history lecturer Dr Michael Pugh of UWS. Industrial action helped the town garner a reputation for radicalism in the 1800s and locals still celebrate one working class win in its annual Sma’ Shot Day, in which an effigy of a mill middle-man known as “the cork” is set alight.

“It seems quite counterintuitive that someone like Liz Truss, with her politics, is partly a product of Paisley,” Pugh says, “but Truss kind of positions herself as a radical, albeit one on the right.

“The last prime minister with a real Paisley connection was Asquith, who was the Liberal MP who lost his seat and that marked the beginning of the end of the Liberal party as a dominant political force in Scotland. In the US, they call Ohio a bellwether; Paisley may be a sort of Scottish version of that. It tends to have a good history of picking winners in politics. 

“It’s had Conservative figures, but the town was at the sharp end of deindustrialisation, with all the public health implications of that, and there were a lot of reasons why there would be anti-Conservative sentiment in Paisley at the time Truss lived here. There’s also the wider Scottish thing, where Scotland was electing Labour MPs but, because of the arithmetic at Westminster, Conservative policies were imposed directly on Scotland, regardless of whether there was a mandate for them. 

“Thatcher, who Truss seems to model herself on, actually went out of her way to say that she supported devolution and, even in her memoirs, felt she had to justify why she hadn’t delivered it and, at least in her early years as party leader, was quite savvy in the way she engaged with Scotland. Truss, who has said she would ignore Nicola Sturgeon, is going in in a much more blunt way. It’s odd that someone who partly grew up in Scotland less seems to have less sensitivity to Scottish sentiment than Thatcher.

“Paisley has a really rich and complex social and political history,” he continues. “There’s been a real attempt to reinvent the place while staying true to its heritage. The danger is, if you’ve got public figures using places like Paisley to fit a narrative rather than talking about it in its own right, it could add to stigma. I’m sure Paisley and Leeds have a lot in common, but there are some big differences as well.”

It’s now Truss’ job to take the best decisions for both Paisley and Leeds, working across spheres of government and with devolved governments. But the Paisley pitch seemed to have ended in Truss’ first speeches as Tory leader and PM. There was no specific mention of Scotland or the Union during these and, short of exhorting the SNP to back further oil and gas production in the North Sea, none at her first PMQs either.

This was not an unwelcome shift for Paisley MSP George Adam. “To be honest, if I hear one more time about her Paisley roots, I’ll not be liable for what I say or do,” he told Holyrood.

“How someone can be of a similar age to me and have gone to a primary school in Paisley that includes an intake from Ferguslie Park, at the same time as me, at peak Thatcher, and can then become a Tory is beyond belief. She will have been in classrooms with many young people from Paisley who were living a very different life to her but instead of learning anything from that, she became a Tory. Unbelievable. I joined the SNP because of the devastation wreaked on Paisley by Thatcher and her cronies and all I can say now is, ‘here we go again’. I am reminded of the line from the Pulp song, Common People, ‘everybody hates a tourist’, and she appears to have been just that in Paisley.” 

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