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Postcards from Scotland

Professor Phil Hanlon's Afterword

This is an important book and a vital contribution to the debate about the causes of Glasgow?s many health and social problems: but, it may not be popular.

Glasgow’s political leaders need to present Glasgow as a success story to the outside world. At the same time they want to highlight Glasgow’s health and social problems so that resources continue to flow into programmes that they need to present as ‘successful’ if funding is to continue. All of this is done for the best of motives but those responsible for managing Glasgow’s image may find ‘The Tears that Made the Clyde’ an uncomfortable read. Yet, the analogy that is most helpful here is that of a patient who, while he fears he is suffering from something serious, maintains a state of denial until he has a long and serious talk with his doctor. He leaves the consultation with his mood strangely lightened as he for the first time faces up to the true seriousness of his predicament. He is relieved to leave denial behind and face the truth. This book could have a similar energising effect on Glasgow and its leaders.

Nor may this book prove popular with some academics. For many academics the principles of reductionism (that mechanisms are best understood by reducing them to their component parts) command their highest loyalty. Their confidence is not misplaced. Reductionism allows the behaviour of clouds to be understood at the level of molecules; physical forces to explain the movement of planets; the growth of plants to be made manifest by the study of cells and the external characteristics displayed by plants and animals to be explained in terms of genes. However, despite its many successes, reductionism has failed in attempts to understand the full nature of Glasgow’s problems. It has led to an overly narrow focus on single issues. The temptation for  each specialist, schooled in the mindset of reductionism, is to claim that their take on the problem (material poverty, up-regulated inflammatory responses, family breakdown, lack of attachment in the early years or Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight – or what ever) is the mechanism that matters.

Carol Craig has undertaken a much broader analysis which combines the perspectives of many disciples, supported by data and information from several periods in Glasgow’s history. The result is a truly convincing synthesis that reveals the roots and the multifaceted manifestations of Glasgow’s challenges.
Central to her analyses are the ideas of Richard Wilkinson: that we all (rich and poor) suffer from inequality and the effects of flexible labour markets and the prioritisation of the needs of the economy over society. But it affects us differently. The poor and working class suffer the highest levels of insecurity, stress and exhaustion, but the middle classes are not immune. They too suffer from work insecurity, long hours and the stresses and strains of just about coping and just about keeping up appearances. Both groups want the same things in different ways - more time, respect and control over their lives.

This is also a hopeful book. It concludes by outlining Ken Wilber’s integral model which combines the perspectives of the individual with the collective and the inner/subjective with the outer/objective. This integral model could spark the type of  thinking we need for a more creative response to Glasgow’s current problems.

Finally, this book comes at an important time. Its historical analysis all too clearly demonstrates how material poverty is damaging to individual well-being and human relationships. Yet it also shows how in more recent times we have embraced a society of individualised consumerism which has caused more material ‘things’ to flow through our lives without addressing our need for intangibles like time, respect and a sense of control. Yet, the banking crisis, credit crunch and the unfolding threat of climate change are causing many to conclude that we ‘just can’t go on like this for much longer’. It is from insights like these that hope for something better can emerge.

Phil Hanlon
Professor of Public Health
University of Glasgow
 

 
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