John Mullin: Shame of the great divide

The growth of food banks is another example of the gulf between rich and poor. Picture: Getty
The growth of food banks is another example of the gulf between rich and poor. Picture: Getty
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Whether it is on health, income or the gap in life expectancy, it cannot be denied that Britain is dangerously unequal. So why aren’t more of us angry about it, asks John Mullin

IN HAPPIER times, I ran a newspaper. True, it may not quite have been one of the global giants of news publishing, but, though I say so myself, it was a lovely, intelligent and bouncy package, and a delight to edit.

One key maxim about papers – and I dare say this still applies in the digital age – is that it is the amusing or lateral stuff that makes an edition sing. Sure, you need fearless investigations, spirited campaigns, and more ambitious news coverage than your competitors. But the reader quickly becomes bored if hammered over the head with page after page of worthy, homogeneous material.

And so, I suppose, it is with a newspaper column. The Scotsman has much finer political and cultural minds to address the pressing issues of the day, so my preference is usually to ferret out something left field, and to go easy on the gravitas.

Sometimes, though, your very best intentions gang aft agley. And you end up very, very angry.

It began with slippers. You may have noticed a news story this week in which Sir Muir Gray – NHS ex-chief of knowledge, whatever that might be – called for a bonfire of slippers. Why? They cause us to close down and get old before our time. Cardigans, too. And come to think of it, he said, marriage falls into the same category.

Never having had slippers, or indeed a cardigan, I couldn’t give either up (though the marriage point is indeed food for thought). But I did wonder if there was a vaguely amusing alternative list of growing-old milestones: the first hairs in your ears; leaving a pub because it’s too noisy; even – God forbid – finding some of the stuff you see in Marks and Spencer rather à la mode. I could see a column in this – yes, I am that shallow.

Just at this point, casually flicking through Twitter, I spotted something which was also about ageing. And it made my blood boil – more than that, it got me very irate about the General Election.

The tweet was of a neat and direct graphic. It showed that between two tram stops in Edinburgh, there was a life expectancy gap of almost 11 years. So, if you are a bloke from Bankhead, chances are you will live to only 68.5 years old. But, should you be lucky enough to be a Balgreen native, you can look forward to making it all the way to the age of 79.4 before the Grim Reaper comes calling.

That evening, I was looking through YouTube. I’ve lived in London for 30 years and feel the pull of home getting stronger. Increasingly a sad nostalgic, I was viewing footage of old Glasgow.

I watched an Old Firm match from 1963, the year of my birth. There were amazing images of the crowd, and in colour too. The hard, honest faces could only ever have come from one city.

One caught my eye: a feral, thin, toothless face; it reminded me of my grandfather. Except the fan’s thick hair had not a touch of grey in it. Far from being someone in his 70s, he was probably 35. When I told a friend this, she reminded me of something I had long forgotten being told as a child. Back then in Glasgow getting your dentures fitted for your 18th birthday was a big thing.

I thought of the Morton fans I stand beside on the Cappielow terraces whenever I break free from down south – guys my age, often on their own, escaping the house for a few hours. They are no-nonsense and funny: good people to be among. But they do not, on the whole, exude that ruddy glow of good health.

Compare them with those I used to wander past outside my newspaper’s offices on High Street, Kensington, one of the richest areas in London: sleek, healthy, often full of themselves, and likely to live maybe 20 years longer. I can’t think of a greater scandal in Britain today.

And that is why the General Election is infuriating me. It is a sterile debate, with a safety first policy, where politicians and their special advisers, increasingly drawn from a particular class and with a spectacular lack of real world experience, have forgotten how to connect with the people whose votes they are seeking.

They are governed by the lowest common denominator, of a safety first policy. Where is the passion – or meaningful policy – on the housing shortage; the tax dodgers; and, yes, the fact that just your postcode could cost you a dozen or more years of life?

The Westminster bubble is bigger now, and more cut off. This is less about Scotland and England, and more about London, dominated by a specific elite and world view, and the rest of the UK.

The media plays its part. Journalists meant to hold our politicians to account know as much about life on a council estate as I do about life on Mars. They allow the parties to set the dull agenda rather than getting under the surface of what’s going on.

A couple of months back, the row over benefits cheats was in the headlines at the same time as the HSBC tax evasion scams. I waited in vain for my morning radio show to tell listeners that benefits cheats – it’s wrong, of course – cost the country up to £2 billion a year, and that the tax gap – basically what the government loses from people dodging their taxes - is between £30bn and £120bn.

And did you know that up to 200,000 people, mostly in poverty, are brought before the courts every year for failing to pay their TV licence while one – ONE – of the 7,000 rich beneficiaries of HSBC’s activities was prosecuted? Wasn’t it George Osborne who said: “We’re all in this together”?

From the slipper, that most comfortable, calming of footwear, to this. Time, instead, to slip on the hobnailed boots they were wearing at that Old Firm match in 1963, and to go in hard on our political classes, all of them.